Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why the Constitution and the Bill of Rights Matter

In 1787 our founding fathers sat down to write out some principles for the people and government of the fledgling United States of America. These principles were meant to guarantee liberty, justice, domestic tranquility, the common defense of and general welfare for “We the People.” They both set forth—and limited—the powers of government. The system may not work perfectly, but it works pretty well. We should all be thankful that we live in this day and age in the United States of America, although some young people don’t realize just how lucky we really are.

The first time I ever taught as a Florida Supreme Court Justice Teacher (, I addressed an 8th grade class at Hoover Middle School in which a confident young man flippantly stated something to the effect of, “I don’t see what the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have to do with me.”

So, yes, perhaps it is a luxury of growing up in a free country that young people so easily take for granted the rights and freedoms they and their families enjoy. Florida Supreme Court Justice Fred Lewis developed the Justice Teaching program earlier this decade with the goal of pairing up one jurist or lawyer with each and every school in the State of Florida to convey to young Floridians just how important their rights and freedoms really are. Just peruse any newspaper and you will read about what can happen to citizens of other countries where government is not necessarily “by, of and for the people.”

On Sunday, September 20, 2009, I was struck by an Associated Press article on page 16A of Florida Today entitled “Families bear brunt of prisoners’ plight.” This article described how thousands of frantic families in Iran are unable to find out about loved ones who were detained in the crackdown after the disputed June 12th presidential election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It tells the story of 29 year old journalist, Fariba Pajooh, who had been picked up by Iranian Intelligence Ministry agents and placed in jail without explanation on August 28th. After a month of incarceration, Ms. Pajooh’s family and lawyer were still unable to determine the nature of the charges against her or when, if ever, she would be released. According to the article, thousands of other families in Iran are in the same situation with no knowledge of their incarcerated loved ones. The prisoners are denied access to legal representation and due process as we know it in the United States.

The plight of Ms. Pajooh illustrates the horrors of what could happen here in the United States if our founding fathers had not promulgated the United States Constitution and the first ten amendments thereto lovingly referred to as “The Bill of Rights.” How could Ms. Pajooh’s fate been different, had she been a journalist in Brevard County, Florida, rather than in Tehran?

Amendment I to the U.S. Constitution would have protected her freedom of speech, her freedom as a member of the press and her right to peaceably assemble, especially since she was ostensibly arrested due to her occupation as a journalist.

Amendment IV would have protected her against unreasonable searches and seizures without at least a warrant or probable cause.

Under Amendment V, Ms. Pajooh’s family would be ensured that their wife, sister and daughter would receive due process of law, not be compelled to testify against herself or be charged twice in double jeopardy for the same alleged crime.

Under Amendment VI, Ms. Pajooh would not be languishing in jail for as long as the government wished because she would enjoy her right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury. She would have been informed of the crime she was alleged to have committed, of the nature and cause of the accusation. She would be able to confront the witnesses against her and have access to her attorney to properly defend her. As of the date of the Florida Today article, Ms. Pajooh’s lawyer had still not been permitted—over a month later—to see or speak to his client.

Under Amendment VIII, she would have been granted a reasonable bail and as we do not know how she is being treated during her arbitrary and secretive incarceration, she would have been protected from any cruel and unusual punishment.

So to the 8th grader who thought that the Bill of Rights didn’t matter to him, my hope is that by the end of my Justice Teaching presentation he understood that his rights and freedoms were indeed precious. I hope he now believes that he is blessed to live in a country where he enjoys freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, and the right to present the government with his grievances. I hope he now knows that not everyone in the world gets to go to sleep every night without fear of being unreasonably searched or whisked away from his family suddenly and without explanation. And, that if he is ever charged with a crime, he’ll know at least what are the accusations and charges against him, be able to review the evidence, confront his witnesses and have access to an attorney to protect him against what I have found to be the most dear right to any young person: The right against cruel and unusual punishment.

Brooke Deratany Goldfarb, Esq., Harvard Law, JD, is the Justice Teacher for Indialantic Elementary School. Ms. Goldfarb currently works as a Florida Supreme Court Certified Family Mediator & Collaborative Family Lawyer in Indialantic, Florida with Peaceful Beach Mediation & Collaboration She is a former large firm corporate lawyer and small town criminal defense attorney.

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