Topic

Current Events

Current events annotations explore the contemporary relevance of founding documents, relating constitutional principles to emerging political issues.

References to the Langkawi Declaration on the Environment and the Lake Victoria Commonwealth Climate Change Action Plan are examples of one of the most recent values adopted by the Commonwealth: Sustainability.  This goal has recently been brought to bear on the Commonwealth Games – a competition that brings together sports teams from the Commonwealth members and other territories every four years.  Pressure has been mounting to make the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, at least as committed to the goal of sustainability as the London Olympics of 2012.

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013
The Commonwealth’s declared commitment to shared values such as human rights and the rule of law is frequently belied by the active participation of countries that do not live up to this commitment.  In 2013, there has been growing criticism of the decision to hold November’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka.  That country’s known human rights abuses would appear to make it an unfit choice for the honor, and Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has faced mounting criticism for his determination to host the meeting and to represent the Commonwealth as its chair for two years.  One member of the Commonwealth’s Eminent Persons Group (EPG), Sir Ronald Sanders, has called on other member nations to insist on a new venue for the 2013 meeting. An editorial in The Tamil Guardian likewise censured the Sri Lankan choice, arguing: “The Charter of the Commonwealth, as with the previous declarations, makes an admirable read but it is meaningless without tangible implementation.”   Some critics merely want to change the venue for the 2013 meeting; others go so far as to call for a suspension of Sri Lanka's membership in the Commonwealth.
Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013
On March 11, 2013, it was reported in London’s Daily Mail that Britain’s Queen was expected to make a controversial statement in support of homosexual rights when she signed this Charter.  She was reportedly going to emphasize and make explicit that the “other grounds” that are included in the Charter’s commitment to nondiscrimination included sexual orientation.   This story was widely repeated in other newspapers around the world.  Instead of this widely anticipated watershed moment in the Queen’s career, however, the monarch cancelled her public appearance at the Commonwealth celebration, reportedly due to illness, and Buckingham Palace issued a statement stressing that the Queen was signing the Charter only as a part of her official duties and that she was herself apolitical.
Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

The Commonwealth of Nations is a voluntary association of independent countries. There are currently 54 member countries in the Commonwealth. 

Annotated by Jen on September 05, 2013
The subject of the judiciary provoked little discussion at the Convention because they were merely affirming the traditional role the courts had always played in upholding justice. For instance, the Virginia Plan had ensured the trial by jury from the outset, and its necessity was never questioned by anyone. Dickinson used the jury trial as an example of the wisdom that could only be gained through experience: It was not reason that discovered, or ever could have discovered, the odd, and, in the eyes of those who are governed by reason, the absurd mode of trial by jury. Accidents probably produced these discoveries, and experience has given a sanction to them (Aug. 13). Well before the United States Constitution was adopted, the sanctity of the jury trial had been enshrined in all of the state constitutions. The right to be tried by a jury of one's peers was a development in legal theory which had proven so effectual at protecting individual rights that by 1787 no American dared question it.
Annotated by kcbooz on September 05, 2013

Of those questions that did require deliberation about the judiciary, the prevailing concern that informed the Framers’ choices was the need to preserve the independence of the judges.  Wherever possible, they wished to elevate the judges above the noisy partisanship of the political process.  Whereas a legislature should possess a comprehensive understanding of and sympathy with local interests, the judiciary should act with total objectivity toward those interests.  The Constitution therefore prescribes that judges should be appointed by the two most stable elective offices, the President and the Senate; they should hold their office during good behavior (which is effectively a lifetime appointment); and their compensation should not be diminished during their tenure.  If the Framers could succeed in creating a branch of government beholden to no authority but the law, then the judiciary could be trusted to uphold the rightful claims of a weak party when the legislative process might fail to do so.  As Gouverneur Morris later argued in the Senate, without the federal court system, “the citizen is deprived of those rights for which he stipulated, or rather those rights verbally granted would be actually withheld; and that great security of our Union, that necessary guard of our tranquillity, be completely paralyzed, if not destroyed” (January 14, 1802).  The judge’s ability to defy the other branches of government and even an oppressive majority would therefore depend upon their independence.

Annotated by kcbooz on September 05, 2013
Under the Articles of Confederation, no permanent federal judiciary existed. Judicial bodies were appointed on an ad hoc basis by Congress, or Congress addressed judicial issues on its own. The Constitution provides a separate judicial branch of government. In outlining the scope of federal judicial power by defining the types of questions and disputes the federal judiciary should address, the Constitution defines what issues are inside or outside the judiciary's purview. The federal courts are supreme when deciding cases that are appropriately within their scope of review. Consequently, they may overrule state courts with respect to those issues.
Annotated by kcbooz on September 05, 2013

The formation of the judicial branch occasioned less debate in the Constitutional Convention than any other branch of government.  Indeed, the only real controversy was deciding whether federal courts – and especially “inferior” tribunals spread throughout the union – were really necessary to a government of such limited scope.  Those delegates who wanted to keep the central government weak had accordingly argued that legal controversies should almost always be tried in state courts.  The vast majority at the Convention, however, believed that the absence of a proper Executive and Judiciary in the Articles of Confederation was its primary defect.  “An effective judiciary establishment,” insisted James Madison, “was essential.  A government without a proper executive and judiciary would be the mere trunk of a body, without arms or legs to act or move” (June 5).  Article III, which establishes the federal judicial power, is far more concise than those articles which establish the other two branches.  The reasons for this brevity, both in the debates at the Convention and in the text of the Constitution, are twofold.  First, judicial power was already generally understood and uncontroversial during this period.  The colonists had largely adopted the legal traditions and precedents from Great Britain and their own colonial experience.  Second, the judicial power was generally considered the weakest; it therefore, was the least feared branch of government.

Annotated by kcbooz on September 05, 2013

Though the President may only be removed from office for high crimes and misdemeanors, the meaning of what constitutes such offenses is dependent on the House when impeaching and the Senate when convicting.  Consequently, it is technically possible for both houses to impeach and convict the President for something other than high crimes and misdemeanors.  However, the institutional prestige of both bodies would almost certainly be greatly diminished in the process.

Though Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton are the only two Presidents to be impeached, the rationales for those respective proceedings had very different bases.  President Johnson’s impeachment involved a political matter that came to a head when Johnson removed Secretary of War Stanton in 1868, in an apparent violation of the Tenure in Office Act.  This Act limited the circumstances under which the President could remove officials whose jobs were subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. It can be said that President Johnson’s ultimate vindication proved that impeachment would not succeed when used on a political basis. President Clinton’s impeachment involved a personal matter that became a judicial matter when he gave false testimony under oath in a case prosecuted when he was in office.  Though Johnson’s and Clinton’s cases were very different, they both had to be addressed under the general language of the impeachment clause.  

Annotated by kcbooz on September 05, 2013

In Athens, though it was considered to be one of the most liberal democracies of the ancient world, a citizen had to be the offspring of two Athenian parents in order to participate in the political councils.  A man might be considered a resident alien, politically, even though his lineage could be traced in Athens for generations.  Common law in Europe often expanded political rights beyond what they had been in the ancient world; though traditionally, European countries placed great emphasis on the necessity of being native-born.  People who had immigrated from another country would generally not qualify for full citizenship rights, because they would not be deemed sufficiently loyal to their adopted fatherland. 

During the Constitutional Convention, it was generally agreed that American policies would be more liberal than their European forebears.  Gouverneur Morris emphasized “the privileges which emigrants would enjoy among us, . . . observing that they exceeded the privileges allowed to foreigners in any part of the world.”  Nonetheless, some preference for natural born citizens and lengthy residencies in one’s homeland survived.  Morris expressed some suspicion for “those citizens of the world . . . he did not wish to see any of them in our public councils.  He would not trust them. The men who can shake off their attachments to their own country can never love any other.”  James Wilson, who was himself an immigrant from Scotland, expressed some chagrin at “his being incapacitated from holding a place under the very Constitution which he had shared in the trust of making. . . .  To be appointed to a place may be matter of indifference.  To be incapable of being appointed is a circumstance grating and mortifying.”  However, the greater number of delegates wanted to restrict the most powerful office in the United States, the presidency, to “a natural born Citizen” (Art. II, Sec. 1).  George Mason pointed out that were it not for the circumstance that many foreigners “had acquired great credit during the revolution,” he would be in favor of restricting even “the Senate to natives” (Aug. 9).  It remained the case that the United States Constitution would give more liberal privileges to recent immigrants than anywhere in the Old World.

Annotated by kcbooz on September 05, 2013