Philosophy Magazine

Impressions of the Washington State Declaration of Rights

By Realizingresonance

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Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.

The Realizing Resonance philosophical theme for February 2012 is Liberty! Mary and I are traveling to New Orleans this month to experience Mardi Gras, bayous, alligators, plantations, and Creole cuisine, so I am definitely in the mood to celebrate freedom and liberty. I intend to get into some issues surrounding the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, examining the liberties and rights that we have as US citizens at the Federal level. I know many people are familiar with the Bill of Rights, but unfortunately 44% of Americans were unable to define the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution in a recent test given to 1,000 subjects by Newsweek. I have read the Bill of Rights many times, but until recently I had never read the rights granted by my own State’s Constitution, so I wonder how many other Americans are completely unaware of their rights in their own States given the dismal numbers on the Bill of Rights. So, to kick off the month on liberty I will start with my impressions of the rights I possess within Washington State.

Article I of the Washington State Constitution is the Declaration of Rights. Sections 1 indicates that all political power derives from the consent of the governed and Section 2 recognizes the supremacy of the US Constitution. Each of its remaining 33 Sections enumerate a rule designed to protect the liberties of Washingtonians, including the obvious freedoms of speech, assembly, press and religion. Several of the Sections are common procedural guarantees borrowed from the US Constitution, like the writ of habeas corpus and the protections against bills of attainder and ex post facto laws. Washingtonians have the right to bear arms for self defense with the caveat that this does not include the right to organize private militias. Not all of the enumerations are nationally inspired, such as the right of victims of crimes to speak against the accused in court, and the right of the people to recall elected officials.

My first impulse is that the most important right in the Washington State Constitution is the Freedom of Elections, a directive which states that the “free exercise of the right of suffrage” will be guaranteed. With 35 sections to choose between there are many other rights that could be considered the most important, like the freedom of speech and the writ of habeas corpus. However, the ability of citizens to vote for representation is vital for the preservation of any subsequent rights. Imagine a hypothetical society in which there are two groups, one with absolute power and one with no power whatsoever. The group with all of the power offers the others a choice between two rights, the freedom of speech or the freedom to elect representation in governance. The smarter choice would be to elect representatives who could then fight for future liberties, including the freedom of speech. If the freedom of speech was the only right a group of people had they could only plead for additional rights. Democratic participation is the fabric that weaves together all of our civil liberties.

Washington’s Declaration of Rights has been amended eight times. Three of these represent the most recent Sections of Article I, two of which establish the people’s right to recall elected officials, while the third confers certain rights to the victims of crimes. The five remaining amendments were used to modify three of the original sections. There is an amendment to the section regarding eminent domain that specifies the taking of land for reclamation and settlement purposes to be a public use. The section protecting the rights of the accused was changed to clarify the jurisdiction for trials of crimes committed in vehicles, while in transit. The remaining three amendments were all successively applied to the same section of religious freedom, beginning with the addition of a caveat that the State could employ a chaplain for the penitentiary and expanding this exception to virtually all public correctional and health care institutions. Washingtonians’ liberties have been expanded by the three amendments which enumerated new rights. The other amendments, which changed sections already in existence, appear to have addressed technicalities.

I have read the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights many times, so I am surprised that the there are so many more enumerated rights for Washington State citizens. It is comforting to see that something I take for granted, like the abolishment of hereditary privileges, is spelled out. Also, I am happy to see that Article I has not been amended gratuitously in Washington State. The last time the Declaration of Rights was modified was in 1993. I am confused by some of the sections, such as the statement that a “frequent recurrence to fundamental principles” is required for the preservation if rights. I am not sure how this right is to be exercised.

I recommend to everyone who is interested in Liberty to read about the rights that they have in their own State, and consider what life would be like without these rights. Are these rights being honored by your State’s government today? This is a useful exercise in civil participation and it won’t take too much of your time. As the great Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero said, “Liberty consists in the power of doing that which is permitted by the law”, and as those great British punk rockers The Clash said, “Know Your Rights”!

Jared Roy Endicott

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