Pick Wayne's Brain

November 24, 2012

To Petition the Government

If you asked the average American to name the rights granted by the First Amendment, I’m sure most would easily name Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion first and second (though they are, technically, the second and the first), and they could probably even name Freedom of the Press as one of them. I’m sure some people would think they end there, but I’m sure most people could be coaxed to name one more, that one most likely being Freedom to Peaceably Assemble. But the one I’m sure most people would forget about, entirely if not simply as being part of another amendment, is the right to Petition the Government for a Redress of Grievances. One could, if one wanted to engage in an argument about semantics, claim that this is not so much a separate right as it is a part of the right to peaceably assemble. Note the exact wording of the amendment, which “textualists” like Justice Antonin Scalia(*) would do:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Notice that it begins by stating that “Congress shall make no law…” about religion OR abridging speech OR the press OR peaceably assembling AND petitioning the government for a redress of grievances. So, if you want to be technical, it doesn’t say that you have the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances if you are not doing so as part of a peaceable assembly. It says that you have the right to peaceably assemble AND, while you’re gathering with your friends (new and old), to petition the government for that redress of grievances. Does this mean you can stand on a street corner by yourself with a protest sign? I can imagine Justice Scalia saying “No, and only an idiot like you would think so.” What if the assembly is a virtual one, not conducted in any real space, but consisting of several people “assembled” on a website? Would that be supported by the First Amendment? Well, whether or not Justice Scalia thinks it would be (after all, how could the framers have envisioned computers and the internet?), the White House believes so, and they have a website where you can create your own petition. And many people are exercising that right, though it appears that many of them are confused about a number of things.

At present, there are 235 active petitions on the website. There is a time limit to gathering signatures or else the site would never load. “If a petition gets enough support, White House staff will review it, ensure it’s sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response.” The answers you get may not be entirely satisfying. For example, in response to two petitions (“Save the Postal Service” and “Preserve Six Day Mail Delivery”), the government offered this generic, uninspired response. The USPS is indeed suffering some tough financial times these days, but the primary reason for that is one never mentioned in the government response: The USPS is being forced (by the GOP) to set aside money to pay for retirement packages going 75 years into the future. That means that they must literally fund retirements for people who haven’t even been born yet! I know they think the unborn have rights, but this is ridiculous. In a petition to “Re-establish and maintain the separation between investment banks and commercial banks,” the government gave this response. Many people blame the repeal of Glass-Steagall for the financial meltdown, but it was the other parts of the bill that President Clinton signed into law that did the real damage, and that was the ban on regulating derivatives trading. The White House reply seemed to acknowledge and address this. There are several petitions about Israel, including some saying we should unconditionally support them and some saying we should completely cut off their foreign aid.

But the truly astonishing thing is the number and variety of petitions for states to secede from the union (or for certain parts of states to secede from their states.) I’m not sure if these people understand that the White House does not have the authority to grant these states secession (nor would it, nor did it), nor or they the ones you should be petitioning. These are the kinds of things about which one should be addressing the Congress, as they would have to ultimately approve any state leaving the union. (There’s even a petition to strip the citizenship of all persons who signed petitions to secede.) Some of these petitions are rather light on reasons why secession should be granted. Many of them were, apparently, created on the same day, and probably by the same people. They have the same odd wording in their title (“Peacefully grant the state of ________ to withdraw from the United States and create its own NEW government”) and they start with a quote from the Declaration of Independence.

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

Hardly any of them go on to declare the causes which compel them to the separation. There’s even a petition from someone in North Carolina declaring that his state will NOT secede from the Union.

Amazingly enough a petition calling for the impeachment of Barack Obama got over 37,000 signatures. Here is the text of that petition:

We request that Obama be impeached for the following reasons.

We request that Barack Obama be impeached for the following reasons.

1. He proclaimed war in libya without getting congress approval first. Article I, Section 8- Only congress can approve to start war.

2. Obamacare is unconstitutional. Forcing US citizens to get health insurance whether they want it or not.

3. Obama disrespects our Constitution calling it flawed and trying to change it even after taking this oath:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States,

and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

4. Appointing agency “czars” without Senate approval.

I think I can answer a few of these charges. First of all, President Obama didn’t declare war in Libya, and not one single American troop was lost in the successful overthrow of that country’s government. In fact, that’s what the right wing was complaining about with Obama’s “leading from behind” strategy. Second, Obamacare is constitutional and had been declared so long before this petition was created on November 11. Third, it is not disrespectful to point out that our Constitution does have flaws, and as long as the President is using the Constitutionally-approved means of changing it, he’s not violating his oath of office. And fourth, he has not appointed anyone without Senate approval to a position that the Congress said requires Senate approval. The Constitution grants the Congress the power to decide which offices require their advice and consent and which don’t. This petition was clearly started by sore losers who failed to understand the lesson of Election Night. I’ll make it simple for them: 332-206 – you lost!

It’s fascinating to go through the petitions and see which ones contradict some other ones and which ones are almost identical to others. It’s also revealing to see how illiterate some of our fellow citizens are. But it’s frightening to see just how ignorant many of them are, too.

[(*)On a funny side note, the spell checker in my Google browser did not recognize the name “Scalia” as a properly-spelled word. I think that’s good, especially considering that he was a Justice before there was an internet. But what’s even funnier is the one suggestion they had for what they thought it should have been: Scaliness.]

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