Sunday, May 1, 2016

Constitution Series Part 27: Article VI

I'm going to refer to Article VI as a "typing up loose ends" article. Not to say there isn't some important stuff in here (it's all pretty important), but these are notes that didn't seem to fit into the rest of the articles, which is why I imagine they're lumped here.

All Debts contracted and Engagements entered into, before the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation.
Presumably, one reason to ditch an old form of government for a new one is to escape your debtors. After all, it was that other government that owed you money, not this one, right?

Well, that wasn't going to be the case here, especially since much of the government's debt was to its people, which the government was ostensibly here to represent. It wouldn't instill much confidence in the new government if it immediately refused to pay what it owed to its citizens. Plus, defaulting on foreign loans would still reflect badly on the country, even if those debts were to a "previous government."

That said, though nobody at the Constitutional Convention objected to having the new government pay the debts accrued under the Articles of Confederation, there was some debate as to whether this acceptance of debt was really required in the Constitution at all, as it wasn't really a matter relevant to the structure of the government. James Madison kinda thought it was ridiculous, but in the end this clause was added just to make people stop arguing about it.
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.
Basically, the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. If a federal law conflicts with the Constitution, it can be rendered ineffective through judicial review. Likewise, if a federal law conflicts with a state law, federal courts will rule that federal law trumps the state law. Treaties made with other countries trump everything, though they're also subject to judicial and Congressional review as per the procedures noted elsewhere in the Constitution. In short, this clause makes it clear that states are subordinate to the federal government.

That said, because this is a clause dealing with laws and their application, this clause has been the subject of a fair bit of debate and attempts at clarification over the years. It's not always clear, for instance, when a state law is actually in conflict with a federal law, or if it just seems like it is. It's often up to judges to determine if laws are in conflict or if the laws can or should be executed in deference to each other. Ideally, both state and federal laws are taken into account during trials.

There's also a fair bit of ambiguity in regards to the power of treaties. Do we adhere to them no matter what, even if they conflict with the Constitution? Which treaties have this power? At what point does a treaty become law?

I wish I could provide some solid answers and really clarify this clause, but it's still the subject of vigorous debate,. While I could describe various schools of thought on the matter, nothing would be definitive. At the moment, issues involving this clause seem to be eternally arbitrary. Its application is entirely up to the courts.
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
Every person holding public office in the United States, from the states up to the President, are required to take an oath to support this Constitution. The President's specific oath is detailed in Article II, Section 1, but everyone else is required to make a similar oath, which Congress established and changed over time. The current oath is:
I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.
 The "or Affirmation" part was added to the Constitution in deference to the Quakers, a major religious sect at th time, who refused to take oaths for religious reasons.

This oath was especially important for bringing the various state legislators and governors to a unified purpose, connecting them to the federal government via an oath, which is an ostensibly sacred act.

That said, the second clause mitigated the religious nature of such an oath, since this clause established there was to be no religious requirement to hold office. This only applied to federal positions, however; there was no such protection for state offices until the Torcaso v. Watkins Supreme Court case in 1961.

This latter part of the clause was a matter of heated contention during the ratification process. After all, God is not mentioned even once in the whole Constitution, and this clause basically seals the deal that the United States government would be secular.

At the time, though, the founders defended this clause as necessary, not to defend the rights of Jews, Muslims, Atheists, and so on to run for office, but rather to defend people from different Christian sects from being barred from office via some test that favors one sect or another. (There was especially strong resistance to Roman Catholics at the time.)

That said, whatever the original intentions were, this clause combined with the First Amendment establish what we understand today to be a separation of church and state. We must now elect people based on their merits, experience, and demeanor rather than their religion.

Continue to Part 28: Article VII and Signatures (President, Delaware)

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