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Constitution Day: Celebrating the foundation of our government

Madison, Wisconsin - September 14, 2012

A Guest Column By Shirley S. Abrahamson, Chief Justice Wisconsin Supreme Court

How many words does it take to establish a nation?

The preamble to the Constitution of the United States laid out the mission in 52 words.

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Although a bit lengthy by today's sound-bite standards, few words have ever done so much work. This was powerful language in 1787, when the Constitution was signed, and it expressed extraordinarily bold and innovative ideas.

At the time the Constitution was written, no other country was "governed with separated and divided powers providing checks and balances on the exercise of authority by those who governed," the late U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in celebration of the bicentennial of the Constitution 25 years ago.

"In place of the absolutism of monarchy, the freedoms flowing from this document created a land of opportunities. Ever since then discouraged and oppressed people from every part of the world have made a beaten path to our shores…" Burger wrote.

Two hundred twenty-five years after its creation, we continue to celebrate our Constitution – Sept. 17 each year is recognized by federal law as Constitution Day.

In the articles that follow the preamble, the Constitution establishes our three branches of government – the legislative, executive and judicial. Each branch is empowered to serve the people, as well as to serve as a check and balance on the other branches. It  is the Judicial Branch's job to interpret and apply the Constitution and other laws in cases brought to the courts.

In addition to serving as the foundation of our government, the Constitution protects each of us, placing limits on the government's power.

The first ten amendments to the Constitution, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, establish many of the rights and freedoms that we now take for granted. The First Amendment alone packs a powerful punch in a single sentence – establishing religious freedom, free speech, freedom of the press, the right to assemble "and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." The Bill of Rights also establishes our right to keep and bear arms, protects our property from illegal search and seizure and requires due process of law. Of particular interest to the courts, the Sixth Amendment ensures "the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury...."

Subsequent amendments abolish slavery, expand voting rights, refine the electoral process, and address qualifications for public office and citizenship, among other provisions.

Historically, the U.S. Constitution has served as a model for constitutions developed around the world, particularly after World War II. The document remains influential and endures as the foundation of our government and our rights.

Let's celebrate the work the Constitution does for us all.

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