Book review: The Citizen's Constitution, by Seth Lipsky

Sunday, December 6, 2009


An Annotated Guide

By Seth Lipsky

Basic. 336 pp. $25.95

In this user's manual, Seth Lipsky, founding editor of the New York Sun, sifts through the Constitution clause by clause, explaining in clear language what its provisions mean. As he shows, however, even phrases that seem straightforward can reveal unexpected complexities. Consider, for example, the Fourth Amendment right not to be subjected to "unreasonable searches and seizures." Does having your luggage sniffed by a police dog amount to an unreasonable search? No, held the Court in a 1983 opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. What about having your house's temperature taken from the outside by thermal imaging equipment? Federal agents did this to an Oregon man on the supposition that a hot spot in the garage might indicate the presence of "heat lamps such as those used to grow marijuana." No can do, not without a warrant, said the Court "in a case on which supposedly conservative members such as Justice Thomas and supposedly liberal members such as Justice Ginsberg agreed."

In his preface, Lipsky underscores the personal relationship that citizens can have to the Constitution by reminding us of Clarence Earl Gideon, an inmate whose homemade petition to the Court led it to declare the right to counsel. "What I keep marveling at," Lipsky writes, "is the astounding thing this vagrant accomplished by dint of having at some point either read the Constitution or heard some mortal's idea of the fantastic things it says."

-- Dennis Drabelle

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