Remarks by Ambassador Frankie A.
Reed at the Attorney-General’s Annual Conference
Fiji, December 2, 2011Salutations: The Attorney General, Minister for Justice and Anti-Corruption, the acting Solicitor General, Chief Justice of Fiji, Members of the Diplomatic Corps, Members of the Judiciary, Members of the Legal fraternity, fellow speakers, distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen. Ni sa bula vinaka and Thank you for the warm welcome and for your invitation. I am pleased to speak today on the system of representative government in the United States, a system which has served the American people well. Our journey has at times been difficult, messy, and even occasionally violent, but the positive result of our political development, I believe, helped make us the open, transparent, freedom-loving, and prosperous society we are today. My remarks are organized in three major parts: firstly an overview of how democracy is essential to the pursuit of a just, equitable, and accountable political system in the United States; secondly an exploration of the U.S. system of government and elections, and finally, a summary of how this guides our interaction with foreign governments. As an American citizen, I have many opportunities to vote. My ballot typically gives me the right to vote for six different offices: a Congressional delegate in the House of Representatives; one of my two national senators; my state governor; state legislature representatives other state officials chosen by direct election; members of my school district board; and sometimes my local judges. I might also vote on popular referenda, to change the legislative majority vote needed for tax issues, or to approve a bond issue for the county library system. One characteristic of being an American citizen is that you can be a frequent voter. Even overseas, American citizens can register to vote and send in ballots by mail. For example, with less than one year to go before our 2012 national election, the American Embassy will assist American residents abroad to register with their state in time to receive and mail back their ballots. I do not take my voting rights for granted, however. In the United States, women did not have the national right to vote until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, in 1920. The post-Civil War 15th Amendment that took effect in 1870 gave Black Americans the right to vote in law, but not in practice in many areas. African Americans often were denied the right to vote through local restrictions and “poll taxes” that disenfranchised the poor, especially rural Blacks. Only in 1965, through the Voting Rights Act, did the national government decisively prohibit discrimination against voters. Elections and Democratic Development As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked at Georgetown University, “Democracy means not only elections to choose leaders, but also active citizens; a free press and independent judiciary; and transparent, responsive institutions that are accountable to all 2 citizens and protect their rights equally and fairly. In democracies, respecting rights isn’t a choice leaders make day by day; it is the reason they govern.” In the United States, elections form the starting point for all our other democratic institutions and practices. Genuine democracy, however, requires substantially more than elections. American democracy has constitutional limits on governmental power and guarantees citizens’ basic rights. Our society fosters a democratic culture and rule of law that governs politics between elections, and constrains those who might be tempted to undermine election processes. In the United States, we believe that democracy is the best form of government capable of securing and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms over the long term. Countries in which power is concentrated in the hands of unaccountable rulers are the world’s most systematic human rights violators. That said, no form of government is without flaws. Democracy is a system of government of, by and for the people, based on the principle that human beings have the inherent right to shape their own future. In the United States we have built-in correctives and counterweights to the flaws of human nature throughout government and society, such as robust civic institutions, a vibrant free media, a legislature and judiciary independent of the executive and well-established rule of law. The hallmarks of the American democratic system are a strong civic tradition based on more than two hundred years of independent and pre-independence local government tradition. Our system of government is grounded in a robust Constitution, fixed election dates, and the ability of citizens to vote at various intervals and levels of government. Strong and effective electoral institutions – the result of hard-fought battles in American political history – reinforce public expectation that the electoral results will be respected. They assure defeated candidates that the victors’ terms of office will be limited and there will be opportunities to compete again. The U.S. Constitution The Constitution of the United States is the basis for the machinery and institutions of the U.S. government. The American Constitution is the world’s oldest charter of national government in continuous use. It is not our first constitution, however. It was written in 1787 during the Constitutional Convention, which was convened in the midst of political crises that followed the American Revolution and the inefficiency of the Articles of Confederation. Ratified in 1781, the Articles of Confederation served as the first constitution of the 13 original states, but the Congress originally had no power of taxation, relying on contributions from the states. With weak central authority, relations were tense between the states and the acting central government. The Constitutional Convention was an effort to ease those tensions and to create a single political entity from the 13 independent former colonies—the ideal expressed in the motto of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum” (From Many, One). In 1789, after nine states ratified it and the newly-elected Congress met, the Constitution became the law of the land. With 27 amendments—or additions—it has remained so for over 230 years. The United States Constitution embodies the principle that out of many different peoples, one national society can be created. The Founders wanted unity and stability. But they also wanted to safeguard the rights and liberties of states and individuals by balancing power among individuals, states, and the branches of the national government. The first ten 3 amendments to the American Constitution, known as the “Bill of Rights,” guarantee the rights of individuals and powers of the individual states. The result is a system of shared functions designed to prevent any one element from gaining too much power. The three branches of Government The Founders established three separate and co-equal branches of government—the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. The functions of these branches are described in the first three articles of the Constitution. The U.S. Constitution attempts to ensure that no one branch of government assumes too much power over the others by providing for the separation of powers and a system of checks and balances. The legislative branch – the Congress – is comprised of two houses (a “bicameral” body), the House of Representatives and the Senate. Both the House and Senate must approve new laws, which may be vetoed by the president. While the legislative branch makes the laws, the executive branch oversees the enforcement of all federal laws, and the judicial branch (the Supreme Court and lower state and federal courts) interpret the laws and ensures that they are constitutional and provide equal protection. The president’s cabinet members, under the Constitution, cannot hold positions in another branch (though they can be recruited from these branches), giving the chief executive flexibility in selecting the Cabinet and preventing conflicts of interest between branches of government. Together with fixed election dates, these are significant differences between our republic and a Westminster parliamentary system. Aiding our citizens in viewing the accountability of their government is a free press, sometimes known as “the Fourth Estate.” With it rights enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment, the free press communicates political debates, reports on issues that rise into the public discourse, and investigates and publicizes abuses of office or the law. Checks and Balances Each branch of the Federal government has the latitude to limit or “check” the power of the other branches. For example:
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