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Constitution now available in plain English

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 16, 2003

WASHINGTON - For students stumped by "ex post facto" and put off by "thereofs" and "hereins," a congressional staffer has translated the Constitution into plain language.

Cathy Travis rephrased the hallowed document, whose meaning still is debated and reinterpreted by Congress and the courts.

The Constitution's wording is mostly the handiwork of a colonial New York aristocrat who tried to avoid legalisms and set down in simple terms the will of the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Article 1, Section 9: "No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed."

Travis' translation: "Congress cannot pass a law to declare someone guilty of a crime. Criminal laws passed by Congress can be applied only from the time they are passed."

"The biggest misconception about the Constitution is that it's very long - it's an itty-bitty thing, only 4,400 words," said Travis, press secretary to Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas.

Her 85-page Constitution Translated for Kids includes a glossary and some history and puts the translation and original side by side. The book is for sale at

For example, the First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Travis translates that as "Congress cannot make any law to create a government church, to keep people from practicing any religion they please (or not)."

Travis is preparing an edition of her translation for adults, who might be a bit puzzled, too. They might not know that "establishment of religion" refers to Britain's "established church," with king or queen at its head.

Ira Lupu, a George Washington University professor, said the translation is useful for schools but doesn't tell the whole story.

"Something is always lost in translation," he said.

For example, the translation's version of the much-disputed Second Amendment says "citizens have the right to own firearms."

"A lot of people believe the amendment was intended only to protect the rights of states to maintain militias and not to guarantee a right to ordinary citizens," he said.

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