Constitutional Law

A constitution is the basic framework for a legal and governmental system. It defines basic principles of law that all other laws must follow and delegates authority to various officials and agencies. Constitutions are created by the people acting in their collective capacity as sovereign in the nation or state in which they live.

The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the United States. No other federal or state law, statute, or case may impose upon its provisions.

The U.S. Constitution is divided into three parts. The first part, Articles I s.VII, divides governmental power among the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial) and between the federal and state governments, describes the relationships between the states, and sets out the means for amending the Constitution. Two methods are provided for proposing amendments (two thirds of both houses of Congress, or a Constitutional Convention called for by the legislatures of two thirds of the states), and two methods are provided for ratifying the proposed amendments (three fourths of the legislatures or three fourths of the conventions called in each state). By requiring a supermajority (i.e., at least two thirds), the framers made sure that any constitutional changes would have such general acceptance throughout the nation that the possibility of a legal challenge or outright rebellion would be minimized.

The second part of the Constitution is the Bill of Rights, which consists of the Constitution’s first ten amendments. The Tenth Amendment specifies that powers not reserved by the U.S. Constitution for the federal government reside with the states. The first nine amendments provide for and protect individual freedoms. The First Amendment provides for freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition for redress of grievances. Other amendments protect the ability to keep arms, the freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to speedy and public jury trials in criminal cases and jury trials in civil cases. These have been among the most widely debated concepts in constitutional law.

The third part of the Constitution — the additional amendments that have been added over the past 200 years — reflects the efforts to keep it current with respect to changing social and political needs. These amendments cover a wide range of subjects. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865. The Fourteenth Amendment granted the equal protection of the laws and due process of law to all the citizens and residents of the various states. The Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-fourth, and Twenty-sixth Amendments extended the right to vote. The Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages, and the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment.

States also have constitutions, which are often more detailed than the U.S. Constitution. When a court is interpreting a state constitution, it may find correctly that the state constitution gives people within that state more rights than the same language contained in the U.S. Constitution. Because of the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, however, no state can give its people fewer rights than those in the U.S. Constitution.

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