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Constitutional Law

Understanding the Basic Framework for the American Legal System

Constitutional LawIn the American legal system, there are a number of sources of law. Every state has a legislature that enacts written laws, known as statutes, and a court system that generates “common law” in the form of judicial opinions. Congress also passes federal statutes, and federal courts create a rich body of federal common law. All those laws, however, must “pass constitutional muster,” which means that they must not violate any provisions of the U.S. Constitution or the state constitution of the state in which the law applies. Federal courts, and ultimately the United States Supreme Court, decide whether a law complies with the U.S. Constitution.

What Is Constitutional Law?

Constitutional law interprets any legal issue that falls under the purview of the U.S. Constitution. The range of such issues is broad, running the gamut from matters involving interstate commerce to the criminal rights of defendants to issues of free speech and freedom of religion. On constitutional matters, the opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court take precedence over any other municipal, state, or federal laws.

History of Constitutional Law

Although the U.S. constitution establishes the Supreme Court as the ultimate and final authority for the interpretation of its provisions, the Court did not establish its own power to strike down a law as unconstitutional until 1803, in the case Marbury v. Madison. Because it has the power to strike down any state or federal law that violates the Constitution, the Supreme Court plays a key role in the development and application of important U.S. laws. Pivotal Court opinions over the last 200 years include the following:

  • Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), which established federal control over interstate commerce
  • Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), which, by failing to grant Congress the power to prohibit slavery, led to the drafting and ratification of the 13th and 14th Amendments
  • Schenck v. United States (1919), which established the “clear and present danger” test applied to free speech
  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which found separate to be inherently unequal, making segregated schools a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause
  • Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), which guarantees criminal defendants the right to representation at no charge
  • Miranda v. Arizona (1966), which requires police to provide certain basic warnings when taking criminal defendants into custody
  • Roe v. Wade (1973), which prohibits states from passing certain laws restricting a woman’s ability to have an abortion
  • Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which held that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment

What Are Constitutional Rights?

Constitutional rights are legal rights guaranteed by the language of the U.S. Constitution. Fundamental civil liberties are contained in the First Amendment, including the rights to freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. Other constitutional rights include the due process rights of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, the freedom from unreasonable search and seizure included in the Fourth Amendment, the rights afforded criminal defendants in the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, and the equal protection guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court has also held that the Constitution protects fundamental rights such as the right to marry and the right to privacy.

How Is the Constitution Interpreted?

The Constitution is interpreted by judges, and those interpretations are recorded in court opinions relating to specific cases. The Supreme Court’s interpretation of a short phrase in the Constitution can have far-reaching effects on the law of the land.

There has long been debate about how the Constitution should be interpreted. One method of interpretation is strict construction, a restrictive view based on beliefs as to the literal meaning of words and phrases at the time the language was originally written. Under strict construction (also known as “originalism”), the meaning of the Constitution never changes; rather, the meaning of any particular part was fixed at the time of passage. Opponents of strict construction assert that interpreting the Constitution in accordance with its original meaning or intent can result in policies that are unacceptable to modern society.

Another method of interpretation is the idea of a Living Constitution, which holds that the meaning of the Constitution is dynamic and evolves over time to adapt to new circumstances, even though not formally amended. Under this view, the reality of contemporary society is considered when interpreting words and phrases in the Constitution. Proponents of the Living Constitution contend that the framers created the document to be a “living” one and intentionally wrote it in broad, flexible terms with that goal in mind.

The Bill of Rights

Most constitutional scholars agree that the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution to help ensure that the document would be ratified by the states. Many colonists had experienced the tyranny of the English monarchy before emigrating to the United States and wanted to be sure that the government in the new country would not engage in similar oppression. Many were fearful that the Constitution, as originally drafted, created a federal government with too much power. The Bill of Rights was intended to limit that power.

The Bill of Rights includes the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution:

  • First Amendment—Prohibits the government from establishing a religion; guarantees free speech, free press, and free exercise of religion; and ensures the right of the people to assemble or petition the government for a redress of grievances
  • Second Amendment—Has been construed by the Supreme Court to protect the right of individuals to possess a firearm
  • Third Amendment—Prohibits the government from placing soldiers in your home without your permission
  • Fourth Amendment—Guarantees the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, requiring probable cause to support any search warrant
  • Fifth Amendment—Guarantees criminal defendants the right to a grand jury investigation for federal felonies; protects individuals from double jeopardy (being prosecuted twice for the same crime) and self-incrimination; requires due process of law before you can be deprived of life, liberty, or property; and bans the taking of private property by the government without just compensation
  • Sixth Amendment—Affords criminal defendants with a number of rights, including the right to an attorney, the right to know the charges brought against you, the right to a speedy trial, the right to an impartial jury, the right to call witnesses to testify on your behalf, and the right to know and confront your accusers
  • Seventh Amendment—Guarantees the right to trial by jury in federal civil matters
  • Eighth Amendment—Prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” as well as excessive bail and fines
  • Ninth Amendment—States that the rights of the people are not limited to only those enumerated in the Constitution
  • Tenth Amendment—Provides that all rights and powers not specifically delegated to the federal government or prohibited to the states by the Constitution are reserved and held by the states

The Fourteenth Amendment

Another important constitutional provision is the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits the states from abridging “the rights and immunities” of citizens without “due process of law,” and which also guarantees the “equal protection of the law“.

Summary

The U.S. Constitution establishes the foundation upon which all local, state, and federal laws are enacted. Any law that violates the Constitution may be struck down by the courts, with the U.S. Supreme Court as the final arbiter.

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