In 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.
The Constitution as a whole establishes our entire form of government as well as an extensive array of individual rights. It can be helpful to consider its provisions in four groups:
For more in-depth information about the key provisions of the Constitution and what they do, visit our page on What You Need to Know About the U.S. Constitution.
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.
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.
For further summaries of the most important constitutional rights, visit our page on What You Need to Know About the U.S. Constitution.
The Constitution is interpreted by federal judges, and those interpretations are recorded in court opinions relating to specific cases. The U.S. Supreme Court acts as the final authority on matters involving interpretation of the Constitution. 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.
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:
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