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.

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:

  • Articles I, II, and III: The first three articles of the Constitution define the three branches of the federal government and outline the powers afforded to each of them. The effect of this “separation of powers” is to maintain a system of checks and balances. The legislative branch of government writes the laws; the executive branch executes or enforces those laws; and the judicial branch interprets and applies them. The separation of powers means that no one can serve in more than one branch of government at a time.
  • Articles IV through VII: Article IV governs the relationship between the federal government and the states, while the remaining articles include provisions for amending and ratifying the Constitution and establishing the Constitution as the law of the land.
  • The Bill of Rights (Amendments I through X): The first ten amendments to the Constitution are known collectively as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights was drafted in response to concern that the original Constitution created a federal government with too much power. The Bill of Rights was intended to limit that power and provide the states with greater freedom from federal control. Its provisions also contain specific guarantees of personal freedoms and rights.
  • Other Amendments: Since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, the U.S. Constitution has been amended 17 more times, for a current total of 27 amendments. Some of these amendments establish, change, or clarify procedures (such as how the Electoral College meets and votes) while others clarify or expand personal rights.

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.

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.

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.

For further summaries of the most important constitutional rights, visit our page on What You Need to Know About the U.S. Constitution.

How Is the Constitution Interpreted?

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.

Landmark Constitutional Law Cases

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

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