Constitutional law deals with the understanding and use of the United States Constitution. This lesson will define and discuss constitutional law, while examining several famous constitutional law cases.
The U.S. Constitution
When we talk about constitutional law, we are talking about many different types of laws that cover many different topics.
Our United States Constitution is the basis of our law system. This document sets out how our government operates and also what laws may or may not be enforced. This may sound fairly straightforward, but the provisions of our Constitution are often interpreted in many different ways. Much of constitutional law has to do with the interpretation of the Constitution.Specifically, constitutional law deals with the basic relationships between the different entities in our society. These relationships include those between the states, the states and the federal government, the three branches of the federal government, the federal government and foreign nations, individuals and state government, and individuals and the federal government.More than any other relationship, constitutional law is thought to govern the relationship between individuals and the federal government.
Therefore, much of constitutional law involves interpreting the Constitution as it relates to the individual rights and freedoms of U.S. citizens.
Establishing Our Federal Government
S. Constitution establishes three branches of the federal government: the executive branch, the judiciary branch, and the legislative branch. Through the Constitution, each branch is created and its powers are ‘enumerated.’ (Enumerated simply means that the powers are specifically set out.)Article I establishes our legislative branch, which is Congress. The U.
S. Congress is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Constitution gives congressional powers to each. This power means that Congress makes our federal laws.
Article II establishes our executive branch, which is the U.S. President. Generally speaking, the President may suggest legislation and may also veto laws.The United States Supreme Court is established through Article III of the Constitution. The Supreme Court uses its power of judicial review to interpret the Constitution and determine which laws are in keeping with the Constitution.
The Supreme Court therefore ‘checks and balances’ the laws of Congress.
Because much of constitutional law deals with judicial review, the study of constitutional law focuses on Supreme Court rulings.The Supreme Court established the duty of judicial review in 1803. In Marbury v. Madison, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that ‘a law repugnant to the Constitution is void.
‘ This famous constitutional law case established the Supreme Court’s power to review the acts of other government branches, and other courts, in order to determine constitutionality.
The Supremacy Clause
Article VI of the Constitution states that the ‘Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof…
shall be the Supreme Law of the Land.’ This is known as the supremacy clause.The supremacy clause prohibits state governments from passing laws that conflict with federal laws. This doctrine was developed through constitutional law in 1824, via the Supreme Court decision in Gibbons v.
Ogden.For example, if the federal government declares that it’s illegal to display red balloons, then the state of Maine may not enforce a law that requires all homeowners to display a red balloon.
The Bill of Rights
Article V allows the Constitution to be amended.
The Constitution has been amended 27 times, though over 10,000 amendments have actually been proposed. The most famous amendments include the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is the first 10 amendments to the Constitution and contains some of the most fundamental individual rights.For example, the First Amendment protects an individual’s right to free speech. This doesn’t mean that citizens always have the right to free speech. A constitutional right simply means that the government may not infringe this right.So, if I make a rule that no one may express a personal opinion while in my home, I have not infringed this right.
But, let’s say the state of Nevada makes a law that no one may express personal opinions while in that state. Then Nevada has infringed this right.Constitutional rights, however, are not necessarily absolute. The Supreme Court may decide when a right can be limited. In another famous constitutional law case, Schenck v. United States, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment does not protect all speech. If the government has a compelling state interest or a very good justification for controlling the speech, then the government may do so.
Through this case, the Court ruled that the First Amendment does not protect speech that presents a ‘clear and present danger’ to others.
Constitutional Rights and the States
Most of the early constitutional law cases dealt with the federal government’s infringement of individual rights. However, later Supreme Court cases selectively applied many constitutional rights to cases involving state action.Mapp v. Ohio, decided in 1961, was such a case. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against ‘unreasonable searches and seizures.
‘ At the time, this doctrine applied only to the actions of the federal government. But the federal government is not who prosecuted Dolly Mapp. Mapp’s local police entered her home and illegally seized materials without a warrant, leading to her arrest and state prosecution.
Equal Protection and Due Process
The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from abridging ‘the rights and immunities’ of any citizen without due process of law. The Supreme Court interpreted this due process clause as providing citizens protection from state infringements of most rights afforded through the Bill of Rights.
In Mapp v. Ohio, the Supreme Court used the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause to rule that illegally obtained evidence – whether seized by local, state or federal governments – cannot be used against a defendant in court.State due process rights were further expanded in 1963, with Gideon v. Wainwright.
Gideon was charged with a felony burglary by the state of Florida, but could not afford to hire an attorney. Though federal felony defendants had a right to free counsel under the Sixth Amendment, state defendants did not.Through this landmark constitutional law case, the Supreme Court used the Fourteenth Amendment to extend a right to free counsel to state defendants accused of a felony.
Let’s review. Constitutional law is the study, practice, interpretation, and administration of laws based on the United States Constitution. Constitutional law encompasses many different types of laws that cover many different topics. The majority of constitutional law involves the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution.There are many important doctrines set forth through constitutional law.
For instance, the Supreme Court has the power of judicial review, as set out in Marbury v. Madison. When a state law conflicts with a federal law, the federal law will rule, as is set out in Gibbons v. Ogden.
There are also numerous landmark constitutional law cases involving the relationship between individual freedoms and the government. These include restrictions on free speech as shown through Schenck v. United States. Other examples include Fourth Amendment protections, such as that in Mapp v.
Ohio, and Sixth Amendment protections, such as that in Gideon v. Wainwright. Constitutional law is the channel, or vehicle, for our constitutional rights.
Watching this lesson should give you the ability to:
- Define constitutional law, judicial review, and the supremacy clause
- Explain how the Constitution set up the federal government and the Bill of Rights
- Summarize how constitutional law was applied in Schenck v. United States, Mapp v.
Ohio, and Gideon v. Wainwright