When we ask ourselves what kind of country we want to live in, one of the first thoughts we have is, “What should be allowed, and what shouldn’t?” In a nation that is governed by 23,000 pages of criminal law alone, how do we decide what laws we want to live by? It all comes down to what is written in the Constitution of the United States, and how it is interpreted through constitutional law.
What Is Constitutional Law?
No one can write a law that is in conflict with what the Constitution says, and that is where constitutional law comes in.
The Law of the Land
Constitutional law is the body of law that deals with interpreting the Constitution and applying its decrees to practice in real-life situations, some mundane and others extremely consequential. In the United States, the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It outlines what powers the different branches of government have, and what rights the citizens have. The Constitution has the final word in all questions of how our government and legal systems work – end of story.
In the real world, however, there are arguments and differing opinions over specific aspects of the Constitution, and resolving them is not always as simple as dusting off the document and checking it to see which side is getting it right. Two people (or two areas of government, or two companies, or one person and the government, etc.) can read the same document, and each can think that the law is on their side.
Furthermore, there may seem to be contradictions within the Constitution itself, which can rouse questions about enforcing existing national, state, and local laws. New laws also have to be checked for constitutionality as well.
Constitutional law aims to untangle these questions and figure out what is in line with what the Constitution says and what is not. But, what does the Constitution say?
What Constitutes the Constitution?
The Constitution is invoked every day by pundits on cable news outlets, politicians on the campaign trail, and advocates arguing their stance on one issue or another. There is much more in the text than the commonly quoted bits and pieces that turn up so often in soundbites. Here is a quick rundown of what is covered in the constitution:
The Original Seven Articles
These form the bulk of the original document, drafted by the founders in 1787 and ratified by all of the original thirteen colonies by 1789.
The first 3 articles outline the separation of powers within the government into the legislative branch (Congress - the House of Representatives and the Senate), the executive branch (headed by the President), and the judicial branch (consisting of the Supreme Court and other judicial courts).
These articles grant rights and define responsibilities of the individual states in what is known as federalism.
This allows new states to ratify the Constitution.
A Living Document
Right from the get-go, the founders got to work adding amendments to the Constitution, and we have been adding more ever since with the latest amendment being ratified in 1992.
The first ten amendments to the Constitution are known collectively as the Bill of Rights. They restrict government power and guarantee specific rights to the population. The First Amendment, for example, guarantees freedom of religion and restricts government from imposing any religion on the population. Other amendments in the Bill of Rights address gun ownership, the right to a speedy trial by jury, and protection against unwarranted search and seizure.
The remaining seventeen amendments can be grouped into three main categories:
Expansion of civil rights:
There are amendments outlawing slavery, guaranteeing women's suffrage, and abolishing Jim Crow policies.
Government processes and procedures:
These address questions of how the government will go about its business and deal with things like term limits and what happens if the President is unable to carry out his or her duties.
The eighteenth amendment, banning alcohol sales in the United States (the only one to be repealed), is included here, as well as others dealing with the reach of government authority.
The Need for Constitutional Law
Clearly, there is a lot to untangle in the Constitution. To further complicate the issue, the original document was signed into law well over 200 years ago. Inevitably, situations are going to arise that cause confusion about how best to apply the letter of the law, and inevitably, there will be lawyers involved.
How to Apply the Constitution?
There are five main approaches to figuring out how best to apply the Constitution.
Look at the Text: Ideally, all you need to do is read the text and do what it says. You may need to get around some old-fashioned language and follow some complicated thought processes, but otherwise, hopefully, the answer is in the document.
Structure and Logic: Sometimes, it is helpful to consider an individual amendment in the context of the entire constitution. For example, the eighteenth and twenty-first amendments only make sense if you consider that one repealed the other. Further, if there is any lack of clarity around one of the first ten amendments, consider that as part of the Bill of Rights, it is there to enshrine the rights of citizens.
Original Intent: The question of what the Founding Fathers originally intended when writing a part of the Constitution is a common, and complicated, dilemma. It is a useful question to the extent that their intention can help clarify the law itself, but it can be difficult to find the line between what they may have had on their mind, but still chose not to enshrine into law, and what they intended the words that they actually did enshrine into law to mean. For example, if an amendment states that “any person has equal protection under the law” even though, at the time, many did not wish for women to have equal protection under the law, it may be true that many would not have wished the law to include women, thinking that “person” would be understood to refer to men only. However, the word that they chose to write was “person,” (and not “man” or “male”), which even then could be understood to include women. Therefore, we cannot say that the law should not apply to women; they chose the word “person,” and that is what we go by.
Precedent: Here you would look at what has already been decided by previous courts and apply that decision to another situation. Precedents and the thought processes behind them can shed a lot of light on the issue at hand, but should never supersede what is actually written in the Constitution.
Policy: The question here is, “What impact will this have on the real world?” This approach is a bit tricky, as here you begin with the result that you want, and try to make it work within the Constitution. This should be the last approach, taking a back seat to an impartial reading of what the document says.
Top 5 Things You Should Know About Constitutional Law
There Is Always an Issue:
At any given time, there are plenty of important issues being worked out nationally, and one way to set policy is through the courts. Look no further than the cases involving money in politics, LGBT civil liberties, and religious freedom, or the debate about online file sharing.
Court Cases Matter:
A lot of important court cases involving the constitutionality of certain laws have shaped our policy for years and affect our lives today. Here are a few you may know: Roe Vs. Wade, in 1973, held that women have a constitutional right to choice; and Miranda Vs. Arizona, in 1966, gave us the “Miranda Rights” by guaranteeing that citizens are informed of their right against self-incrimination.
But Some Are Boring:
Take Fischer vs St. Louis (1896), about milk distribution; or Northwestern States Portland Cement Co. Vs. Minnesota (1959), about interstate tax laws. No offense, constitutional law professors.
It’s Not All About the Supreme Court:
While commonly regarded as the branch that interprets the Constitution and the place we should bring constitutional matters to be decided, the Supreme Court is not the sole guardian of our Constitution. Each branch of government is equally responsible to abide by the Constitution as they see fit, independent of the others, and nowhere in the Constitution itself does it say that the Supreme Court innately has more authority to interpret the law than the others. In fact, not only are all three branches of government bound by this responsibility but...
It's In Your Hands:
As citizens, we too have the authority to interpret the Constitution. The point is made explicitly in the first three words of the document itself, “We the People.” It is our right and responsibility to uphold the law of the Constitution by voting, jury duty, political advocacy, and all forms of civic participation.
So Get Out There!
The Constitution is one of the most important documents in our nation and guarantees us our rights and liberties. It is the backbone of our legal system, outlines how our government should work, and tells us who has the power to do what. If you have something to say about the Constitution, say it! You can get informed by viewing the Constitution itself here: https://www.usconstitution.net/const.pdf