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The Constitution consists of a preamble, seven original articles, twenty-seven amendments, and a paragraph certifying its enactment by the constitutional convention.
The Preamble states:
|“||We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.||”|
The Preamble does not grant any particular authority to the federal government and it does not prohibit any particular authority. It establishes the fact that the federal government has no authority outside of what follows the preamble, as amended. "We the people", is one of the most-quoted sections of the Constitution. It was thought by the Federalists during this time that there was no need for a bill of rights as they thought that the preamble spelled out the people's rights.
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Article One describes the congress, the legislative branch of the federal government. The United States Congress is a bicameral body consisting of the lower house of the House of Representatives and the Senate as the upper house.
The article establishes the manner of election and the qualifications of members of each body. Representatives must be at least 25 years old, have been a citizen of the United States for seven years, and live in the state they represent. Senators must be at least 30 years old, have been a citizen for nine years, and live in the state they represent.
In Article I Section I, the Constitution reads "All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives." This gives Congress more than simply the responsibility to establish the rules governing its proceedings and for the punishment of its members; it places the power of the government primarily in Congress.
Article I Section 8 enumerates the legislative powers. The powers listed and all other powers are made the exclusive responsibility of the legislative branch:
The Congress shall have power... To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.
The United States Supreme Court has interpreted the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause in Article One to allow Congress to enact legislation that is neither expressly listed in the enumerated power nor expressly denied in the limitations on Congress. In the 1819 McCulloch v. Maryland ruling, the Supreme Court fell back on the strict construction of the necessary and proper clause to read that Congress had "[t]he foregoing powers and all other powers..."
Article Two describes the presidency (the executive branch). The article establishes the manner of election and qualifications of the President, the oath to be affirmed and the powers and duties of the office. The President must be a natural born citizen of the United States, be at least 35 years old, and a resident of the United States for at least 14 years. It also provides for the office of Vice President, and specifies that the Vice President succeeds to the presidency if the President is removed, unable to discharge the powers and duties of office, dies while in office, or resigns. The original text ("the same shall devolve") leaves it unclear whether this succession was intended to be on an acting basis (merely taking on the powers of the office) or permanent (assuming the Presidency itself). After the death of William Henry Harrison, John Tyler set the precedent that the succession was permanent, and this was followed in practice; the 25th Amendment explicitly states that the Vice President becomes President in those cases. Article Two also provides for the impeachment and removal from office of all officers of the government.
Article Three describes the court system (the judicial branch), including the Supreme Court. The article requires that there be one court called the Supreme Court; Congress, at its discretion, can create lower courts, whose judgments and orders are reviewable by the Supreme Court. Article Three also creates the right to trial by jury in all criminal cases, defines the crime of treason, and charges Congress with providing for a punishment for it. This Article also sets the kinds of cases that may be heard by the federal judiciary, which cases the Supreme Court may hear first (called original jurisdiction), and that all other cases heard by the Supreme Court are by appeal under such regulations as the Congress shall make.
Article Four describes the relationship between the states and the Federal government and amongst the states. For instance, it requires states to give "full faith and credit" to the public acts, records, and court proceedings of the other states. Congress is permitted to regulate the manner in which proof of such acts, records, or proceedings may be admitted. The "privileges and immunities" clause prohibits state governments from discriminating against citizens of other states in favor of resident citizens (e.g., having tougher penalties for residents of Ohio convicted of crimes within Michigan.) It also establishes extradition between the states, as well as laying down a legal basis for freedom of movement and travel amongst the states. Today, this provision is sometimes taken for granted, especially by citizens who live near state borders; but in the days of the Articles of Confederation, crossing state lines was often a much more arduous and costly process. Article Four also provides for the creation and admission of new states. The Territorial Clause gives Congress the power to make rules for disposing of Federal property and governing non-state territories of the United States. Finally, the fourth section of Article Four requires the United States to guarantee to each state a republican form of government, and to protect the states from invasion and violence.
Once proposed — whether submitted by Congress or by a national convention — amendments must then be ratified by three-fourths of the states to take effect. Article Five gives Congress the option of requiring ratification by state legislatures or by special convention. The convention method of ratification has only been used to approve the 21st Amendment. Article Five currently places only one limitation on the amending power — that no amendment can deprive a state of its equal representation in the Senate without that state's consent (limitations regarding slavery and taxation having expired in 1808.)
Article Six establishes the Constitution, and the laws and treaties of the United States made in accordance with it, to be the supreme law of the land, and that "the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the laws or constitutions of any state notwithstanding." It also validates national debt created under the Articles of Confederation and requires that all federal and state legislators, officers, and judges take oaths or affirmations to support the Constitution. This means that the states' constitutions and laws should not conflict with the laws of the federal constitution and that in case of a conflict, state judges are legally bound to honor the federal laws and constitution over those of any state.
Article Six also states "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
Article Seven sets forth the requirements for ratification of the Constitution. The Constitution would not take effect until at least nine states had ratified the Constitution in state conventions specially convened for that purpose, and it would only apply to those states which ratified it. (See above Drafting and ratification requirements.)
The authors of the Constitution were aware that changes would be necessary from time to time if the Constitution was to endure and cope with the effects of the anticipated growth of the nation. However, they were also conscious that such change should not be easy, lest it permit ill-conceived and hastily passed amendments. Balancing this, they also wanted to ensure that an over-rigid requirement of unanimity would not block action desired by the vast majority of the population. Their solution was to devise a dual process by which the Constitution could be altered.
Amending the Constitution is a two-part process: amendments must be proposed and then they must be ratified. Amendments can be proposed one of two ways. The only way that has been used to date is through a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of Congress. Alternatively, two-thirds of the legislatures of the States can call a Constitutional Convention to consider one or more amendments. This second method has never been used, and it is unclear exactly how, in practice, such a Constitutional Convention would work.
Regardless of how the amendment is proposed, the amendment must be approved by three-fourths of states, a process called ratification. Depending on the amendment, this requires either the state legislatures or special state conventions to approve the amendment by simple majority vote. Amendments generally go to state legislatures to be ratified, only the Twenty-first Amendment called for special state conventions.
Unlike many other constitutions, amendments to the U.S. constitution are appended to the existing body of the text without altering or removing what already exists. There is no provision for deleting either obsolete text or rescinded provisions, including passages that are directly contradicted by subsequent amendments (for example, the 18th and 21st).
The way the Constitution is understood is also influenced by the decisions of the court system, and especially the Supreme Court. These decisions are referred to, collectively, as precedents. The ability of the courts to interpret the Constitution was decided early in the history of the United States, in the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison. In that case, the Supreme Court established the doctrine of judicial review, which is the power of the Court to examine legislation and other acts of Congress and to decide their constitutionality. The doctrine also embraces the power of the Court to explain the meaning of various sections of the Constitution as they apply to particular cases brought before the Court. Over the years, a series of Court decisions, on issues ranging from governmental regulation of radio and television to the rights of the accused in criminal cases, has affected a change in the way many Constitutional clauses are interpreted, without amendment to the actual text of the Constitution.
Legislation, passed to implement provisions of the Constitution or to adapt those implementations to changing conditions, also broadens and, in subtle ways, changes the meanings given to the words of the Constitution. Up to a point, the rules and regulations of the many agencies of the federal government have a similar effect. If the actions of Congress or federal agencies are challenged as to their constitutionality, however, it is the court system that ultimately decides whether or not they are allowable under the Constitution.
The Constitution has a total of twenty-seven amendments. The first ten, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified simultaneously. The following seventeen were ratified separately.
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It is commonly understood that the Bill of Rights was not originally intended to apply to the states, though except where amendments refer specifically to the Federal Government or a branch thereof (as in the First Amendment, under which some states in the early years of the nation officially established a religion), there is no such delineation in the text itself. Nevertheless, a general interpretation of inapplicability to the states remained until 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, which stated, in part, that:
|“||No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.||”|
The Supreme Court has interpreted this clause to extend most, but not all, parts of the Bill of Rights to the states. Nevertheless, the balance of state and federal power has remained a battle in the Supreme Court.
The amendments that became the Bill of Rights were actually the last ten of the twelve amendments proposed in 1789. The second of the twelve proposed amendments, regarding the compensation of members of Congress, remained unratified until 1992, when the legislatures of enough states finally approved it and, as a result, it became the Twenty-seventh Amendment despite more than two centuries of pendency. The first of the twelve—still technically pending before the state legislatures for ratification—pertains to the apportionment of the United States House of Representatives after each decennial census. The most recent state whose lawmakers are known to have ratified this proposal is Kentucky in 1792, during that commonwealth's first month of statehood.
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Amendments to the Constitution subsequent to the Bill of Rights cover many subjects. The majority of the seventeen later amendments stem from continued efforts to expand individual civil or political liberties, while a few are concerned with modifying the basic governmental structure drafted in Philadelphia in 1787. Although the United States Constitution has been amended a total of 27 times, only 26 of the amendments are currently in effect because the twenty-first amendment supersedes the eighteenth.
Over 10,000 Constitutional amendments have been introduced in Congress since 1789; in a typical Congressional year in the last several decades, between 100 and 200 are offered. Most of these concepts never get out of Congressional committee, and far fewer get proposed by the Congress for ratification. Backers of some amendments have attempted the alternative, and thus-far never-utilized, method mentioned in Article Five. In two instances—reapportionment in the 1960s and a balanced federal budget during the 1970s and 1980s—these attempts have come within just two state legislative "applications" of triggering that alternative method.
Of the thirty-three amendments that have been proposed by Congress, six have failed ratification by the required three-quarters of the state legislatures—and four of those six are still technically pending before state lawmakers (see Coleman v. Miller). Starting with the 18th Amendment, each proposed amendment (except the 19th Amendment and the still-pending Child Labor Amendment of 1924) has specified a deadline for passage. The following are the unratified amendments:
Properly placed in a separate category from the other four constitutional amendments that Congress proposed to the states, but which not enough states have approved, are the following two offerings which—because of deadlines—are no longer subject to ratification.
There are currently only a few proposals for amendments which have entered mainstream political debate. These include the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, the Balanced Budget Amendment, and the Flag Desecration Amendment. All three of these proposed amendments are primarily supported by conservatives, but failed during periods of Republican control of Congress to achieve the super majorities necessary for submission to the states. As such none is likely to be proposed under the current Congress, which is controlled by the more liberal Democratic Party.
Last updated by Aaron Oct 8, 2009.