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Education

Government 101: The Constitution

A summary of the Constitution of the United States of America

The U.S. Constitution, written in 1787 and ratified in 1788, outlines the structure of America’s federal government. It also guarantees the states and people certain rights. The text of the Constitution is contained within seven Articles and twenty­seven Amendments. For more background information on the Constitution, click here.

I. The Constitution (1789)

  • A) Articles 1­-3: Branches, Checks, and Balances

The first three articles of the Constitution establish three branches of government with specific powers: Executive (headed by the President), Legislative (Congress) and Judicial (Supreme Court). Power is separated and shared. Each branch can check other branches’ actions or balance the actions of other branches with their own actions. There are two forms of powers: express and implied. Express powers are granted in the Constitution. Implied powers are derived from those express powers or the branch’s role.

The table below outlines several powers of the federal government, who exercise them, and who exercises them.

Executive (Article 1)Legislative (Article 2)Judicial (Article 3)
Create LawsThe president may sign or veto a law (subject to a 2/3rds vote in congress).The courts may find laws unconstitutional.
Execute LawsCongress oversees the executive bureaucracy.The courts may find executive actions unauthorized.
Interpret LawsThe president nominates federal judges.The senate confirms judicial appointments.
Nominate OfficialsThe senate reviews many appointments.
Impeach Officials
Create TreatiesThe senate must ratify treaties.
BudgetThe president must sign a budget, like other laws.

  • B) Articles 4,6, and 7: Relationships Between the State and Federal Government

Article IV
  • Full Faith and Credit: each state must recognize certain privileges of other states’ citizens (like drivers licenses)
  • Extradition
  • Formation of new states
Article VIThe “supremacy” clause: the Constitution and federal laws take priority over state laws
Article VIIHow the states ratify the Constitution

II. How to Change the Constitution

Under Article V, there are two ways to propose amendments to the Constitution and two ways to ratify them.

  1. To propose an amendment
    • a. Two­-thirds of both houses of Congress vote to propose an amendment, or
    • b. Two­-thirds of the state legislatures ask Congress to call a national convention to propose amendments.
  2. To ratify (vote for and adopt) an amendment
    • a. Three­-fourths of the state legislatures approve it, or
    • b. Ratifying conventions in three­fourths of the states approve it.
    • Other Information
      • Only the first method of proposing an amendment has been used.
      • The second method of ratification has been used only once, to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment (repealing Prohibition).
      • Congress may limit the time within which a proposed amendment must be ratified. The usual limitation has been seven years.
      • Thousands of proposals have been made, but only thirty­three have obtained the necessary two­thirds vote in Congress.
      • Twenty seven amendments have been ratified.

III) Important Changes to the Constitution

Amendments 1­-10 are known collectively as the Bill of Rights. They were ratified on December 15, 1791, as additional rights protections

Protections

Amendment 1Freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly; the right to petition the government.
Amendment 2Right to bear arms
Amendment 3Troops may not be quartered in homes in peacetime
PROTECTIONS AGAINST ARBITRARY POLICE AND COURT ACTION
Amendment 4No unreasonable searches or seizures.
Amendment 5 Procedures for criminal prosecutions:
  • Grand Jury indictment required for felony charges in federal court
  • Double jeopardy clause prevents a person from being tried twice for the same crime
  • A defendant cannot be forced to testify. “Plead the fifth”
Amendment 6Right to speedy, public, impartial trial by jury with defense counsel and right to cross­-examine witnesses.
Amendment 7Civil jury trials in federal cases
Amendment 8No excessive bail or fines, no cruel and unusual punishment
PROTECTIONS OF STATES' RIGHTS AND UNNAMED RIGHTS OF PEOPLE
Amendment 9Unlisted rights are not necessarily denied
Amendment 10Powers not delegated to the United States or denied to the states are reserved to the states

See additional amendments information at The Amendments to the Constitution (from Project Vote Smart).

Constitutional Vocabulary

Bill of Attainder
- A legislative act that declares the guilt of an individual and doles out punishment without a judicial trial. The state legislatures and Congress are forbidden by Article 1, sections 9 and 10 of the Constitution to pass such acts. This is an important ingredient of the separation of powers.

Executive Privilege
- The claimed right of executive officials to refuse to appear before, or to withhold information from, the legislature or courts on the grounds that the information is confidential and would damage the national interest. For example, President Nixon refused, unsuccessfully, to surrender his subpoenaed White House tapes by claiming executive privilege.

Executive Order
This critical instrument of active presidential power is nowhere defined in the Constitution but generally is construed as a presidential directive that becomes law without prior congressional approval. The power for the executive order is implied in Article II of the Constitution when it allots "executive power" to the president:

"The executive power shall be vested in a president of the United States of America." - Article II, section 1

"[The President] shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed..." - Article II, section 3

Double Jeopardy
- The guarantee in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution that one may not be tried twice for the same crime. For example, an individual declared not guilty of murdering a neighbor cannot be tried again for that murder. The person is not, however, exempt from being tried for the murder of another individual.

Habeus Corpus
- A court order directing a police officer, sheriff, or warden who has a person in custody to bring the prisoner before a judge and show sufficient cause for his or her detention. Designed to prevent illegal arrests and unlawful imprisonment. A Latin term meaning "you shall have the body".

Impeachment
- A formal accusation against a public official by the lower house of a legislative body. Impeachment is merely an accusation and not a conviction. Two presidents have been impeached, Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Neither was convicted. In the case of Johnson, the Senate failed by one vote to obtain the necessary two-thirds vote required for conviction. In the case of Clinton, fifty senators voted for conviction, again missing the two-thirds requirement.

Ex Post Facto Law
- A law that makes criminal an act that was legal when it was committed, or that increases the penalty for a crime after it has been committed, or that changes the rules of evidence to make conviction easier; a retroactive criminal law. A Latin term meaning "after the fact." The state legislatures and Congress are forbidden to pass such laws by Article I, section 9 and 10 of the Constitution.

Other Sources of Information:

The Constitution of the United States Site contains the actual text of the Constitution as well as links to information on the Founding Fathers, the 39 Delegates who signed the Constitution, an in-depth look at the Constitutional Convention and the ratification process, and questions and answers pertaining to the Constitution. Online from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

About the Constitution History and background on the Constitution, as well as the Articles of Confederation. Online from the Library of Congress.

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