Constitutions. It is a brief sketch of the structure of government. It limits government by setting boundaries.

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1 Constitutions What is a constitution? A constitution is the fundamental law of a state by which a system of government is created and from which it derives its power and authority. The fundamental law of a state, written or unwritten, which organizes government, assigns and limits power, and clarifies the relationship between people and their political leaders. It is a brief sketch of the structure of government. It limits government by setting boundaries. Characteristics of a Constitution: It establishes a foundation of law. It establishes a framework of government. It establishes ground rules. It establishes a relationship between the people and their government. It assigns the powers and duties of government agencies and officials. It empowers the government. What is the function of a constitution? A constitution gives permanence and stability to the government created by it. Types of Constitutions: There are two types of constitutions - written and unwritten. Written Constitution 1

2 A written constitution is a single document that incorporates the basic order of the state. The United States and the fifty states have a written constitution. However unwritten customs and court interpretations have unofficially been added to the constitution. For example, any act or duty that any one of the three branches of government adopt that is not challenged is considered a custom. Examples: Judicial Review Political Parties Presidential Cabinet Unwritten Constitution: An unwritten constitution is based on tradition, customs, historical precedents and common law. England has an unwritten constitution. The Constitution of the United States of America Characteristics The United States Constitution is the oldest and most successful national constitution in history. It has served the nation with remarkable little formal alterations during periods of rapid social change. The main body of the United States Constitution consists of a preamble and seven articles. The Preamble 2

3 The preamble states the aims and purposes for which the constitution was written. It is so worded, that not even the passage of time has made it necessary to add or delete a single word. It is important to note that, as the preamble states, the Constitution was written in the name of the people and intended to serve the people. Article I Article I deals with the legislative branch of the national government. It prescribes the structure of Congress, the methods of selecting its members, terms of office, qualifications for membership, and other organizational features. Equally important are the enumeration of powers of Congress, stipulations concerning procedure, and specific limitations on the powers of Congress and the states. The framers of the Constitution envisioned the Congress as the most important and most powerful branch of government. Article I is the longest and most detailed of the Articles contained within the Constitution. Article II Article II is devoted to the executive branch, in particular the Presidency and the Vice Presidency. Article III The subject matter of Article III is the national judiciary. Article IV 3

4 This Article deals with relationships among states, admission of states to the Union, territorial governments and the responsibilities of the federal government to the states. Article V Article V prescribes the process of formal amendment of the united States Constitution. A single permanent limitation on the amending agencies is included... no state may be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate without its consent. Article VI The most important provision of this Article establishes the supremacy of the Constitution, national laws, and treaties over conflicting provisions of state constitutions and laws. Article VII The final Article, VII, is known as the schedule. It merely provided that the Constitution was to become in effect when ratified by the conventions of nine states. Separation of Powers The division of government powers into separate legislative, executive, and judicial branches. The Constitution does not, however, call for a complete separation of powers. For example, both the president and congress are involved in passing legislation. 4

5 Check and Balances A distribution of powers in which one branch of government exercises some control over the other. This is to prevent any one of the three branches of the national government from becoming too powerful. The Constitution creates a system of separate institutions that share powers. Because the three branches of government share powers, each can check the powers of the others. This is the system of checks and balances. The major checks possessed by each branch are listed below. The Legislature (Congress) can check the president in these ways: 1. repassing vetoed bills by a two-thirds vote of each house. 2. by refusing to pass a bill the president wants. 3. by using the impeachment powers to remove the president from office. (the House may impeach and the Senate tries the President) 4. by refusing to confirm a presidential appointment. (Senate) 5. by refusing to ratify a treaty the president has signed. (Senate) can check the judicial branch in these ways: 1. by changing the number and jurisdiction of the lower courts. 2. by using the impeachment powers to remove a judge from office. 3. by refusing to confirm a person nominated to be a judge. (Senate) 4. increasing or decreasing the number of Supreme Court Justices. 5. by proposing amendments that, if adopted, can cancel Supreme Court decisions. The Executive (President) can check the legislative branch: 5

6 1. vetoing bills passed by Congress. 2. by calling a special session of Congress. 3. by sending messages to Congress. 4. by distributing patronage. 5. by using the prestige of his office through the news media to put pressure on Congress. can check the judicial branch: 1. by nominating all federal judges with the consent of the Senate. 2. by granting pardons and reprieves in cases involving offenses against the United States except in the case of impeachment. The Judicial Branch can check the legislature: 1. by declaring laws to be unconstitutional. can check the executive: 1. by declaring executive acts unconstitutional. 2. as the Chief Justice of the United States supreme Court presides at the impeachment trial of a President. The House v. the Senate: all bills must pass both houses of the Congress in identical form. A bare majority in one house can completely cancel legislation approved overwhelmingly by either house. The legislature (Congress) and the states: can check the judicial branch by amending the Constitution. The system of checks and balances prevents the creation of a dictatorship by making one branch of government responsible to the other two. 6

7 It protects the individual rights of citizens and insures the continuance of a system of government that reflects the will of the people, and not that of one particular group or individual. Judicial Review The power of the courts to declare laws and executive actions unconstitutional. The authority is not directly stated in the United States Constitution. In Marbury v. Madison, the United States Supreme Court held for the first time that an act of the United States Congress was unconstitutional thereby establishing the concept of judicial review. The Supremacy Clause Article VI of the United States Constitution clearly states that national and state officials must enforce the constitution, treaties and laws of the United States over conflicting state constitutions or laws. 1. The United States Constitution 2. Laws and Treaties of the United States 3. State Constitutions 4. State laws 5. Local laws The Amending Process Article V of the United States Constitution establishes the amending process. The amending process involves two steps: 1. Proposal State: Congress proposes amendments. 2. Ratification Stage: The states ratify them. There are two methods for each stage. Proposal State: 7

8 1. A two-thirds vote of each house of Congress. OR 2. A national convention called by congress on the application of twothirds of the states. (This method has never been used.) Ratification Stage: 1. Ratified by legislatures of three-fourths of the states. OR 2. Ratified by conventions in three-fourth of the states. The Twenty- First Amendment was the only amendment ratified by this method. 8

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