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What Is Constitutional Law? - Definition & Example

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  • 1:24 Establishing Our…
  • 2:40 Judicial Review
  • 3:20 The Supremacy Clause
  • 4:06 Bill of Rights
  • 5:39 Constitutional Rights…
  • 7:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

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

The U.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.

Judicial Review

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.

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