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
Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

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.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Constitutional Law:

Essay Prompt 1:

In at least two to three paragraphs, define constitutional law.

Example: Note that constitutional law handles the relationship between individuals and the federal government.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay of two to three paragraphs that explains the role of the Supreme Court in constitutional law, the role of judicial review, and the functionality of the supremacy clause.

Hint: Consider the 1803 ruling in Marbury v. Madison.

Essay Prompt 3:

In at least one page, write an essay that describes the Bill of Rights and how constitutional laws can both uphold the amendments in the Bill of Rights and limit them.

Example: Consider Schenck v. United States, and why a state or the federal government may need to limit free speech in certain circumstances.

Essay Prompt 4:

Write an essay of at least two pages that explains the role of constitutional law in prosecutions and the attainment of criminal evidence. Be sure to detail the cases of Mapp v. Ohio and Gideon v. Wainwright.

Example: You could begin by explaining due process, and then describe how due process played out in the rulings in Mapp v. Ohio and Gideon v. Wainwright.

Graphic Organizer Prompt:

Create a poster or other type of graphic organizer that depicts the three branches of government. Be sure to note which clause of the Constitution created which branch.

Example: Article I created the legislative branch.

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