United States Constitution – Main Text
Article I of the Constitution contains 10 sections and focuses on the legislative branch. In this article, the Constitution calls for a Congress which is comprised of two separate governing bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Sections 2-4 prescribe the requirements for each member of Congress, states how many members there are to be, and how the elections are to be held. Additionally, these sections explain the process of impeachment.
The article also describes the legislative process (how a bill is proposed then becomes a law). Here, the Constitution tells who must propose a law, how it is voted first in the House of Representatives, then in the Senate, before being presented to the President to accept or veto the law.
Further, the article discusses the powers of Congress including the power to borrow money, maintain a navy, regulate commerce, and more. The next section (9) limits those same powers.
Finally, the article concludes by discussing what powers are denied to the states.
Article II explains the powers provided to the executive branch. There are 4 sections. Section 1 establishes the requirements to be the President. It also sets forth the election process.
Section 2 discusses the power given to the President. This includes military power, setting treaties, and appointing ambassadors and judges.
Section 3 requires the President to provide a report on the state of the Union from time to time.
Section 4 establishes the crimes a President can be impeached for.
In 3 sections, Article III establishes the responsibilities of the Judicial branch.
In this article, the largest takeaway is that there are several courts; a supreme Court and several lesser courts. The Constitution lists the kinds of cases in which the supreme court has original jurisdiction (the case goes straight to the Supreme Court). All other cases by the Supreme Court arrive by appellate jurisdiction (the court was asked to evaluate the decision in a lessor court).
Article IV of the US Constitution establishes the rights granted to the people in each state. This article describes how states are added to the Union. Finally, the article explains that each state is to be governed as a republic.
The process of adding amendments to the US Constitution is described in article V. There are two methods an amendment to the Constitution.
- The Amendment must pass with 2/3rds vote in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Then, the Amendment must be ratified by 3/4ths of the states.
- 3/4ths of the states hold and ratify proposed Amendments.
This article certifies that the Constitution is the “Supreme Law of the Land,” all debts continue to exist, and all representatives should be held under oath to support the Consitution.
Finally, this article says that the ratification (approval) of 9 of the 13 states was enough to make the Constitution official.
The First Amendment is interesting because of how much it protects in a short amount of text. Here, the Amendment protects religion (establishment and free exercise), free speech, a free press, peaceful assembly, and the right to petition the government.
These rights propose several difficult questions. For instance, should the press be given certain privileges so they can be more open in their reporting? The courts have had to answer each question to provide insight into the Constitutional Amendment.
The Second Amendment contains two clauses. The first clause, the prefatory clause, provides a militia because it is necessary for a free state. The second clause is acting, protecting the right to keep and bear arms.
Once again this provides questions. How dependent is the right to keep and bear arms on the fact that there is a well-regulated militia? Is that the only instance where the right to keep and bear arms is protected? Or is it merely providing an example of how we can use weapons? Answering these questions is essential to answering gun control-related debates.
The Third Amendment is slightly easier to understand. In times of war or peace, the government is unable to require citizens to quarter (house) soldiers without their consent. However, during times of war, this may be altered, as “prescribed by law.”
The Fourth Amendment describes what is protected from unreasonable searches and seizures. It also tells us the process for issuing warrants.
People, houses, papers, and effects are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures. With passing time, the courts have also provided other areas some Constitutional protection because of the increase in technology.
A warrant is issued if there is probable cause for a crime. It must be supported by oath or affirmation by a judicial authority. Before it is approved, however, it must describe the places to be searched, “and the persons or things to be seized.”
In summary, a warrant must have a good reason to be issued, provide information about what is to be searched and seized, and be approved by oath or affirmation.
The Fifth Amendment is the first of several Amendments to establish the rights of the criminally accused.
First, a person must be indicted by a jury to be held to answer for a crime. This rule varies for those who are in the military during times of war or public danger.
Second, those who have been accused cannot be charged twice for the same crime. This term is often called “double jeopardy.”
Third, the accused cannot be compelled to witness against themselves. Additionally, there can be no deprivation of life, liberty, or property without the due process of law. That is, ensuring the case works its way through the legal system properly.
Finally, private property cannot be taken for public use if there is no just compensation for the property.
The Sixth Amendment has led to many legal cases concerning the rights of the criminally accused. Below is a list of every protection provided to the criminally accused.
- A speedy trial
- A public trial
- An impartial jury
- Tried in the district where the crime was committed (the district is drawn by law)
- Information is provided concerning the charges
- Witnesses must testify in front of the accused
- The compulsion of obtaining witnesses in favor of the accused is allowed
- Counsel for the defense is provided
Each point has led to several constitutional questions. For instance, a public trial implies that the press can be present at the trial. But what if a trial becomes so public it becomes difficult for the defense to present a case? Are there ways to minimize press distractions without infringing on the right to a public trial?
In suits at common law (if the controversy is more than 20 dollars), there is still a right to trial by jury. Any matter resolved by the jury may not be reexamined by another court unless common law says it can.
The biggest key to understanding this Amendment is to understand the difference between common law and statutory law.
Statutory law is codified (written down). Statutory law is a list of compiled legislation that has been passed by local, state, or federal governments.
Common law, on the other hand, is not codified (written) and can be traced back to England. Instead of relying on rules and statutes from legislation, common law relies on precedent (previous court decisions).
Thus, a right to a jury, and the reexamination of their decisions depends on the precedent established by common law.
The Eighth Amendment protects the convicted from excessive bail, fines, and cruel and unusual punishment.
For the most part, this Amendment is pretty straightforward. Discussions about bail and fines typically lack controversy. However, many cases have sought to understand cruel and unusual punishment in association with capital punishment (the death penalty). The topic can often become very heated. We will address the debate in another article.
The text of the Ninth Amendment states, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
To understand the Amendment the terms “enumeration” and “disparage” needs to be defined.
Enumeration is the act of listing out things one by one.
Disparage is to regard something as having little worth.
This Amendment warns people from saying, “if a right is not listed in the Constitution, the right is not protected.” In other words, the rights listed in the constitution cannot be used to deny or lessen the value of other rights to the people.
Historically, the courts have used this Amendment to protect the right to privacy, a right not listed in any place within the Constitution (although alluded to in the Fourth Amendment).
Finally, the Tenth Amendment states that if power is not given to the federal government by the Constitution, those powers are given to state and local governments. This is true unless the Constitution prohibits States from having certain powers.