Document that defined the structure and powers of the U.S. national government.
The U.S. Constitution was created in an effort to design a workable, strong national government for the American states that had freed themselves from the British Empire through the Revolutionary War. The Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation
Article I of the Constitution describes the structure and powers of Congress
The U.S. Constitution was first printed in The Pennsylvania Packet, a daily newspaper, on September 19, 1787.
The Constitution also specifies that Supreme Court justices shall be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Because justices may serve on the Court for decades, the selection of a Court member is often one of a president’s most important decisions. Most presidents are able to appoint at least one justice to the Court, but some presidents, including President Jimmy Carter, are never able to appoint a justice because no one on the Court dies, retires, or resigns during their term in office.
Article IV of the Constitution discusses the obligations of states to each other, such as respecting each other’s court judgments.
The original Constitution was amended twenty-seven times. The first ten amendments, called the Bill of Rights
Because the Constitution was drafted by an assembly of representatives from various states, its wording is the product of negotiation and compromise. Therefore, many of the document’s words and phrases are ambiguous. Even those phrases whose meaning appears to be relatively clear may require interpretation when they are applied to unanticipated situations. It falls to the Court to take primary responsibility for interpreting and applying the Constitution. The Court is given opportunities to interpret the Constitution when legal cases are brought forward involving disputes about the Constitution’s meaning. Typically these cases involve either a challenge to the exercise of power by a government agency or a claim that a government employee, such as a police officer or prosecutor, has violated the rights of an individual. These questions about the Constitution’s meaning are given initial decisions by lower federal courts or by state courts before they reach the Supreme Court. The Court has authority to pick and choose which constitutional issues to decide. If the Court does not wish to decide an issue, it simply leaves intact the prior decision by a lower federal or state court.
Justices often disagree with one another about how the Constitution
In contrast, Chief Justice Earl Warren believed that the meaning of the Constitution can change as society changes. Warren and several of his colleagues believed that the Constitution embodies ideals of human dignity that are flexible enough to adapt to new situations that arise in society. Therefore, in Trop v. Dulles
The nature of the constitutional questions brought to the Court changed along with American society, according to the particular controversies that affected government and society at different moments in history. During the first eighty years of the Constitution’s history, the Court faced significant questions about the constitutional provisions defining the powers of government. The constitutional governing system of the United States was, in effect, an experiment. It was uncertain whether the scheme of government established by the Constitution would succeed and endure. The Court helped solidify the success of the Constitution through decisions addressing disputes about governmental powers. In McCulloch v. Maryland
The Court’s decision in Marbury v. Madison
The Court cannot solve all disputes about governmental power through its interpretations of the Constitution. Some disputes are worked out through political conflicts between the legislative and executive branches of government. During the Civil War
At the close of the Civil War, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments (the Civil War Amendments
In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the Court faced many issues concerning economic regulation and social welfare. Many new social problems developed as the country experienced significant industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Federal and state governments responded to these problems by enacting legislation to protect workers. However, the Court used its power of judicial review to systematically invalidate laws mandating minimum wages, laws establishing permissible working hours, and laws intended to limit the exploitation of child laborers. For example, in Hammer v. Dagenhart
After the 1930’s, the Court took a more active interest in interpreting the constitutional amendments that established rights for individuals. In a series of cases over the course of several decades, the Court applied most of the provisions of the Bill of Rights against the states by declaring that they had been incorporated into the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment
In the final decades of the twentieth century, the Court’s composition changed in a conservative
The Constitution provided the design for the U.S. system of government. On its own, however, the Constitution could not ensure that the government would be durable and workable. The Court made major contributions to the stability and workability enjoyed by the Constitution through its decisions interpreting the document in order to define the powers of government and clarify the extent to which individuals possess protected constitutional rights.
A detailed history of constitutional law is presented in Melvin Urofsky’s A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the United States (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988). Detailed examinations of Court decisions interpreting the Constitution are found in Daniel Farber, William Eskridge, and Philip Frickey’s Constitutional Law: Themes for the Constitution’s Third Century (St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1993) and Gerald Gunther’s Constitutional Law (11th ed., Mineola, N.Y.: Foundation Press, 1985). The theories and approaches employed by the Court justices in interpreting the Constitution are discussed in John H. Garvey and T. Alexander Aleinikoff’s Modern Constitutional Theory (3d ed., St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1994) and Michael McCann and Gerald Houseman’s Judging the Constitution (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1989). The personal stories of individual citizens who took their constitutional claims all the way to the Supreme Court are presented in Peter Irons’s The Courage of Their Convictions (New York: Free Press, 1988) and Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy’s In Our Defense: The Bill of Rights in Action (New York: William Morrow, 1991). The procedures and processes used by the Court in interpreting the Constitution are discussed in David O’Brien’s Storm Center: The Supreme Court in American Politics (2d ed., New York: W. W. Norton, 1990).
Articles of Confederation
Bill of Rights
Black, Hugo L.
Race and discrimination
Rule of law
States’ rights and state sovereignty