wiseGEEK: What is Constitutional Law?
Constitutional law relates to the study, practice, interpretation and administration of laws set forth by a country’s constitution. In the US, for example, the US Constitution is the basis for all constitutional law. Any legal subjects that deal with constitutional rights or violations are a part of this field.
Experts in constitutional law may participate in cases that seem to be in clear violation of the constitution. Additionally, such experts may also participate in lobbying to change or amend existing laws if they seem to conflict with a nation’s views. Generally, cases involving the US Constitution are heard by the US Supreme Court. The justices then write opinions or judgments based on their interpretation of the law.
In the US, efforts to change the Constitution are often met with resistance or alternately with support. For example, it has been suggested that the Constitution be changed to more clearly define marriage as between a man and a woman. Activists who wish homosexuals to be able to marry find this a clear violation of their rights. Those opposed to gay marriage support the change in the wording of the law.
Though it would seem that constitutional law is a static field, it is clearly not so, evidenced by this example. In fact, the law is flexible and the US Constitution has undergone many changes and amendments. Initially, the document had seven articles, with further changes or additions being called amendments. The articles are still listed, but since the ratification of the US Constitution, 27 amendments have been added. The most recent amendment was the 27th Amendment, added in 1992, limiting pay raises for members of Congress.
Since the initial writing of the constitution, however, over 10,000 amendments have been proposed. As such, constitutional law and its interpretation are constantly subject to scrutiny. It is possible, though difficult, to amend the Constitution. Some landmark amendments to the Constitution that have changed the way the US administers the law are the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and the 26th Amendment, which made it illegal to stop anyone over 18 from voting.
Since the full text of each article and further amendments are written in terms that are frequently subject to interpretation, the way in which the Constitution is administered can be swayed by the politics of each US Supreme Court Justice. In general, Republican justices tend to more conservatively view constitutional law. Democratic justices are likely to take a more liberal view.
This is not always the case, however, and sometimes, a Supreme Court justice will draft opinions on laws that are not in keeping with the politics of the president who appointed him or her. Justices spend a great deal of time studying the law, and opinions can change over time. Especially since a Supreme Court justice has a lifetime appointment, it is not unusual for a gradual shift in interpretations of constitutional law to occur.
8) I think that a main point some people miss while conversing about constitutional law is that it is studied on many different levels besides just the federal system here in the United States.
Many very specific experts in the subject exist for the sole purpose of studying state constitutional law. These lawyers and educated experts will often spend years dedicated to their specific state’s documents.
Beyond this there are of course foreign constitutional law experts as well in different countries with completely different constitutions to study. Sometimes people forget that we are not the only nation with a federal constitution.
7) @fitness234, what amendments would you propose that we pass? I think that constitutional law is so complicated as it is that the more we add to this very cumbersome document the harder it will be for the public and our courts to interpret what the intention and effect the new amendment would have.
The problem we face with government today is the over-regulation of everyday functions in life that have no need for government interference.
I realize that I might sound like a hard-line libertarian but I assure you that we need to take heed when we pass such a strongly backed part of our legal system.
Laws can be changed fairly easily and even more so they can be deemed inappropriate or illegal in the court of law but to overturn or remove a constitutional amendment is a monumental task.
Prohibition is a good example of this. A failed experiment that should have been accomplished through a normal legislative process was a hotbed topic that riled enough support for a full amendment process to our most precious legal document.
The onset of alcohol prohibition with the 18th amendment to the constitution ushered in an era of organized crime and headaches for the population, so much so that the 21st amendment was passed to repeal it.
Perhaps if the lawmakers had consulted more so with constitutional law experts then we could have avoided so many issues with the complications that are brought in the amendment process.
6) I find it interesting that there have been so many proposed amendments within the past couple hundred years of our existence. 10,000 is a lot and I am sure that is why we have a whole field of experts on constitutional law.
It is somewhat funny to me that the last amendment to actually pass all the way through our legislative branch is a limitation on the pay raises of our elected officials. It seems so trivial of a subject and it surprises me that it took over two hundred years to create a cap of that kind.
Either politicians were corrupt from the start and it took that long to fix the issue or over time they became more and more affected by the lobbying machine.
Either way around it there are still issues with political corruption and while I appreciate the law makers showing some self-restraint I think there are some issues that should be hashed out and possibly even a few constitutional amendments passed.
5) Through all the hard times, bad economy, corrupt politicians and general malaise that can depress one in our modern times, there is hope to be found within our constitution. Those that study the intricacies that make up our costituional law are today’s modern freedom fighters.
Some people find it hard to think of an attorney or lawyer as a freedom fighter but I assure you there are hard-working men and women out there that have devoted their life and studies to constitutional law.
The mere fact that so much effort and work goes into studying such a document speaks to the quality and flexibility that exists within the system it outlines.
4) Great article- I just want to say that I agree with the stance that a Supreme Court justice changes his or her view points over time.
For example, Justice Souter who was appointed by George H. Bush in 1990 was originally thought to have conservative leanings. At least that was the opinion and the hope of George H Bush who was a conservative republican president.
However, Justice Souter was known as a progressive justice often voting with a more liberal stance. The same thing happened in 1975, when then President Gerald Ford appointed Justice Stevens to the bench.
President Gerald Ford thought that Stevens was a moderate pick and would generally serve the conservative cause. This was not the case, as again Justice Stevens like Justice Souter voted in favor of liberal ideas and causes rather than the conservative ones as their Presidents’ had hoped.