The US constitution, adopted in 1789, is the worldís oldest. It has lasted because it is adaptable and flexible. It both grants and limits power. The constitutionís separation of powers distributes authority among three branches of government: the legislative, executive, and judicial. Checks and balances limit the power of each branch.
The Constitution of the United States grants and limits powers. The framers established a government by ordinary people. They did not anticipate Americans would be so virtuous and civic-minded that they could be trusted to operate a government without checks and balances. The framers were suspicious of people, especially of those having political power, so they separated and distributed the powers of the newly created national government in a variety of ways.
The framers were also concerned with creating a national government strong enough to solve national problems. Thus, they gave the national government substantial grants of power, but these grants were made with such broad strokes that it has been possible for the constitutional system to remain flexible and adapt to changing conditions.
Political parties my sometimes overcome the separation of powers, especially if the same party controls both houses of Congress and the presidency. Typically, this is not the case, however, and a divided government intensifies checks and balances. Presidential power, which has increased over time, has sometimes been able to overcome some restraints imposed by the constitution.
Judicial review is the power of the courts to strike down acts of Congress, the executive branch, and the states as unconstitutional. It is one of the unique features of the U. S. constitutional system.
Although the American governmental system has its roots in British traditions, our separation of and checks-and-balances systems differ sharply from the British system of concentrated power. It is also different because our courts have this power of judicial review. The Supreme Courtís power of judicial review was established in the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison.
The constitutional system has been modified over time, adapting to new conditions through congressional elaboration, presidential practices, customs and usages, and judicial interpretation.
Although adaptable, the Constitution itself needs to be altered from time to time, and the document provides a procedure for its own amendment. An amendment must be both proposed and ratified: proposed by either a two-thirds vote in each chamber of Congress or by a national convention called by Congress on petition of the legislatures in two-thirds of the states; ratified either by the legislatures in three-fourths of the states or by specially called ratifying conventions in three-fourths of the states.
The Constitution has been formally amended 27 times. The usual method has been proposal by a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress and ratification by the legislatures in three-fourths of the states.
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was first introduced in 1923 but did not garner significant support until the 1960s. The National Organization for Women, founded in 1966, focused on passage of the ERA, securing the submission of the amendment to the states by Congress in 1972. However, early overwhelming bipartisan support for the ERA ebbed in the 1970s, and in 1980 the Republican Party adopted a stance of neutrality. Ratification by state legislatures slowed to a trickle as the 1979 time limit on the amendment ran out. Although the deadline was extended to 1982, it was still three state legislatures short of ratification when it expired.
Natural law: Godís or natureís law that defines right from wrong and is higher than human law.
Separation of power: constitutional division of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, with the legislative branch making the law, the executive applying and enforcing the law, and the judicial interpreting the law.
Checks and balances: constitutional grant of powers that enables each of the 3 branches of government to check some acts of the others and therefore ensure that no branch can dominate.
Divided government: governance divided between the parties, especially when one holds the presidency and the other controls one of both houses of Congress.
Direct primary: election in which voters chose party nominees.
Initiative: procedure whereby a certain number of voters may, by petition, propose a law or constitutional amendment and have it submitted to the voters.
Referendum: procedure for submitting to popular vote measures passed by the legislature or proposed amendments to a state constitution.
Recall: procedure for submitting to popular vote the removal of officials from office before the end of their term.
Judicial review: the power of a court to refuse to enforce a law or a government regulation that in the opinion of the judges conflicts with the US constitution or, in a state court, the state constitution.
Writ of mandamus: court order direction an official to perform an official duty.
Impeachment: formal accusation against a public official, the firs step in removal from office.
Executive order: directive issued by a president of governor that has the force of law.
Executive privilege: the power to keep executive communications confidential, especially if they relate to national security.
Impoundment: presidential refusal to allow an agency to spend funds authorized and appropriated by Congress.
Timeline: the living constitution page 28
FYI: the exercises of checks and balances 1789-2003 page 29
Picture of separation of checks and balances: page 30
The European Union: page32
Changing face of US politics: Thurgood Marshall page 34
Marbury versus Madison: page 35
British and American systems a study in contrasts page 37
How should the constitution be interpreted? Page 38
Thinking it through: justice Scalia and justice Brennan on the constitution† page 39
FYI: amending power and how it has been used: the different methods for amendments page 40 and 41
Time taken to ratify different amendments page 41 bottom
People and politics: Gregory Watson page 43