U.S. Constitution For Dummies book cover

U.S. Constitution For Dummies

Published: June 19, 2018

Overview

Your complete guide to understanding the U.S. Constitution.

Want to make sense of the U.S. Constitution? This new edition walks you through this revered document, explaining how the articles and amendments came to be and how they have guided legislators, judges, and presidents—and sparked ongoing debates along the way. You’ll get the lowdown on all the big issues—from separation of church and state to impeachment to civil rights—that continue to affect Americans' daily lives. Plus, you’ll find out about U.S. Constitution concepts and their origins, the different approaches to interpretation, and how the document has changed over the past 200+ years.

Inside, you’ll find fresh examples of Supreme Court Rulings such as same sex marriage and Healthcare Acts such as Obamacare. Explore hot topics like what it takes to be elected Commander in Chief, the functions of the House and Senate, how Supreme Court justices are appointed, and so much more.

  • Trace the evolution of the Constitution
  • Recognize the power of the U.S. Supreme Court
  • Get details on recent Supreme Court decisions
  • Find new examples of the Bill of Rights

Constitutional issues are dominating the news—and now you can join the discussion with the help of U.S. Constitution For Dummies

Your complete guide to understanding the U.S. Constitution.

Want to make sense of the U.S. Constitution? This new edition walks you through this revered document, explaining how the articles and amendments came to be and how they have guided legislators, judges, and presidents—and sparked ongoing debates along the way. You’ll get the lowdown on all the big issues—from separation of church and state to impeachment to civil rights—that continue to affect Americans' daily lives. Plus, you’ll find out about U.S. Constitution concepts and their origins, the different approaches to interpretation, and how the document has changed over the past 200+

years.

Inside, you’ll find fresh examples of Supreme Court Rulings such as same sex marriage and Healthcare Acts such as Obamacare. Explore hot topics like what it takes to be elected Commander in Chief, the functions of the House and Senate, how Supreme Court justices are appointed, and so much more.

  • Trace the evolution of the Constitution
  • Recognize the power of the U.S. Supreme Court
  • Get details on recent Supreme Court decisions
  • Find new examples of the Bill of Rights

Constitutional issues are dominating the news—and now you can join the discussion with the help of U.S. Constitution For Dummies

US Constitution For Dummies Cheat Sheet

The US Constitution was written and signed by men who craved independence from Britain but who were nonetheless steeped in its history and ideals. The document starts with some basic precepts of English governance, but then adds some uniquely American twists — three branches of government that act to check and balance each other, for example. Although much thought went into the Constitution, the framers left it open to amendment. The first ten amendments were ratified just four years after the Constitution itself and are known as the Bill of Rights.

Articles From The Book

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American History Articles

Roe v. Wade and other Supreme Court decisions on abortion

The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022, ending nearly 50 years of a woman's constitutional right to abortion. The decision allows individual states the ability to set their own abortion laws, banning or restricting the procedure as they see fit. The nation was expecting the landmark decision due to a leaked draft of the Supreme Court's deliberations in the related case Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. The leaked document, obtained by news outlet Politico on May 3, 2022, indicated the court's plans to overturn Roe v. Wade. At the time of the leak, about 50 states were poised to ban or severely restrict abortion, following the expected ruling.

The history of Roe v. Wade

Before the court's decision in 2022, Roe v. Wade had been the litmus test for confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court bench. No judge who came out openly against Roe v. Wade was likely to be confirmed. In the 1973 case, the Supreme Court ruled 7–2 that women have the right to an abortion, at least during the first trimester of pregnancy. The court characterized abortion as a “fundamental” constitutional right, which means that any law aiming to restrict it is subject to the standard of strict scrutiny. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1982), the high court modified Roe by giving the state the right to regulate an abortion, even in the first trimester, as long as that regulation doesn’t pose an “undue burden” on the woman’s fundamental right to an abortion. One such “undue burden” identified in Casey was any requirement for the woman to notify her husband. A Texas law that placed certain restrictions on abortion clinics in the state was struck down by the Supreme Court, in a 5–3 vote, as placing an “undue burden” on abortion rights in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (2016). In Stormans Inc. v. Wiesman (2016), a five-justice majority on the court refused to hear a challenge to a Washington state law making it illegal for pharmacists to refuse to dispense contraceptive drugs. In a dissent, Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote: “This case is an ominous sign … If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern.”

American History Articles

When and Why the U.S. Constitution Was Created

The Constitution emerged from a meeting called the Philadelphia Convention, which took place in 1787. (That meeting has since come to be known also as the Constitutional Convention.) The Convention was held because the Articles of Confederation — the document that had been serving as the country’s first governing constitution — were considered to be weak and problematic. The stated goal of the Convention was to revise the Articles of Confederation, but the outcome was much more than a mere revision: It was a new form of government. See the figure for a look at a scene from the Convention. The 55 delegates to the Philadelphia Convention came to be known as the Framers of the Constitution. They represented 12 of the 13 states (Rhode Island didn’t send a delegate), and they included some familiar names, such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. The Convention lasted from May 25 to September 17, 1787. In the end, only 39 of the 55 delegates actually signed the Constitution. Three delegates refused to sign it, and the rest had left the Convention before the signing took place. For the Constitution to take effect, it had to be ratified — or confirmed — by nine states. Special conventions were summoned in each state, and the Delaware, New Jersey, and Georgia conventions ratified the Constitution unanimously. But some of the other states saw a pretty fierce battle for ratification. In New York, for example, the Constitution was ratified only by 30 votes to 27. Ratification was achieved in 1788, and the Constitution took effect with the swearing in of President George Washington and Vice President John Adams on April 30, 1789.

American History Articles

How the U.S. Constitution Is Interpreted

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes famously remarked that, “We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the judges say it is, and the judiciary is the safeguard of our liberty and our property under the Constitution.” The Chief Justice was right to point out that the meaning of the Constitution keeps changing as a result of judicial interpretation and reinterpretation, without any change in the words on paper.

Changing the Constitution

Hughes was not criticizing the courts for this process but was actually praising them. Not everyone would agree with this view. Here are some of the reasons for opposing judicial changes to the Constitution:
  • Article V of the Constitution makes it clear that the only way that the Constitution can be changed is by formal amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures.
  • The Framers deliberately made amendment difficult, so that any change would command broad general support.
  • The Supreme Court justices are unelected, are appointed for life, and are removable only by impeachment. This means that the justices are independent and not answerable to the electorate or to anybody else.
  • Supreme Court justices who interpret the Constitution in ways that depart from the text are effectively rewriting that document by imposing their own views on it.
The reply to these points is along the following lines:
  • The Constitution was mostly written more than 200 years ago. It’s impossible to get back to the original intention of the Framers — even if we wanted to.
  • To remain relevant and meaningful, the Constitution must be interpreted afresh by each new generation, as a “living Constitution.”
  • This process of interpretation in the light of changing political, social, and moral values doesn’t amount to unauthorized amendment but is needed to make sense of the Constitution and to apply it to the modern age.

Identifying methods of interpretation

The classification of the different schools of constitutional interpretation is messy, to say the least. But here’s a bird’s-eye view of the main divisions:
  • Living Constitution: This school of thought sees the Constitution as a living and breathing document that must be interpreted and reinterpreted according to society’s changing needs. On the present Supreme Court, Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor generally adhere to this approach. As Justice Breyer puts it, the Constitution’s values don’t change, but they “must be applied to a world that changes every five minutes.” And: “George Washington did not know about the Internet, but he did know about free speech. And the values of free speech have to apply to today’s world that includes an Internet.” The late Justice Antonin Scalia attacked this approach as undemocratic by wanting “matters to be decided not by the people, but by the justices of the Supreme Court.”
  • Strict constructionism: This label is used to refer to a literal approach to constitutional interpretation. Thomas Jefferson favored this approach, which took a narrow view of the powers of the federal government as against the states. Chief Justice William Rehnquist was often described as a strict constructionist, as are Justices Clarence Thomas and Scalia. Scalia rejected the label. “Strict constructionism,” explained Scalia, “is a degraded form of textualism that brings the whole philosophy into disrepute. I am not a strict constructionist, and no one ought to be — though better that, I suppose, than a nontextualist. A text should not be construed strictly, and it should not be construed leniently; it should be construed reasonably, to contain all that it fairly means.”

Scalia went on to provide an illuminating example from the criminal case of Smith v. United States (1993). The question before the Supreme Court was whether Mr. Smith had “used” a firearm in the course of committing a drug-related crime. Smith had wished to buy some cocaine, for which he had offered an unloaded gun in payment. Did this amount to “using” a gun in connection with the drug trafficking offense? The majority on the Court, made up of six justices, were satisfied that it did. Scalia dissented and explained his dissent as follows: “The phrase ‘uses a gun’ fairly connoted use of a gun for what guns are normally used for, that is, as a weapon. When you ask someone ‘Do you use a cane?’ you are not inquiring whether he has hung his grandfather’s antique cane as a decoration in the hallway.”

  • Textualism: Judges who are referred to by politicians and the media as strict constructionists nowadays tend to prefer to be regarded as textualists, formalists, or originalists. These labels are not identical, but they overlap to a considerable extent. Originalism is essentially an approach to the Constitution, while textualism is concerned with other legislation. So, there is no contradiction between being both a textualist and an originalist. Scalia referred to himself as “first of all a textualist, and secondly an originalist.”

Textualists are also often regarded as conservatives (check out Figure 3-1 for a picture of liberal and conservative justices), but there is some confusion here. Conservative judges normally have a certain reverence for stare decisis — the doctrine of binding precedent, that courts should adhere to previous decisions. But what should a textualist do when his reading of the Constitution disagrees with a previous Supreme Court decision? In those circumstances, some of them, like Thomas, tend to jettison stare decisis. Scalia is on record as remarking: “Clarence Thomas doesn’t believe in stare decisis, period. If a constitutional line of authority is wrong, he would say, let’s get it right. I wouldn’t do that.”

  • Originalism: This term is now applied to several different shades of legal opinion, which share the view that the Constitution had a clear and definite meaning at the time it was drafted and that to interpret the Constitution, a court must get back to that original meaning.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee who took his seat in April 2017, has been described as a textualist in statutory interpretation and an originalist in regard to constitutional interpretation. He is also known to be an advocate of natural law, having written his Oxford doctoral dissertation on assisted suicide and euthanasia (he is against both). In Gorsuch’s first criminal case as a Supreme Court Justice, his vote tipped the scales against eight death row inmates from Arkansas who were petitioning the Court for a stay of execution in McGehee v. Hutchinson (2017). Gorsuch wasn’t swayed by Justice Breyer’s impassioned plea in support of a stay of execution on the ground that “Apparently the reason the State decided to proceed with these eight executions is that the ‘use by’ date of the State’s execution drug is about to expire.”

The most influential branch of this school of thought, claiming adherents such as Scalia, stresses original meaning at the expense of original intent — the meaning of the text as it would have been understood by a reasonable person at the time it was drafted, rather than some secret purpose that the Framers may have had. Critics of this approach have pooh-poohed as unrealistic the attempt to recapture the meaning of a text as it was understood more than 200 years ago.

The sight of judges beating one another over the head with old dictionaries can be entertaining. In 1994, Scalia, relying on a raft of dictionaries, ruled that the word modify meant no more than “to make minor changes.” He rejected the argument, based on Webster’s Third New International Dictionary published in 1976, that modify could also refer to the making of major or fundamental changes.

If this is the sort of mess a court can get into on the basis of word meanings of the late 20th century, how easy can it be to reach the original meaning of texts drafted in the late 18th century? Interpreting the Constitution on the basis of its meaning at the time it was written sure makes sense. The problem may be that none of the high court justices were trained as a historian, a linguist, or a philologist.