Major Changes to Constitutional Law

Major Changes to Constitutional Law

( – Our Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution to establish the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government and their responsibilities. Major changes to the Constitution and the law it represents have come from amendments or through rulings from the Supreme Court.

The Bill of Rights encompasses the first 10 amendments. It was generally meant as a check on government actions against the individual or states. There are now a total of 27 amendments.

Change by Amendment

The Founders understood that the Constitution needed to be a living document, capable of change. They developed a process to change it by adding amendments. They intentionally made the process difficult to discourage changes at the whim of whichever political party held power. The requisite steps were laid out in Article V of the main document.

An amendment is proposed upon a two-thirds vote of each chamber of Congress or if two-thirds of the total number of states request it. Once proposed, it requires ratification by three-quarters of the states. Typically, the wording of an amendment establishes an end date for the process, but that is not required. Some issues solved through amendment include:

  • The abolition of slavery.
  • Changing the voting process to include women, black people, and citizens 18 years old and above.
  • Prohibiting the manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages and then, in the only amendment of its kind to date, repealing it.

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS)

Article III of the Constitution established the bare-bones idea of the judiciary that created the Supreme Court but left it up to Congress as to how to organize it and decide what other courts would make up the federal system. The Constitution gave the SCOTUS the power to review and interpret all laws and to be the court of original jurisdiction in a limited number of cases.

Over the centuries, the justices have heard many cases and decided legislative interpretation. Only a relative handful have been meaningful enough to change the way we conduct business daily. Here are a few of those cases:

Brown v. Board of Education (1954) – in a somewhat unusual move, the court revisited an earlier case, (1896) Plessy v. Ferguson, as it pertained to this one. The earlier decision had said that as long as equal accommodations were provided, they could be divided by race. In this latest case, the court reversed itself and ruled that separate is inherently unequal.

Miranda v. Arizona (1966) – this is the case that sparked the phrase that is so often heard in police procedural TV shows and movies, “read him his rights.” At issue was the idea that it was unreasonable to expect the average person to know and understand all the legal rights they have. Because police officers and prosecutors could use that ignorance to their unfair advantage, they were ordered to advise a person before any questioning.

Mapp v. Ohio (1961) – the fourth amendment is the one that establishes certain procedures that any government agency must go through before searching a person or their property, including getting a warrant. Police searched Mapp’s house and discovered — at that time — illegal material but had never produced the required paperwork. SCOTUS determined that evidence obtained in this manner could not be used at trial.

It’s been more than two centuries since the Constitution was ratified, and the High Court still receives requests to review roughly 7000 cases every year. It agrees to review between 100 and 150 cases each term. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is credited with saying “the only constant in life is change.” That appears to be very apropos when it comes to the law in America.

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