Prior to the adoption of the Constitution, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles, almost all functions of the national government were vested in a single chamber legislature called Congress. There was no separation of executive and legislative powers. The absence of a national judiciary was considered a major weakness of the Articles of Confederation. Consequently, the delegates gathered at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 expressed widespread agreement that a national judiciary should be established. The drafting and ratification of the Constitution reflected a growing
consensus that the federal government needed to be strengthened. The legal system was one of the areas where this was done. Most significant was the “supremacy clause,” found in Article VI:
“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme
Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding. “
This paragraph established the first principle of American law:
Where the federal Constitution speaks, no state may contradict it.
Left unclear was how this prohibition might apply to the federal government itself, and the role of the individual state legal systems in areas not expressly addressed by the new Constitution.
The Constitutional Convention and Article III
The first proposal presented to the Constitutional Convention was the Virginia Plan, which would have setup both a Supreme Court and inferior federal courts. Opponents of the Virginia Plan responded with the New Jersey Plan, which called for the creation of a single federal supreme tribunal. Supporters of the New Jersey Plan were especially disturbed by the idea of lower federal courts. They argued that the state courts could hear all cases in the first instance and that a right of appeal to the Supreme Court would be sufficient to protect national rights and provide uniform judgments throughout the country. The conflict between the states’ rights advocates and the nationalists was resolved by one of the many compromises that characterized the Constitutional Convention. The compromises found in Article III of the Constitution, which begins, “The judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”
The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement in eighteenth-century Europe that influenced the American Revolution and helped shape American political institutions. Enlightenment authors addressed religion, politics, and economics and were diverse in their writings and nationalities. Enlightenment writers believed that the pursuit of self-preservation was ingrained in human nature. The Englishman John Locke (1632–1704) maintained that the law of self-preservation also included liberty and property. He argued that individuals possess natural liberty to pursue their own preservation, and he maintained that individuals use liberty to acquire property as the material means of preservation. Because these means of preservation—liberty and property—were grounded in human nature, Locke identified them as rights of human nature. He called them “natural rights.” Locke defined the purpose of government as the protection of these rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of property. Locke’s influence was evident in the American Declaration of Independence, which defined the purpose of government as the protection of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Locke’s ideas were only part of the Enlightenment that influenced American politics. Two other important groups of Enlightenment thinkers were the French philosophes and the Scottish common-sense philosophers. The most influential French philosophe in America was Baron de Montesquieu
He suggested separating the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of government. Each separate power, he hoped, would limit the power of the other two. American Revolutionary leaders followed Montesquieu’s advice by writing the separation of powers into their state and national constitutions.
The Constitution sets a federal system by dividing powers between the national and state governments. It also establishes a balanced national government by separating powers among three independent branches — the executive, the legislative, and the judicial ( theory called check and balances). The executive branch, the President, enforces national laws; the legislative branch, the Congress, makes national laws; and the judicial branch, the Supreme Court and other federal courts, applies and interprets laws when deciding legal disputes in federal courts.
Federal powers listed in the Constitution include the right to collect taxes, declare war, and regulate interstate and foreign trade. In addition to these delegated, or expressed powers (those listed in the Constitution), the national government has implied powers (those reasonably implied by the delegated powers. The implied powers enable the government to respond to the changing needs of the nation. For example, Congress had no specific delegated power to print paper money. But such a power is implied in the delegated powers of borrowing and coining money.
In some cases, the national and state governments have concurred powers — that is, both levels of government may act. The national government laws are supreme in case of a conflict. Powers that the Constitution does not give to the national government or forbid to the states, reserved powers, belong to the people or to the states. State powers include the right to legislate on divorce, marriage, and public schools. Powers reserved for the people include the right to own property and to be tried by a jury.
The Supreme Court has the final authority to interpret the Constitution. It can set aside any law — federal, state, or local — that a majority of the justices believes conflicts with any part of the