Constitutional law, in its essentials, is an expression of how people want to live as individuals within an organized society. What form of government they want? What powers shall the government exercise? What rights and liberties shall remain with the people? By what mechanisms are these rights and liverties protected?
The federal constitution, ratified in 1788 by the original thirteen states and thus today the oldest operative constitution in the world, is the core of the American legal system. It establishes the governmental structure of the federation, regulates the relationship between the federation and the member states, and lays down the basic rights of the American people.
The first three articles of the constitution separate the power of the government among the three governmental branches: the executive (the president and the federal agencies and departments under him), the legislative (the Congress), and the judiciary (the Supreme Court and the inferior federal courts).
The president functions as head of state and chief of government. As head of state, he grants recognition to new foreign states, receives and appoints ambassadors and concludes state treaties; as chief of the armed forces.
The president conducts the activities of the administration with the help of his Cabinet. Cabinet members (secretaries of the departments and other officials with cabinet rank) are appointed by the President (and thereafter confirmed by the Senate), and are subject to dismissal by him alone; they are not members of the Congress.
The president is not subject to any legislative control for his political acts. There is no vote of no confidence which can force him to resign. The only legislative control is the president’s possible removal from office by means of the impeachment procedure. This is possible only upon “conviction of treason, bribery, high crimes and misdemeanors”.
The President and the Vice-President (the latter also serves as President of the Senate) are nominated by party congresses and are elected by the people in an indirect election which is separate from congressional elections. The term of office is four years and reelection is limited to one additional term.
All legislative powers are vested in the Congress, which consists of the senate and the House of Representatives.
Section 8 of Article I of the Constitution enumerates the legislative powers of the Congress in specified subject matter areas. These inclube, among others, interstate and foreign commerce, federal taxation, currency, postal service, declaraton of war, establishment of armed services, maritime law, bankruptcy, patent and copyright. Besides, Congress also has the power to make laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into executon the foregoing powers.
All statutes except treaties are adopted by simple majority of both Houses of Congress. Proposals for statutes ( bills ) may be introduced in either House. HOwever, the federal budget, financial allocation in general, and impeachment must originate in the House of Representatives. Statutes enter into force after they have been signed by the president or at the time specified in them. If vetoed by the president, a statute must be passed anew by a two-thirds majority in both houses before it enters into force.
Members of Congress are elected by their respective constituencies in a direct election, senators for a term of six years and members of the House of Representatives for a term of two years. Reelection is permissible for both offices without limitation. Senators represent their respective states and are elected in a general election. Representatives represent districts within a particular state. These districts are called election districts, which, according to constitutional case law, must have the same population in order to assure the constitutional principle of ” one-man one-vote”.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court was established by the Constitution. It consists of nine justices appointed for life by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. Its jurisdiction as a court of first instance is limited by the constitution. Its jurisdiction as an appellate court as well as the establishment of inferior federal courts derive from federal legislation.