Each state and the federal government are founded in a singular document referred to as a constitution. The basic purpose of a constitution is to create and define the roles of government, and circumscribe the relationship of those governments with the people that they serve. The federal constitution establishes the federal government; it also establishes the powers and limits on those powers of the federal government in relation to the people. As a rule, the federal constitution only applies to the federal government. There are some very important exceptions, however, that apply federal constitutional principles to the states. From the legal researcher’s perspective, constitutions can be found in numerous places. They are usually published with the legal codes. For general research purposes, annotated constitutions can be valuable resources.
Perhaps the most important statement of the rights of the people in the United States is the Bill of Rights, a name given to the first ten Amendments to the Constitution. Because the Amendments were written after the main text of the document were drafted, there are always presented at the end of the document. The constitution begins with a statement of purpose known as the preamble, and the body of the constitution is usually referred to as the articles. It is important to understand the formatting of the constitution because legal materials will use a specific language when pointing to particular passages of the Constitution. The highest level of organization is the individual articles. These are usually set off in Roman numerals. The next level of heading are the sections. The sections are set off in the usual numbering system (1, 2, 3 and so forth). One article may have several sections. Each statement of particulars within a section is referred to as a clause. Think of amendments as additions to the constitution. The only method of changing the constitution of the United States is by amendment, so some amendments serve to change clauses in the original document.
Because of its fundamental importance to American law and government, the Constitution is published in many places. Importantly, it is published with the United States Code. This is important to the legal researcher because the Constitution is indexed with the Code. This allows the researcher to easily locate provisions of the Constitution by topic. In addition to the useful index feature, the published Constitution is annotated. This means that the editors have provided useful content for the researcher, such as references to cases that have interpreted particular clauses.
Legal researchers must remember that each state has a Constitution. In matters of state law, the state’s constitution will be the controlling source of law. Many civil liberties are guaranteed by both the federal and state constitutions. As a matter of law, states can extend these protections beyond that which is required by the federal constitution. Most states will have constitutions published in several sources, just as the United States Constitution is. It is a good idea to locate an annotated constitution for your state. Most electronic databases will make these resources available for all states. This feature is also valuable for comparative research.
Modification History File Created: 07/30/2018 Last Modified: 08/10/2018