The basis of all law in the United States is the Constitution. This Constitution is a document written by “outcasts” of England. The Constitution of the United States sets forth the nation’s fundamental laws. It establishes the form of the national government and defines the rights and liberties of the American people. It also lists the aims of the government and the methods of achieving them.
The Constitution was written to organize a strong national government for the American states. Previously, the nation’s leaders had established a national government under the Articles of Confederation. But the Articles granted independence to each state. They lacked the authority to make the states work together to solve national problems.
After the states won independence in the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), they faced the problems of peacetime government. The states had to enforce law and order, collect taxes, pay a large public debt, and regulate trade among themselves. They also had to deal with Indian tribes and negotiate with other governments. Leading statesmen, such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, began to discuss the creation of a strong national government under a new constitution.
The United States is a republic that operates under a federalist system. The national government had specific enumerated powers, and the fifty states retain substantial endowment over their citizens and their residents. Both the national government and the state government are divided into three different branches, executive, legislative, and judicial. Written constitutions, both federal and state, form a system of separated powers.
Amendment, in legislation, is a change in a law, or in a bill before it becomes a law. Bills often have amendments attached before a legislature votes on them.
Amendments to the Constitution of the United States may be proposed in two ways:
(1) If two-thirds of both houses approve, Congress may propose an amendment. The amendment becomes a law when ratified either by legislatures or by conventions in three-fourths of the states. (2) If the legislatures of two-thirds of the states ask for an amendment, Congress must call a convention to propose it. The amendment becomes a law when ratified either by the legislatures or by conventions in three fourths of the states. This method has never been used.
The Federal Government is comprised of three branches: Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, and the Judicial Branch.
The executive branch includes the President the vice President, the cabinet and all federal departments, and most governmental agencies. All executive power is vested in the President [US Const. Art. II, sec 1, cl. 1], currently Bill Clinton, who serves a four-year term. The President is the commander in Chief of the military [US Const. Art. II, sec 2, cl. 1], and has primary authority over foreign affairs. The President has the power to make treaties, but only with two-thirds of the US senate [US Const. Art. II, sec 2, cl. 2]. The President of the US has the power to nominate all Supreme Court Justices, all other federal juries, ambassadors, and all other officers of the United States. The President had the jurisdiction to veto legislation. The vice President is the President of the Senate. The Vice President serves the same four year term as the President.
The heads of each department form the cabinet, which is the highest advisory group to the President. The executive branch also includes dozens of government agencies. There is a difference between departments and agencies. Agencies have a very specific purpose while the departments are more broad. Heads of any governmental agencies are not members of the cabinet.
All federal legislative powers are vested in the Congress of the United States, which contain two chambers, a Senate and a House of Representatives [US Const. Art. I, sec 1,]. There are one hundred Senators, two from each of the fifty states. Senators serve six-year terms [US Const. Art. I, sec 3, cl. 1]. The House of Representatives has 435 members, the population of each state determines this number. Each state is granted minimum of one representative. Each representative serves a two-year term.
The powers of Congress are specifically enumerated in the Constitution and include, among other things, the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, and tariffs. Congress also has the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, among several states, and with Indian tribes.
To pass a law, a bill must be passed by both the House and the Senate, and signed by the President. The President has the option of vetoing the legislation, but the Congress can override the veto with a two-thirds vote of both chambers.
The Congress also has substantial powers in overseeing the activities of the executive branch. The House of Representatives has the sole power to impeach the President and other officers, and the Senate the sole power to try impeachment. U.S. Congressional committees may demand disclosure of information and require agency officials to testify before them. The Congress has also established the General Accounting Office (GAO), which evaluates executive branch activities and reports back to the Congress. Most GAO reports are public documents, which can be viewed upon request.
Much of Congress’ work is done by Congressional committees. The number and scope of Congressional committees can change, particularly when political control of the chamber changes parties and when the jurisdiction of committees overlaps, as is often the case.
Practically all the elections in the United States are the same, except the presidential election, which happens every four years. All political elections are based on two major parties, the democrats, and the republicans. Both parties have different beliefs and usually stick to them.
For the majority the popular vote wins, and determines the victor. Two or more candidates for the office desired ,”run”, and try to convince the voters that they are the best person for the job. While at the same time try to ruin each others. It takes one more than half the votes, to declare a triumphant party.
Presidential elections however are quite different. Two candidates, or more, run for the office of president. Along with the presidential office is the vice presidential office. The Presidential candidates chooses a running mate (the vice president hopeful). All parties, weather an independent or a popular party, have what they call a “platform”.
This “platform” is made up of many “planks”, which are what each party/person/group believes in and stands for. When it comes time for the legal citizens to vote upon an official, they go into voting areas and vote for each president. However, the citizens do not vote for the president directly. They vote for his electors, which are regular people chosen by each candidate to vote fore the president. Then the electors vote for the president. Each state has a different number of electors equal to the number of representatives.
EXAMPLE: Two candidates, A and B. Three States, 1, 2 and, 3. State 1 has a population of 100 people, and 2 representatives. State 2, 200, and 3 representatives. Lastly state three has 500 people, and 6 representatives.
Candidate A gets 30 votes of state 1, candidate B gets the remaining 70. Thus, candidate B receives the two electoral votes. State 2 is split 60 (A) and 140 (B), candidate B, again, receives the electoral votes. Now as it stands A, zero; and B, 5. The last state is a landslide for A. He gets 130 votes. He gets the 6 electoral votes. Candidate A wins the election. Even though that B had 280 votes from the citizens, he lost the election, because it is not the number of the popular votes that counts. It is the number of the electoral votes. Though it usually work hand in hand, popular and electoral, it sometimes does not.
The word citizen comes from the Latin word civitas, which in ancient times meant membership in a city. Today, citizenship refers mainly to membership in a nation.
What it means to be a citizen The rights of citizens differ from nation to nation. The Constitution of the United States provides the basic rights of American citizens, and laws passed by Congress give additional rights. These rights are called civil rights. They include freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly (the right to gather peacefully for political or other purposes). American citizens have the right to vote for the President and members of Congress and to run for government office themselves. U.S. citizens have the right to travel throughout the United States. American citizens, unlike those of some countries, cannot be forced to leave their homeland. American citizenship cannot be taken away, except for certain serious actions.
Aliens and non-citizen nationals share many of the rights of U.S. citizens. But they cannot vote, hold public office, or do certain other things that citizens can do.
The rights of citizens have certain limits. For example, U.S. citizens must be at least 18 years old to vote. States also can limit voting rights to people who have registered to vote. Freedom of speech does not allow a person to tell lies that damage someone’s reputation. Many other civil rights also have limits.
The duties of citizens, like citizens’ rights, differ from nation to nation. Most governments demand that citizens pay taxes, defend their country, and obey its laws. Some governments require certain citizens to serve on juries.
Many people believe that citizens also have duties not demanded by law, such as voting, learning about public problems, and trying to help other people. Many of these duties go along with rights. For example, the duty to vote comes with the right to vote. The duty to learn about public problems comes with freedom of speech and of the press, which protect the open discussion of public events and the exchange of ideas.
Aliens must obey the laws of the country in which they are traveling or living, except for those that bind only citizens. In addition, aliens must obey some of the laws of their homeland. For example, some foreigners who work in the United States must pay taxes both to the U.S. government and to the government of their own country. Travelers who break the laws of a country they are visiting may be put on trial and fined or imprisoned. Many nations grant diplomatic immunity to aliens who represent foreign governments. Diplomatic immunity is a set of special rights granted to the representatives of foreign governments and to the representatives’ families and staffs. In many countries, these rights include freedom from arrest, search, and taxation.
Birth. Most people become citizens of a country simply by being born there. The right to citizenship in the country of one’s birth is called jus soli (pronounced juhs SOH ly), a Latin phrase that means right of soil. The laws of most nations, including Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, grant citizenship based on jus soli. Some nations limit jus soli to children whose parents already have citizenship in that nation. Some nations also deny jus soli to certain groups of persons. Such persons include children who are born in a country where their parents are serving as diplomatic representatives. Persons denied jus soli also include babies born to refugees (persons who have been forced from their homeland by war or some other difficulty).
Some countries use another rule of citizenship instead of jus soli–or in addition to it. This rule provides that the citizenship of children is determined by the nationality of their parents, no matter where the children are born. The right to citizenship in the country of one’s parents is called jus sanguinis (pronounced juhs SANG wuh nuhs). This phrase is a Latin term that means right of blood. Canada, France, the United States, and a number of other nations grant jus sanguinis to children born abroad if one or both parents are citizens.
Naturalization is the legal process by which foreigners become citizens of a country they have adopted. Each nation sets requirements that aliens must meet to become naturalized. For example, aliens cannot undergo naturalization in Canada or the United States unless they have lived in their new country for a number of years. On the other hand, Israel allows Jewish immigrants to become Israeli citizens the day they arrive under a rule called the Law of Return. Many nations naturalize only people who understand the rights and duties of citizenship and can use the national language. The United States and certain other countries require aliens to give up citizenship in their homelands to become naturalized.
Naturalization usually takes place in a ceremony in which qualified aliens promise loyalty to their new country. In the United States, many naturalization ceremonies take place on Citizenship Day, September 17.
Treaties or the passage of special laws may naturalize groups of people without the usual naturalization process. For example, an act of Congress naturalized the people of Puerto Rico in 1917. The United States had taken over Puerto Rico through the treaty that ended the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Criminal courts decide the legal guilt or innocence of people accused of violating the law. The courts also determine the punishment for those who are convicted.
Pretrial procedures. In most cases, the suspect is brought to court for a hearing within 24 hours after being arrested. At this hearing, called arraignment, a judge reads the charges against the defendant. The judge also reads the person his or her rights concerning a fair trial. The most important right of any defendant is the right to be considered innocent until proved guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If the defendant pleads guilty to the charges, the judge may sentence the person immediately. If the individual pleads not guilty, the case goes to trial. The judge appoints a defense attorney to handle the defendant’s case if the accused person cannot afford a lawyer.
The judge decides whether to keep the defendant in jail until the trial or to release the person on bail. The defendant or another person puts up bail to guarantee that the accused will return to the court to stand trial. A defendant who cannot put up bail must stay in jail until the trial. The courts cannot require bail so high that no one can furnish it. But the judge may deny bail to a person considered likely not to return for trial. Some states also prohibit bail for individuals who are accused of such serious crimes as espionage and murder.
Cases involving less serious crimes, such as disorderly conduct or driving without a license, may be completed in a single court session. In these cases, the judge hears the testimony, decides the guilt or innocence of the defendant, and sentences the guilty.
Cases of murder, kidnapping, or other especially serious crimes may be presented to a grand jury. This panel, which consists of 16 to 23 citizens in most states, decides if the evidence against the defendant justifies bringing the case to trial. The purpose of the grand jury is to protect the defendant from being accused of a crime with insufficient evidence.
Many cases are settled by plea bargaining. In this procedure, the accused agrees to plead guilty in exchange for being charged with a less serious crime or being promised a shorter prison sentence. About 90 per cent of all defendants plead guilty, most of them through plea bargaining.
The trial. When a criminal case goes to trial, the defendant chooses to have it heard either by a jury or by the judge alone. In most states, a trial jury consists of 12 citizens. However, the juries in some states may have as few as 6 members. The jury or judge hears the evidence for and against the defendant and then reaches a verdict. If the individual is found guilty, the judge pronounces sentence. If the defendant is found not guilty, he or she is released.
In most cases, the judge determines the sentence for a defendant convicted of a crime. The judge imposes punishment that he or she feels will best serve both the offender and society. Laws may provide a maximum and a minimum sentence according to the crime involved. In some cases, the recommendation of the jury determines the sentence that may be given to the offender.
The judge may put a convicted offender on probation to protect the individual from the harmful effects of being imprisoned with experienced criminals. A lawbreaker who is on probation remains free but must follow certain rules. A probation officer assigned by the court supervises the individual’s conduct. A probationer who violates any of the rules of his or her probation may be sent to prison. Some judges require offenders to repay their victims, either with money or by working for them without pay.