The US. Constitution sets the framework for all other laws of the United States, at both the federal and the state level. It creates a shared balance of power between states and the federal government (federalism) and shared power among the branches of government (separation of powers), establishes individual rights against governmental action (Bill of Rights), and provides for federal oversight of matters affecting interstate commerce and commerce with foreign nations. Knowing the contours of the US legal system is not possible without understanding the role of the US Constitution.
The Constitution is difficult to amend. Thus when the Supreme Court uses its power of judicial review to determine that a law is unconstitutional, it actually shapes what the Constitution means. New meanings that emerge must do so by the process of amendment or by the passage of time and new appointments to the court. Because justices serve for life, the court changes its philosophical outlook slowly.
The Bill of Rights is an especially important piece of the Constitutional framework. It provides legal causes of action for infringements of individual rights by government, state or federal. Through the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment, both procedural and (to some extent) substantive due process rights are given to individuals.
- For many years, the Supreme Court believed that “commercial speech” was entitled to less protection than other forms of speech. One defining element of commercial speech is that its dominant theme is to propose a commercial transaction. This kind of speech is protected by the First Amendment, but the government is permitted to regulate it more closely than other forms of speech. However, the government must make reasonable distinctions, must narrowly tailor the rules restricting commercial speech, and must show that government has a legitimate goal that the law furthers.
Edward Salib owned a Winchell’s Donut House in Mesa, Arizona. To attract customers, he displayed large signs in store windows. The city ordered him to remove the signs because they violated the city’s sign code, which prohibited covering more than 30 percent of a store’s windows with signs. Salib sued, claiming that the sign code violated his First Amendment rights. What was the result, and why?
- Jennifer is a freshman at her local public high school. Her sister, Jackie, attends a nearby private high school. Neither school allows them to join its respective wrestling team; only boys can wrestle at either school. Do either of them have a winning case based on the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
- The employees of the US Treasury Department that work the border crossing between the United States and Mexico learned that they will be subject to routine drug testing. The customs bureau, which is a division of the treasury department, announces this policy along with its reasoning: since customs agents must routinely search for drugs coming into the United States, it makes sense that border guards must themselves be completely drug-free. Many border guards do not use drugs, have no intention of using drugs, and object to the invasion of their privacy. What is the constitutional basis for their objection?
- Happy Time Chevrolet employs Jim Bydalek as a salesman. Bydalek takes part in a Gay Pride March in Los Angeles, is interviewed by a local news camera crew, and reports that he is gay and proud of it. His employer is not, and he is fired. Does he have any constitutional causes of action against his employer?
- You begin work at the Happy-Go-Lucky Corporation on Halloween. On your second day at work, you wear a political button on your coat, supporting your choice for US senator in the upcoming election. Your boss, who is of a different political persuasion, looks at the button and says, “Take that stupid button off or you’re fired.” Has your boss violated your constitutional rights?
- David Lucas paid $975,000 for two residential parcels on the Isle of Palms near Charleston, South Carolina. His intention was to build houses on them. Two years later, the South Carolina legislature passed a statute that prohibited building beachfront properties. The purpose was to leave the dunes system in place to mitigate the effects of hurricanes and strong storms. The South Carolina Coastal Commission created the rules and regulations with substantial input from the community and from experts and with protection of the dune system primarily in mind. People had been building on the shoreline for years, with harmful results to localities and the state treasury. When Lucas applied for permits to build two houses near the shoreline, his permits were rejected. He sued, arguing that the South Carolina legislation had effectively “taken” his property. At trial, South Carolina conceded that because of the legislation, Lucas’s property was effectively worth zero. Has there been a taking under the Fifth Amendment (as incorporated through the Fourteenth Amendment), and if so, what should the state owe to Lucas? Suppose that Lucas could have made an additional $1 million by building a house on each of his parcels. Is he entitled to recover his original purchase price or his potential profits?
- Harvey filed a suit against the state of Colorado, claiming that a Colorado state law violates the commerce clause. The court will agree if the statute
- places an undue burden on interstate commerce
- promotes the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare of Colorado
- regulates economic activities within the state’s borders
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- The state legislature in Maine enacts a law that directly conflicts with a federal law. Mapco Industries, located in Portland, Maine, cannot comply with both the state and the federal law.
- Because of federalism, the state law will have priority, as long as Maine is using its police powers.
- Because there’s a conflict, both laws are invalid; the state and the federal government will have to work out a compromise of some sort.
- The federal law preempts the state law.
- Both laws govern concurrently.
- Hannah, who lives in Ada, is the owner of Superior Enterprises, Inc. She believes that certain actions in the state of Ohio infringe on her federal constitutional rights, especially those found in the Bill of Rights. Most of these rights apply to the states under
- the supremacy clause
- the protection clause
- the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment
- the Tenth Amendment
- Minnesota enacts a statute that bans all advertising that is in “bad taste,” “vulgar,” or “indecent.” In Michigan, Aaron Calloway and his brother, Clarence “Cab” Calloway, create unique beer that they decide to call Old Fart Ale. In their marketing, the brothers have a label in which an older man in a dirty T-shirt is sitting in easy chair, looking disheveled and having a three-day growth of stubble on his chin. It appears that the man is in the process of belching. He is also holding a can of Old Fart Ale. The Minnesota liquor commission orders all Minnesota restaurants, bars, and grocery stores to remove Old Fart Ale from their shelves. The state statute and the commission’s order are likely to be held by a court to be
- a violation of the Tenth Amendment
- a violation of the First Amendment
- a violation of the Calloways’ right to equal protection of the laws
- a violation of the commerce clause, since only the federal laws can prevent an article of commerce from entering into Minnesota’s market
- Raunch Unlimited, a Virginia partnership, sells smut whenever and wherever it can. Some of its material is “obscene” (meeting the Supreme Court’s definition under Miller v. California) and includes child pornography. North Carolina has a statute that criminalizes obscenity. What are possible results if a store in Raleigh, North Carolina, carries Raunch merchandise?
- The partners could be arrested in North Carolina and may well be convicted.
- The materials in Raleigh may be the basis for a criminal conviction.
- The materials are protected under the First Amendment’s right of free speech.
- The materials are protected under state law.
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