Section 1.1.2: Constitutions

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

The United States governmental structure, along with the respective state governments, hinges on a pivotal document: the Constitution. This document shapes the structure of governments and defines their relationships with the citizens they represent.

The federal Constitution, in particular, outlines the federal government’s powers and limitations, serving as the rulebook for its operation.  Traditionally, the federal Constitution applies exclusively to the federal government. However, there are critical exceptions where federal constitutional principles extend to the states, ensuring certain rights are uniformly protected across the nation. For legal researchers, these serve as invaluable resources, accessible in various locations including legal codes, and often come annotated for enhanced understanding.

The Federal Constitution: Its Structure and Content

Arguably the most significant element within the U.S. Constitution is the Bill of Rights. This term refers to the first ten amendments to the Constitution, encapsulating the fundamental rights of the people. Despite being drafted after the primary document, these amendments hold a critical place, always presented at the end of the document.

The Constitution commences with a statement of purpose, known as the preamble. The main body, often referred to as the articles, follows. Understanding the Constitution’s structure is essential as legal materials employ specific language when citing particular sections.

The Constitution’s highest level of organization comprises individual articles, typically distinguished by Roman numerals. Following this are the sections marked in standard numerical format (1, 2, 3, and so forth). Each section houses specific statements, referred to as clauses. Amendments are seen as additions or changes to the Constitution, with the only method of altering the U.S. Constitution being through amendment.

Navigating Constitutional Research

The Constitution’s paramount importance to American law and government ensures it is published in numerous places, including with the United States Code. This is particularly beneficial for legal researchers, as the Constitution is indexed with the Code, facilitating easy location of specific provisions by topic. The published Constitution is also annotated, meaning editors provide useful additional content, such as case references that interpret specific clauses.

Legal researchers should note that each state also has a Constitution. In state law matters, the state’s founding document reigns supreme. Numerous civil liberties are guaranteed by both federal and state constitutions, with states retaining the power to extend these protections beyond what the federal law requires. As with the federal Constitution, most state constitutions are published in several sources and available in annotated versions.

Citing the Constitution

The “Bluebook,” officially titled The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, is a comprehensive guide that instructs readers on how to cite legal documents properly. This manual is considered a crucial tool for criminal justice students, legal scholars, and professionals alike. It provides a standardized method for referencing legal cases, constitutions, statutes, legal journals, and other legal authorities in academic writing, legal documents, and court briefs. By adhering to the Bluebook’s citation guidelines, criminal justice students ensure their work is accurate, clear, and easily referenced by others, making it an essential resource for both their studies and future legal practice.

If you plan to go to law school, you need to get a copy of this.  If you are a criminal justice student, you can get away with just using the APA Style Guide since they “borrowed” the Bluebook system for legal citations.  That means that the APA Style and the Blue Book are the same, but APA doesn’t cover everything that lawyers need to know.

For accurate constitutional referencing (according to the Bluebook), use the abbreviation “U.S. CONST.” for the Constitution of the United States. If citing an Amendment, follow it with “amend.” and the Amendment number in Roman Numerals. When citing a specific article from the Constitution’s main body, begin with “U.S. CONST.”, followed by “art.” and the article number in Roman Numerals. After a comma, provide the section symbol and the section number, and finally, “cl.” for clause, followed by the specific clause.

Blue Book Citations
U.S. CONST. amend. XIV, § 2.
U.S. CONST. art. I, § 9, cl. 2.

The Constitution serves as a vital guide for governance, rights, and law in the U.S., shaping our democratic society at its core. By understanding its structure, significance, and application, we appreciate the blueprint of our government and the freedoms it protects.


State Constitutions: The Backbone of State Governance

Just as the federal government operates under the U.S. Constitution, each state is governed by its individual state Constitution. These serve as the foundational legal document for the state, providing the framework for the establishment and operation of the state government. They define the powers, responsibilities, and limitations of each branch of the state’s government – the executive, the legislative, and the judicial.

Unlike the U.S. Constitution, which primarily governs federal matters, state constitutions are significantly more detailed. They cover a wide array of topics, ranging from taxation, education, and elections, to specific policies that are pertinent to the unique conditions or culture of that state. This level of detail allows each state to address issues and policy areas that the federal Constitution does not explicitly cover, giving states the flexibility to cater to their citizens’ specific needs and circumstances.

State constitutions also play a critical role in safeguarding civil liberties. Many of the rights protected by the U.S. Constitution are also secured at the state level, often extending beyond what is required by the federal Constitution. This serves as a double layer of protection, ensuring that regardless of federal law changes, these rights remain preserved at the state level.

Similar to the federal Constitution, state versions are accessible in various locations and formats, including annotated versions. These resources often contain references to relevant court cases that have interpreted different clauses, serving as valuable tools for legal researchers.

In essence, state constitutions form the cornerstone of state governance, embodying the state’s principles, values, and laws. By understanding their significance and structure, we gain insight into the diverse range of political and cultural landscapes that coexist within the United States.

Learn More

On Other Sites

Brennan Jr, W. J. (1976). State constitutions and the protection of individual rightsHarv. L. Rev.90, 489.


Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  06/29/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License



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