an alteration or addition to a document. Although over 6,000 constitutional amendments to the US Constitution have been proposed in Congress, only 27 have been adopted, the most recent having been ratified in 1992. According to the Constitution, there are four ways in which it can be amended. An amendment can be proposed to the states either after a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress, or by a vote in two-thirds of the state legislatures. Once it has been proposed to the states, it can be ratified either by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states or by conventions in three-fourths of the states. All 27 amendments, except the 21st Amendment, were proposed by a two-thirds majority of Congress and ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states.
a written brief which is submitted to the Supreme Court by a third party, either an individual or organization. An amicus curiae allows the opinions of the third party, with regards to the case at hand, to be considered by the court. "Amicus curiae" means "friend of the court" in Latin.
confused state of society in which there is no government and no laws.
formal request that a higher court hear a case that has been decided in a lower court. State Supreme Courts are the highest courts which can hear appeals for cases involving state law, while the US Supreme Court is the highest court which can hear appeals for cases involving federal or constitutional law. An court appeal to a state appellate court are generally made on procedural grounds, i.e., on the basis that some aspect of proper legal procedure was not observed in the original trial. Anyone can petition the US Supreme Court to take a case under advisement. However, the Court is only likely to accept a case if it involves issues related to the constitutionality of the lower court's decision, or state versus federal powers.
a court which hears cases which have been decided in lower courts. For cases involving state law, most states provide state appellate courts, while federal circuit courts ("courts of appeal") deal with most appeals related to federal law. The State Supreme Court is the highest appellate court, the "court of last resort," for cases involving state law, while the US Supreme Court is the highest appellate court, the "court of last resort," for cases involving federal law.
Articles of Confederation
pre-Constitution document, ratified in 1781, creating the first government of the United States. The Confederation, established by the Articles, was a loose union of states with a weak Congress and no executive or judicial branch.
right to influence, control or direct the actions of other people. Authority can be given ion law, by custom, by understood rules of morality or by consent of the person under authority.
Balance of trade
the net difference between the value of American exports and imports. If the country has exported more than it has imported, then the United States has a positive or favorable balance of trade. If the country has imported more than it has exported, then it has a negative or unfavorable balance of trade.
"two rooms." The term refers to a legislative body, such as the US Congress or the British Parliament, that is divided into two separate houses.
Bill of Rights
another name for the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. These ten amendments protect the fundamental freedoms of Americans from any infringement by the government.
a form or draft of a proposed law presented to a legislature. In the federal government, if a bill is passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, it is presented to the President. If the president signs it or does nothing for ten days, it becomes a law. If the bill is vetoed, then it cannot become a law unless the Congress overrides the veto.
Bill of Attainder
legislative act declaring that a person is guilty of a crime and setting punishment without the benefit of a formal trial. The Constitution forbids the federal government (Article I, Section 9, clause 3) and the state governments (Article I, Section 10, clause 1) from passing bills of attainder.
documents given to a court by the attorneys trying a case. These documents contain summaries of the issues in the case, the laws relevant to the case, and the arguments which support the position taken by the attorney on behalf of his or her client.
a large, complex administrative structure. Such structures exist in organizations such as governments and businesses. The executive branch of the federal government has a complex bureaucracy, with a hierarchy of bureaus and agencies.
board of advisors to the President, composed of the heads of the executive Cabinet departments and any other officials whom the President chooses. The Constitution does not mention a Cabinet, but Washington created one by meeting with his Secretaries of State, Treasury, and War on a frequent basis. James Madison coined the term "president' cabinet" to describe the meetings. The tradition has been maintained in every subsequent American Presidency. Today, the Cabinet includes: the Secretary of State; the Secretary of the Treasury; the Secretary of Defense; the Attorney General; the Secretary of the Interior; the Secretary of Agriculture; the Secretary of Commerce; the Secretary of Labor; the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; the Secretary of Transportation; the Secretary of Energy; and the Secretary of Health, and Welfare; the Secretary of Health and Human Services; Secretary of Education, and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
effort to get a person elected to an office, usually a political office. Candidates running for office use commercials and advertisements, as well as personal appearances and speeches to help get themselves elected. Often, candidates will choose a campaign manager to coordinate their campaign.
person who declares that he or she wants to be elected to a position, such as President, Senator, Governor, or Mayor. Candidates use campaigns to let voters know that they are running for office, and to convince people to vote for them.
manner of organizing society based on the wealth, privilege, profession or inherited rank of individuals.
meeting of members of a political party to determine the party's official position on issues, and to choose party leadership. In legislative caucuses, or conferences, members of a party in a chamber of legislature meet to choose the party leadership in that chamber and to agree on a party position on upcoming legislation. In local party caucuses, party members in a ward or town meet to choose party officials and candidates for public office, as well as determine the party platform on local issues.
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
created by Congress in 1947. The CIA functions under the direction of the National Security Council. It serves to: coordinate information-gathering activities of all federal agencies, especially those in the Departments of State and Defense; analyze and evaluate information collected; and keep the President and National Security Council updated on all the information obtained. The CIA also conducts intelligence operations across the world, in its efforts to obtain information. It is a very secretive organization, and even Congress is largely uninformed of most of its activities, except for a few key members of Congress.
Civil Rights Laws
laws designed to protect individuals or groups from having their civil rights violated by other individuals, organizations or groups.
Civil Rights Movements
organized efforts to get laws passed and enforced which protect people and groups from having their constitutional rights violated.
system of hiring government employees on the basis of merit, rather than political considerations. The term is also used to refer to government employees outside the military.
manner of organizing society so that people are given certain rights and privileges according to their social class, and people in one class are prevented from moving into other classes.
Clear and Present Danger
phrase used in the Supreme Court decision, Schenck v. United States (1919). It refers to the idea that the government has the right to punish individuals who engage in speech or actions which can be shown to present a serious and immediate danger to the nation or the interests of the government. Schenck had been convicted for having distributed leaflets urging people not to register for the draft during World War I. Although such "speech" would have been within his rights in peacetime, the Supreme Court ruled that the fact that he engaged in that activity in a time of war made his actions pose a "clear and present danger" to the nation.
the interests of a society as a whole, also called "public good" and "general welfare."
Checks and Balances
principle used in the Constitution and developed through precedent that allows the three branches of government to share some responsibilities, and allows each branch some authority over the activities of the other branches. Some examples of checks are: the President's veto power, which is a check on Congress; Congress' power to override a veto; which is a check on the President's power and the Supreme Court's right of judicial review, which is a check on Congress.
part of the federal court system. There are 13 federal circuit courts: one for the District of Columbia, one for patent and trademark cases, and 11 for the rest of the country. Circuit courts, also called "courts of appeal," deal with all appeals of decisions made in district courts, for both civil and criminal cases. In addition, circuits courts may review decisions of independent regulatory agencies and departments, such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
person who is a member of a political society and, thus, owes allegiance to the society's government and is entitled to the rights and protections available from that government. A person who is born in the United States is automatically an American citizen, and eligible people from other countries can apply to become citizens through a process called naturalization.
status that requires the individual to pledge allegiance to the government and entitles that individual to the rights and protections provided by the government.
a division of the Department of Justice. The Civil Division deals with most of the civil cases in which the United States is a party, i.e., all civil cases which are not under the jurisdiction of any other division of the Department of Justice.
Civil War Amendments
constitutional amendments passed after the Civil War to free African Americans living under slavery, give them citizenship, and guarantee their rights as citizens. The Thirteenth Amendment was passed in 1865; the Fourteenth Amendment was passed in 1868; and the Fifteenth Amendment was passed in 1870.
a lawsuit brought against one person or group to enforce or protect a private right; prevent a private wrong (tort); or obtain compensation for a private wrong (tort). This is different from a criminal case, which involves the committing of a crime, or public wrong.
the refusal to obey certain laws, in order to influence those with power to have them changed. Civil disobedience is characterized by the use of nonviolent techniques, such as boycotting, picketing, and the refusal to pay taxes. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of the most famous American proponents of civil disobedience as a way to make laws more just.
set of laws which deal with private rights of individuals. Laws which are not civil laws are criminal laws.
personal freedoms, most of which are protected by the Bill of Rights from government interference.
constitutional rights and privileges enjoyed by individuals and groups, which the government promises to protect from interference by others.
powers granted to the national government by the Constitution, but not denied to the states. One example is the right to lay and collect taxes.
written explanation of the opinion of one or more judges in a court who support the decision of the majority of the court, but do not agree on the basis for the majority decision.
system of government in which nations or states agree to join together under a central government, to which the nations or states grant certain powers. The United States had a confederate system of government under the Articles of Confederation, from 1781 to 1789.
power given to the Senate to approve or disapprove presidential nominees to executive or judicial positions. The Senate needs a simple majority to confirm or reject a nominee, according to Article II, Section 2, clause 2 of the Constitution. The Senate has refused to confirm only about nine Cabinet nominees, although many more nominees have been withdrawn because they were likely to be rejected by the Senate.
chief legislative body of the United States federal government. The Congress is a bicameral legislature, made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. It is responsible for making all federal laws. In Article I, Section 8, the US Constitution gives the Congress a number of powers, including collecting taxes, regulating commerce, and providing funding for the military.
Consent of the governed
agreement by the people of a nation to subject themselves to the authority to a government. Natural rights philosophers, such as John Locke, believe that any legitimate government must draw its authority from the consent of the governed.
group of residents represented by a public official or any elected officer.
federal courts formed by Congress under the authority of Article III of the Constitution, to exercise "the judicial power of the United States." They include the US Supreme Court, the Courts of Appeals, the District Courts, and the Court of International Trade.
idea that the structure and powers of government should be based upon a written or unwritten constitution, which should set limits to the power of the government.
Council of Economic Advisors
established by the Employment Act of 1946. It analyzes the national economy in order to advise the President on economic policy. The Council consists of three members, appointed by the President and approved by the Senate, one of whom the President designates as Chairperson.
agreement between two or more individual people or groups, to which all parties are bound.
a public wrong. There are two kinds of crimes: felonies and misdemeanors. A felony is the most serious type of crime (e.g., murder), which is punishable by a large fine, imprisonment, or death. A misdemeanor is a relatively less serious crime (e.g., speeding), which is punishable by a small fine or a short jail term.
a division of the Department of Justice. The Criminal Division handles most of the criminal cases in which the United States is a party, i.e., all criminal cases which are not under the jurisdiction of any other division of the Department of Justice.
legal proceedings brought against a person or group accusing that person or group of having committed a public wrong, or crime. A criminal case involves a trial, while, with a civil case, the term "lawsuit" is more generally applied. In a criminal case, the State is always one of the parties - the prosecutor.
set of laws which deal with actions which are considered dangerous to the public welfare or morals, or to the interests of the state. Laws which are not criminal laws are civil laws.
also called "enumerated powers." Delegated powers are those which are specifically listed in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution as being granted to the Congress.