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Knowledge Base

The Bill of Rights with Michael McConnell

Terms You May Have Heard

The Bill of Rights: The Bill of Rights refers to the first ten amendments to the Constitution. It spells out Americans’ rights in relation to their government. It guarantees civil rights and liberties to the individual—including freedom of speech, the press, and religion. It sets rules for due process of law and reserves all powers not delegated to the federal government to the people or the states. And it specifies that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

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Constitutional Law: Constitutional law refers to rights stated in federal and state constitutions. The majority of this body of law has developed from state and federal supreme court rulings, which interpret their respective constitutions and ensure that the laws passed by the legislature do not violate constitutional limits.  

Most constitutional legal issues involve the Bill of Rights, which contains the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. These amendments contain such rights as the freedom of speech, the right to a fair trial, and the right to due process.

Federalism: Federalism is a system of government in which the same territory is controlled by two levels of government. Generally, an overarching national government is responsible for broader governance of larger territorial areas, while smaller subdivisions like states and cities govern the issues of local concern.

Both the national government and the smaller political subdivisions have the power to make laws and have a certain level of autonomy from each other.

Limited Government: Limited government refers to any central government whose powers over the people are limited by a written or otherwise agreed-to constitution. In a limited government, the power of the government to intervene in the lives and activities of the people is limited by constitutional law.

Separation of Powers: Separation of powers is a doctrine of constitutional law under which the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) are kept separate. This is also known as the system of checks and balances, because each branch is given certain powers to check and balance the other branches. Each branch has separate powers, and generally each branch is not allowed to exercise the powers of the other branches.  

Fourteenth Amendment: The 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States—including former slaves—and guaranteed all citizens “equal protection of the laws.” 

Natural Rights: Natural rights are considered pre-political rights, meaning the rights people have in the state of nature. Natural rights are not dependent on the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and are therefore universal and inalienable (i.e., rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws). They are usually defined in opposition to legal rights, or those bestowed onto a person by a given legal system.

Constitution of the United States of America: The Constitution is the supreme law of the United States. Empowered with the sovereign authority of the people by the framers and the consent of the legislatures of the states, it is the source of all government powers, and also provides important limitations on the government that protect the fundamental rights of US citizens.