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Constitution

The Constitution of a given organisation defines its form, structure, activities, character, and fundamental rules.

The term comes from Latin constitutio, which referred to any important law, usually issued by the emperor, and was widely used in canon law to indicate certain relevant decisions, mainly of the pope.

Particular kinds of organisations that often use the concept of Constitution include:

An organisation may be given specific powers on the condition that it abides by this constitution or charter limitation. The Latin term ultra vires describes activities that fall outside an organisation's or parliamentary body's constitutional activities. For example, a student union may be prohibited from engaging in activities not concerning students as students, if the student union becomes involved in nonstudent activities these activities are considered ultra vires of the student union's charter, or a bank that tries to act as a real estate agent. An example from the constitutional law of nation-states would be a provincial government in a federal state which may not have authority over banking under the federal constitution, so any laws the provincial parliaments pass regarding banking will be considered void or ultra vires of that parliament's constitutional authority.

Table of contents

State constitutions

Most commonly, the term "constitution" is used to refer to the set of rules that govern political bodies in nation-states. These rules may or may not be summarized in a single document.

  • Possibly the most common usage of 'constitution' is to describe a single, written, fundamental law that defines how a state is governed, legislation is passed, power and authority are distributed, and how they are limited. It is thus the most basic law of a country from which all the other laws and rules are hierarchically derived; in some countries it is in fact called "Basic Law".

Having a single written document gives the advantage of a coherent and easily understood body of rules. In democratic systems, the constitution is considered a fundamental social contract among citizens (following Rousseau's writings), where government receives its powers from the people, not the monarch or a parliament, and is bound by an express set of human rights. The constitution is thus considered a statute superior to "ordinary" statutes, which it can overrule, and is usually protected against constitutional amendments and by special courts (see below). This is considered the model followed by the United States, whose constitution is the oldest such document still in effect today.

In these systems, the difference between a constitution and a statute is somewhat arbitrary, usually depending on the traditional devotion of popular opinion to historical principles embodied in important past legislation. For example, several Acts of Parliament such as the Bill of Rights, Human Rights Act[?] and, prior to the creation of Parliament, the Magna Carta are regarded as granting fundamental rights and principles which are treated as almost constitutional. However, these are in law no different to any other Act of Parliament and can be changed just as easily.

Constitutional courts

The constitution, of whatever form, is often protected by a certain legal body in each country with various names, such as supreme, constitutional or high court. This court judges the validity of legislation, its interpretation, and the manner in which such legislation is implemented by the executive branch of the state.

Such legal bodies are normally the court of last resort, the highest such body without further recourse, where this process of judicial review are integrated into the system of courts of appeals. This is the case, for example, with the Supreme Court of the United States. Other countries dedicate a special court solely to the protection of the constitution, as with the German Constitutional Court.

Finally, some countries have no such courts at all – for example, as the United Kingdom traditionally functions under the principle of parliamentary supremacy, the legislature has the power to enact any law it wishes. However, by membership of the U.K. in the European Union it is now subject to accepting the jurisdiction of European Community law and European courts such as the European Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights; in effect, these bodies are thus constitutional courts that can invalidate or interpret British legislation.

Formalized constitutions

Non-formalized constitutions

See also: Constitutional law

External links


For the entry on the naval ship U.S.S. Constitution, see: USS Constitution



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