According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, something is unconstitutional when it is not in accord with the constitution of a political body such as a nation or a state.

Why this is important:  One of the big advantages of our republican form of democracy is that our laws are made by people accountable to all of us through our election cycles. The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land that makes this accountability possible.

History shows, however, that some officials will not want to be held accountable. Moreover, some groups of people will want their officials accountable only to their kind while excluding others.  Keeping the republic, therefore, requires a vigilant defense against authoritarianism and polarization.

The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land, as stated in Article 6.  That same article extends the supremacy to the laws and treaties of the federal government, so long as those laws and treaties are consistent with the constitution.  Similarly, each state has a constitution that sets out the state’s supreme law in ways that are also consistent with the U.S. Constitution.

For federal law, the U.S. Supreme Court has the final word on what is constitutional or not. Many of its cases are tried first in one of the thirteen Appellate Courts (Courts of Appeals). Each state has a similar structure.

The Constitution can be undermined when Congress or the Supreme Court allows the executive branch to act outside the constitutional laws set out by Congress. (See our short course on the presidency.)  It can also be undermined when the president or the people encourage Congress to write unconstitutional laws and the Supreme Court allows it. Similar possibilities exist within each state government.

The best way to stop such behavior is to avoid electing and re-electing legislators and executives who are likely to put partisanship over the Constitution.  Seek instead those candidates interested in a free and fair competition for the best problem-solving ideas – and who are willing to be held accountable for their decisions.

This article is an extract from our Glossary. It contains a growing list of terms and concepts useful to people who want to learn more about our system of government and its value.

Want to learn more?  See these sources:

U.S. Constitution, Article 4, Republican Government Guarantee (https://constitutioncenter.org)

U.S. Constitution, Article 6, Supremacy Clause (https://constitutioncenter.org)

About the U.S. Supreme Court (www.uscourts.gov)

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