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A constitution is a set of rules for government—often codified as a written document—that establishes principles of an autonomous political entity. In the case of countries, this term refers specifically to a national constitution defining the fundamental political principles, and establishing the structure, procedures, powers and duties, of a government. By limiting the government's own reach, most constitutions guarantee certain rights to the people. The term constitution can be applied to any overall law that defines the functioning of a government, including several historical constitutions that existed before the development of modern national constitutions.

Constitutions concern different kinds of political organizations. They are found extensively in regional government, at supranational (e.g., European Union), federal (e.g., Indian Constitution), state or provincial (e.g., the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or the constitution of the State of New York), and sub-national levels. They are also found in many political groups, such as political parties, pressure groups, and trade unions.

Non-political entities such as corporations and voluntary associations, whether incorporated or not, may also have a constitution. The constitution of a legally incorporated entity is more usually styled as its memorandum and articles of association (U.S. incorporation).

Constitution of India is the longest written constitution of any sovereign country in the world, containing 448 articles, 12 schedules and 94 amendments, thereby totaling 117,369 words in its English language version.


The term constitution comes from a Latin term denoting an important law, usually one proclaimed by the Roman emperor ("constitutiones principis": the edicta, mandata, decrera and rescripta). Later, the term was widely used in canon law for an important determination, especially by the Pope, which are now referred to as apostolic constitutions.

General features

Generally, every constitution confers specific powers to an organization or institutional entity, established upon the primary condition that it abides by the said constitution's limitations.

The Latin term ultra vires describes activities of officials within an organization or polity that fall outside the constitutional or statutory authority of those officials. For example, a students' union may be prohibited as an organization from engaging in activities not concerning students; if the union becomes involved in non-student activities these activities are considered ultra vires of the union's charter, and nobody would be compelled by the charter to follow them. An example from the constitutional law of nation-states would be a provincial government in a federal state trying to legislate in an area exclusively enumerated to the federal government in the constitution, such as ratifying a treaty. Ultra vires gives a legal justification for the forced cessation of such action, which might be enforced by the people with the support of a decision of the judiciary, in a case of judicial review. A violation of rights by an official would be ultra vires because a (constitutional) right is a restriction on the powers of government, and therefore that official would be exercising powers he doesn't have.

When an official act is unconstitutional, i.e. it is not a power granted to the government by the Constitution, that act is null and void, and the nullification is ab initio, that is, from inception, not from the date of the finding. It was never "law", even though, if it had been a statute or statutory provision, it might have been adopted according to the procedures for adopting legislation. Sometimes the problem is not that a statute is unconstitutional, but the application of it is, on a particular occasion, and a court may decide that while there are ways it could be applied that are constitutional, that instance was not allowed or legitimate. In such a case, only the application may be ruled unconstitutional. Historically, the remedy for such violations have been petitions for common law writs, such as quo warranto.

History and development

Early legal codes

Excavations in modern-day Iraqmarker by Ernest de Sarzec in 1877 found evidence of the earliest known code of justice, issued by the Sumerian king Urukagina of Lagashmarker ca 2300 BC. Perhaps the earliest prototype for a law of government, this document itself has not yet been discovered; however it is known that it allowed some rights to his citizens. For example, it is known that it relieved tax for widows and orphans, and protected the poor from the usury of the rich.
After that, many governments ruled by special codes of written laws. The oldest such document still known to exist seems to be the Code of Ur-Nammu of Urmarker (ca 2050 BC). Some of the better-known ancient law codes include the code of Lipit-Ishtar of Isinmarker, the code of Hammurabi of Babylonia, the Hittite code, the Assyrian code and Mosaic law.

Later constitutions

In 621 BC, a scribe named Draco wrote the laws of the city-state of Athensmarker; and being quite cruel, this code prescribed the death penalty for any offence. In 594 BC, Solon, the ruler of Athens, created the new Solonian Constitution. It eased the burden of the workers, however it made the ruling class to be determined by wealth (plutocracy), rather than by birth (aristocracy). Cleisthenes again reformed the Athenian constitution and set it on a democratic footing in 508 BC.

Aristotle (ca 350 BC) was one of the first in recorded history to make a formal distinction between ordinary law and constitutional law, establishing ideas of constitution and constitutionalism, and attempting to classify different forms of constitutional government. The most basic definition he used to describe a constitution in general terms was "the arrangement of the offices in a state". In his works Constitution of Athens, Politics, and Nicomachean Ethics he explores different constitutions of his day, including those of Athens, Sparta, and Carthagemarker. He classified both what he regarded as good and bad constitutions, and came to the conclusion that the best constitution was a mixed system, including monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements. He also distinguished between citizens, who had the exclusive opportunity to participate in the state, and non-citizens and slaves who did not.

The Romans first codified their constitution in 449 BC as the Twelve Tables. They operated under a series of laws that were added from time to time, but Roman law was never reorganised into a single code until the Codex Theodosianus (AD 438); later, in the Eastern Empire the Codex repetitæ prælectionis (534) was highly influential throughout Europe. This was followed in the east by the Ecloga of Leo III the Isaurian (740) and the Basilica of Basil I (878).

The Edicts of Ashoka established constitutional principles for the 3rd century BC Maurya king's rule in Ancient India.

Many of the Germanic peoples that filled the power vacuum left by the Western Roman Empire in the Early Middle Ages codified their laws. One of the first of these Germanic law codes to be written was the Visigothic Code of Euric (471). This was followed by the Lex Burgundionum, applying separate codes for Germans and for Romans; the Pactus Alamannorum; and the Salic Law of the Franks, all written soon after 500. In 506, the Breviarum or "Lex Romana" of Alaric II, king of the Visigoths, adopted and consolidated the Codex Theodosianus together with assorted earlier Roman laws. Systems that appeared somewhat later include the Edictum Rothari of the Lombards (643), the Lex Visigothorum (654), the Lex Alamannorum (730) and the Lex Frisionum (ca 785). These continental codes were all composed in Latin, whilst Anglo-Saxon was used for those of England, beginning with the Code of Ethelbert of Kent (602). In ca. 893, Alfred the Great combined this and two other earlier Saxon codes, with various Mosaic and Christian precepts, to produce the Doom Book code of laws for England.

Japanmarker's Seventeen-article constitution written in 604, reportedly by Prince Shōtoku, is an early example of a constitution in Asian political history. Influenced by Buddhist teachings, the document focuses more on social morality than institutions of government per se and remains a notable early attempt at a government constitution. Another is the Constitution of Medina, drafted by the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, in 622. It is said to be one of the earliest constitutions which guarantees basic rights to religions and adherents as well as reinforcing a judiciary process regarding the rules of warfare, tax and civil disputes.

In Wales, the Cyfraith Hywel was codified by Hywel Dda c. 942–950.

The Pravda Yaroslava, originally combined by Yaroslav the Wise the Grand Prince of Kiev, was granted to Great Novgorodmarker around 1017, and in 1054 was incorporated into the Russkaya Pravda, that became the law for all of Kievan Rus. It survived only in later editions of the 15th century.

The Gayanashagowa, or 'oral' constitution of the Iroquois nation, has been estimated to date from between 1090 and 1150. It is also thought to have provided a partial inspiration for the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, as was recognised by the US Congress in a resolution passed in October, 1988.

In Englandmarker, Henry I's proclamation of the Charter of Liberties in 1100 bound the king for the first time in his treatment of the clergy and the nobility. This idea was extended and refined by the English barony when they forced King John to sign Magna Carta in 1215. The most important single article of the Magna Carta, related to "habeas corpus", provided that the king was not permitted to imprison, outlaw, exile or kill anyone at a whim—there must be due process of law first. This article, Article 39, of the Magna Carta read:

No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land.

This provision became the cornerstone of English liberty after that point. The social contract in the original case was between the king and the nobility, but was gradually extended to all of the people. It led to the system of Constitutional Monarchy, with further reforms shifting the balance of power from the monarchy and nobility to the House of Commonsmarker.

In 1222, Hungarian King Andrew II issued the Golden Bull of 1222.

Between 1220 and 1230, a Saxonmarker administrator, Eike von Repgow, composed the Sachsenspiegel, which became the supreme law used in parts of Germany as late as 1900.

In 1236, Sundiata Keita presented an oral constitution federating the Mali Empire, called the Kouroukan Fouga.

Meanwhile, around 1240, the Coptic Egyptian Christian writer, 'Abul Fada'il Ibn al-'Assal, wrote the Fetha Negest in Arabic. 'Ibn al-Assal took his laws partly from apostolic writings and Mosaic law, and partly from the former Byzantine codes. There are a few historical records claiming that this law code was translated into Ge'ez and entered Ethiopia around 1450 in the reign of Zara Yaqob. Even so, its first recorded use in the function of a constitution (supreme law of the land) is with Sarsa Dengel beginning in 1563. The Fetha Negest remained the supreme law in Ethiopia until 1931, when a modern-style Constitution was first granted by Emperor Haile Selassie I.

Stefan Dušan, Emperor of Serbs and Greeks, made and enforced Dušan's Code in Serbiamarker, in two state congresses: in 1349 in Skopjemarker and in 1354 in Serresmarker.

In Chinamarker, the Hongwu Emperor created and refined a document he called Ancestral Injunctions (first published in 1375, revised twice more before his death in 1398). These rules served in a very real sense as a constitution for the Ming Dynastymarker for the next 250 years.

Modern constitutions

The earliest written constitution still governing a sovereign nation today may be that of San Marinomarker. The Leges Statutae Republicae Sancti Marini was written in Latin and consists of six books. The first book, with 62 articles, establishes councils, courts, various executive officers and the powers assigned to them. The remaining books cover criminal and civil law, judicial procedures and remedies. Written in 1600, the document was based upon the Statuti Comunali (Town Statute) of 1300, itself influenced by the Codex Justinianus, and it remains in force today.

In 1639, the Colony of Connecticut adopted the Fundamental Orders, which is considered the first North American constitution, and is the basis for every new Connecticut constitution since, and is also the reason for Connecticutmarker's nickname, "the Constitution Statemarker". England had two short-lived written Constitutions during Cromwellian rule, known as the Instrument of Government (1653), and Humble Petition and Advice (1657).

Agreements and Constitutions of Laws and Freedoms of the Zaporizian Host can be acknowledged as the first European constitution in a modern sense. It was written in 1710 by Pylyp Orlyk, hetman of the Zaporozhian Host. This "Constitution of Pylyp Orlyk" (as it is widely known) was written to establish a free Zaporozhian-Ukrainian Republic, with the support of Charles XII of Sweden. It is notable in that it established a democratic standard for the separation of powers in government between the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches, well before the publication of Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws. This Constitution also limited the executive authority of the hetman, and established a democratically elected Cossack parliament called the General Council. However, Orlyk's project for an independent Ukrainianmarker State never materialized, and his constitution, written in exile, never went into effect.

Other examples of early European constitutions were the Corsican Constitution of 1755 and the Swedish Constitution of 1772. All of the British colonies in North America that were to become the 13 original United States, adopted their own constitutions in 1776 and 1777, during the American Revolution (and before the later Articles of Confederation and United States Constitution), with the exceptions of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The Commonwealth of Massachusettsmarker adopted its Constitution in 1780, the oldest still-functioning constitution of any U.S. state; while Connecticut and Rhode Island officially continued to operate under their old colonial charters, until they adopted their first state constitutions in 1818 and 1843, respectively.

The United States Constitution, ratified June 21, 1788, was influenced by the British constitutional system and the political system of the United Provinces, plus the writings of Polybius, Locke, Montesquieu, and others. The document became a benchmark for republicanism and codified constitutions written thereafter. Next were the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Constitution of May 3, 1791, traditionally regarded as world's second and Europe's first, and the French Constitution of September 3, 1791. The Spanish Constitution of 1812 was the fourth modern, democratic and liberal world´s national constitution gone into effect. It served as a model for other liberal constitutions of several South-European and Latin American nations like Portuguese Constitution of 1822, constitutions of various Italianmarker states during Carbonari revolts (i.e. in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies), or Mexican Constitution of 1824. As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, the absolute monarchy of Denmarkmarker lost its personal possession of Norwaymarker to another absolute monarchy, Swedenmarker. However the Norwegians managed to infuse a radically democratic and liberal constitution in 1814, adopting many facets from the American constitution and the revolutionary French ones; but maintaining a heredetary monarch limited by the constitution, like the Spanish one.

Principles of constitutional design

After tribal people first began to live in cities and establish nations, many of these functioned according to unwritten customs, while some developed autocratic, even tyrannical monarchs, who ruled by decree, or mere personal whim. Such rule led some thinkers to take the position that what mattered was not the design of governmental institutions and operations, as much as the character of the rulers. This view can be seen in Plato, who called for rule by "philosopher-kings."Later writers, such as Aristotle, Cicero and Plutarch, would examine designs for government from a legal and historical standpoint.

The Renaissance brought a series of political philosophers who wrote implied criticisms of the practices of monarchs and sought to identify principles of constitutional design that would be likely to yield more effective and just governance from their viewpoints. This began with revival of the Roman law of nations concept and its application to the relations among nations, and they sought to establish customary "laws of war and peace" to ameliorate wars and make them less likely. This led to considerations of what authority monarchs or other officials have and don't have, from where that authority derives, and the remedies for abusing such authority.

A seminal juncture in this line of discourse arose in England from the Civil War, the Cromwellian Protectorate, the writings of Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Rutherford, the Levellers, John Milton, and James Harrington, leading to the debate between Robert Filmer, arguing for the divine right of monarchs, on the one side, and on the other, Henry Neville, James Tyrrell, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke. What arose from the latter was a concept of government being erected on the foundations of first, a state of nature governed by natural laws, then a state of society, established by a social contract or compact, which bring underlying natural or social laws, before governments are formally established on them as foundations.

Along the way several writers examined how the design of government was important, even if the government were headed by a monarch. They also classified various historical examples of governmental designs, typically into democracies, aristocracies, or monarchies, and considered how just and effective each tended to be and why, and how the advantages of each might be obtained by combining elements of each into a more complex design that balanced competing tendencies. Some, such as Montesquieu, also examined how the functions of government, such as legislative, executive, and judicial, might appropriately be separated into branches. The prevailing theme among these writers was that the design of constitutions is not completely arbitrary or a matter of taste. They generally held that there are underlying principles of design that constrain all constitutions for every polity or organization. Each built on the ideas of those before concerning what those principles might be.

The later writings of Orestes Brownson would try to explain what constitutional designers were trying to do. According to Brownson there are, in a sense, three "constitutions" involved: The first the constitution of nature that includes all of what was called "natural law." The second is the constitution of society, an unwritten and commonly understood set of rules for the society formed by a social contract before it establishes a government, by which it establishes the third, a constitution of government. The second would include such elements as the making of decisions by public conventions called by public notice and conducted by established rules of procedure. Each constitution must be consistent with, and derive its authority from, the ones before it, as well as from a historical act of society formation or constitutional ratification. Brownson argued that a state is a society with effective dominion over a well-defined territory, that consent to a well-designed constitution of government arises from presence on that territory, and that it is possible for provisions of a written constitution of government to be "unconstitutional" if they are inconsistent with the constitutions of nature or society. Brownson argued that it is not ratification alone that makes a written constitution of government legitimate, but that it must also be competently designed and applied.

Other writers have argued that such considerations apply not only to all national constitutions of government, but also to the constitutions of private organizations, that it is not an accident that the constitutions that tend to satisfy their members contain certain elements, as a minimum, or that their provisions tend to become very similar as they are amended after experience with their use. Provisions that give rise to certain kinds of questions are seen to need additional provisions for how to resolve those questions, and provisions that offer no course of action may best be omitted and left to policy decisions. Provisions that conflict with what Brownson and others can discern are the underlying "constitutions" of nature and society tend to be difficult or impossible to execute, or to lead to unresolvable disputes.

Constitutional design has been treated as a kind of metagame in which play consists of finding the best design and provisions for a written constitution that will be the rules for the game of government, and that will be most likely to optimize a balance of the utilities of justice, liberty, and security. An example is the metagame Nomic.

Governmental constitutions

Most commonly, the term constitution refers to a set of rules and principles that define the nature and extent of government. Most constitutions seek to regulate the relationship between institutions of the state, in a basic sense the relationship between the executive, legislature and the judiciary, but also the relationship of institutions within those branches. For example, executive branches can be divided into a head of government, government departments/ministries, executive agencies and a civil service/bureaucracy. Most constitutions also attempt to define the relationship between individuals and the state, and to establish the broad rights of individual citizens. It is thus the most basic law of a territory from which all the other laws and rules are hierarchically derived; in some territories it is in fact called "Basic Law."

Key features

The following are features of democratic constitutions that have been identified by political scientists to exist, in one form or another, in virtually all national constitutions.


A fundamental classification is codification or lack of codification. A codified constitution is one that is contained in a single document, which is the single source of constitutional law in a state. An uncodified constitution is one that is not contained in a single document, consisting of several different sources, which may be written or unwritten.

Codified constitution
Most states in the world have codified constitutions. Only three have uncodified constitutions: Israelmarker, New Zealandmarker, and the United Kingdommarker.

Codified constitutions are often the product of some dramatic political change, such as a revolution. The process by which a country adopts a constitution is closely tied to the historical and political context driving this fundamental change. The legitimacy (and often the longevity) of codified constitutions has often been tied to the process by which they are initially adopted.

States that have codified constitutions normally give the constitution supremacy over ordinary statute law. That is, if there is any conflict between a legal statute and the codified constitution, all or part of the statute can be declared ultra vires by a court, and struck down as unconstitutional. In addition, an extraordinary procedure is often required to make a constitutional amendment. These procedures may involve: obtaining ⅔ majorities in the national legislature, the consent of regional legislatures, a referendum process, or some other procedure that makes obtaining a constitutional amendment more difficult than passing a simple law.

Constitutions may also provide that their most basic principles can never be abolished, even by amendment. In case a formally valid amendment of a constitution infringes these principles protected against any amendment, it may constitute a so-called unconstitutional constitutional law.

Codified constitutions normally consist of a ceremonial preamble, which sets forth the goals of the state and the motivation for the constitution, and several articles containing the substantive provisions. The preamble, which is omitted in some constitutions, may contain a reference to God and/or to fundamental values of the state such as liberty, democracy or human rights.

Uncodified constitution
Uncodified constitutions (also known as unwritten constitutions) are the product of an "evolution" of laws and conventions over centuries. By contrast to codified constitutions, in the Westminster tradition that originated in England, uncodified constitutions include written sources: e.g. constitutional statutes enacted by the Parliament (House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, Northern Ireland Act 1998, Scotland Act 1998, Government of Wales Act 1998, European Communities Act 1972 and Human Rights Act 1998); and also unwritten sources: constitutional conventions, observation of precedents, royal prerogatives, custom and tradition, such as always holding the General Election on Thursdays; together these constitute the British constitutional law. In the days of the British Empire, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Councilmarker acted as the constitutional court for many of the British colonies such as Canadamarker and Australia which had federal constitutions.

In states using uncodified constitutions, the difference between constitutional law and statutory law (i.e. law applying to any area of governance) in legal terms is nil. Both can be altered or repealed by a simple majority in Parliament. In practice, democratic governments do not use this opportunity to abolish all civil rights, which in theory they could do, but the distinction between regular and constitutional law is still 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, Magna Carta are regarded as granting fundamental rights and principles which are treated as almost constitutional.

See also: Fundamental Laws of England

Written versus unwritten / codified versus uncodified
The term written constitution is used to describe a constitution that is entirely written, which by definition includes every codified constitution. However, some constitutions are entirely written but, strictly speaking, not entirely codified. For example, in the Constitution of Australia, most of its fundamental political principles and regulations concerning the relationship between branches of government, and concerning the government and the individual are codified in a single document, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia. However, the presence of statutes with constitutional significance, namely the Statute of Westminster, as adopted by the Commonwealth in the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942, and the Australia Act 1986 means that Australia's constitution is not contained in a single constitutional document. The Constitution of Canada, which evolved from the British North America Acts until severed from nominal British control by the Canada Act 1982 (analogous to the Australia Act 1986), is a similar example.

The term written constitution is often used interchangeably with codified constitution, and similarly unwritten constitution is used interchangeably with uncodified constitution. As shown above, this usage with respect to written and codified constitutions can be inaccurate. Strictly speaking, unwritten constitution is never an accurate synonym for uncodified constitution, because all modern democratic constitutions consist of some written sources, even if they have no different technical status than ordinary statutes. Another term used is formal (written) constitution, for example in the following context: "The United Kingdom has no formal constitution." This usage is correct, but it should be construed to mean that the United Kingdom does not have a codified constitution, not that the UK has no constitution of any kind, which would not be correct.

A constitution can be written but not codified. Codified would suggest written in one document. This means that a constitution that has a number of written sources is still written, but not codified.

Constitutions may provide that, for the purpose of clarity, they may be amended only by a law expressly amending or supplementing the Constitutional text itself (otherwise the relevant law would not enjoy the status of constitutinal law). The German Federal Constitution does expressly, and the constitutional tradition of the German federal states do at least in an implied manner, provide for this.


The presence or lack of entrenchment is a fundamental feature of constitutions. Entrenchment in general means that amending a constitution is a more difficult process than that for modifying ordinary laws. Some constitutions also contain entrenched clauses, i.e. articles stating that certain modifications are either more difficult to make than normal modifications, or impossible to make at all. Entrenchment is an inherent feature in most written constitutions. The US constitution is an example of an entrenched constitution, and the UK constitution is an example of a constitution that is not entrenched.

The procedure for modifying a constitution is often called amending. Sometimes, the reason for this is that the constitution is considered supreme law, such as according to the supremacy clause in the US constitution. Regardless of whether a constitution has this technical status, all states with an entrenched constitution recognise the difference between constitutional law and ordinary statutory law. Procedures for ratification of constitutional amendments vary between states. In a federal system of government, the approval of a majority of state/provincial legislatures may be required. Alternatively, a national referendum may be required in some states, such as in Australia.

In constitutions that are not entrenched, no special procedure is required for modification. In the small number of countries with un-entrenched constitutions, the lack of entrenchment is because the constitution is not recognised with any higher legal status than ordinary statutes. In the UK, for example, passing laws which modify sources of the constitution, whether they are written or unwritten, are passed on a simple majority in Parliamentmarker. The concept of "amendment" does not apply, as the constitution can be altered as easily in terms of procedure as any national law.

Absolutely unmodifiable articles
The strongest level of entrenchment exists in those constitutions that state that some of their most fundamental principles are absolute, i.e. certain articles may not be amended under any circumstances, except through the assertion of the right of revolution. An amendment of a constitution that is made consistently with that constitution, except that it violates the absolute non-modifiability, can be called an unconstitutional constitutional law.

One example of absolute unmodifiability is the German Federal Constitution. This states in Article 20 that the country has to be a democratic, federal and social republic, and in Article 1 that the state powers have to: (i) leave dignity of man inviolable; (ii) where rule of law prevails; and (iii) where sovereignty lies with the people. Article 79, Section 3 states that these articles cannot be changed, even according to the methods of amendment defined elsewhere in the document.

Another example is the Constitution of Honduras, which has an article stating that the article itself and certain other articles cannot be changed in any circumstances. Article 374 of the Honduras Constitution asserts this unmodifiability, stating, "It is not possible to reform, in any case, the preceding article, the present article, the constitutional articles referring to the form of government, to the national territory, to the presidential period, the prohibition to serve again as President of the Republic, the citizen who has performed under any title in consequence of which she/he cannot be President of the Republic in the subsequent period." This unmodifiability article has played an important role in the 2009 Honduran constitutional crisis.

Distribution of sovereignty

See also: Federalism

Constitutions also establish where sovereignty is located in the state. There are three basic types of distribution of sovereignty: federal, unitary and confederal. A federal system of government will inevitably have a constitution that recognizes the division of sovereignty between the centre and peripheral/provincial regions of the state. The Canadian Constitution is an example of this, dividing power between the federal government and the provinces. A unitary constitution recognises that sovereignty resides only in the centre of the state. In the UK, the constitutional doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty dictates than sovereignty is ultimately contained at the centre. However, some unitary states (Spainmarker is an example) may delegate more and more power to sub-national governments until the state functions in practice much like a federal state. Confederal constitutions are rare, and there is often dispute to whether so-called "confederal" states are actually federal. In a confederacy, sovereignty is located in peripheral regions/provinces and only limited power is granted to the centre. A historical example of a confederal constitution is the Swiss Federal Constitution.

Separation of powers

Constitutions usually explicitly divide power between various branches of government. The standard model, described by the Baron de Montesquieu, involves three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial. Some constitutions include additional branches, such as an auditory branch. Constitutions vary extensively as to the degree of separation of powers between these branches.

Lines of accountability

In presidential and semi-presidential systems of government, department secretaries/ministers are accountable to the president, who has patronage powers to appoint and dismiss ministers. The president is accountable to the people in an election.

In parliamentary systems, ministers are accountable to Parliament, but it is the prime minister who appoints and dismisses them. In Westminster systems, this power derives from the monarch (or head of state in Westminster-style republics, such as Indiamarker and the Republic of Irelandmarker), a component of Parliament. There is the concept of a vote of no confidence in many countries with parliamentary systems, which means that if a majority of the legislature vote for a no confidence motion, then the government must resign, and a new one will be formed, or parliament will be dissolved and a general election called.

Façade constitutions

Italian political theorist Giovanni Sartori noted the existence of national constitutions which are a façade for authoritarian sources of power. While such documents may express respect for human rights or establish an independent judiciary, they may be ignored when the government feels threatened or entirely dishonoured in practice. An extreme example was the Constitution of the Soviet Union that on paper supported freedom of assembly or freedom of speech; however, citizens who acted accordingly were summarily imprisoned. The example demonstrates that the protections and benefits of a constitution are provided less through its written terms than through deference by government and society to its principles.

Constitutional courts

The constitution 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 compatibility of legislation with the provisions and principles of the constitution, which is termed "constitutionality." Especially important is the court's responsibility to protect constitutionally established rights and freedoms. In constitutions without the concept of supreme law, such as the United Kingdom constitution, the concept of "constitutionality" has little meaning, and constitutional courts do not exist.A "constitutional violation" is an action or legislative act that is judged by a constitutional court to be contrary to the constitution, that is, "unconstitutional." An example of constitutional violation by the executive could be a politician who abuses the powers of his constitutionally-established office. An example of constitutional violation by the legislature is an attempt to pass a law that would contradict the constitution, without first going through the proper constitutional amendment process.

A constitutional court is normally the court of last resort, the highest judicial body in the government. The process of judicial review is then integrated into the system of courts of appeal. This is the case, for example, with the Supreme Court of the United Statesmarker or Supreme Court of Indiamarker. Cases must normally be heard in lower courts before being brought before the Supreme Court, except cases for which the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction. Some other countries dedicate a special court solely to the protection of the constitution, as with the German Constitutional Courtmarker. Most constitutional courts are powerful instruments of judicial review, with the power to declare laws "unconstitutional," that is, incompatible with the constitution. The effect of this ruling varies between governments, but it is common for the courts' action to rule a law unenforceable, as is the case in the United States. However, many courts have the problem of relying on the legislative and executive branches' co-operation to properly enforce their decisions. For example, in the United States, the Supreme Court's ruling overturning the "separate but equal" doctrine in the 1950s depended on individual states co-operation to enforce. Some failed to do so, prompting the federal government to intervene. Other countries, such as France, have a Constitutional Council which may only judge the constitutionality of laws before the ratification process.

Some countries, mainly those with uncodified constitutions, have no such courts at all – for example, as the United Kingdom traditionally functions under the principle of parliamentary sovereignty: the legislature has the power to enact any law it wishes. However, through its membership in the European Union, the UK is now subject to the jurisdiction of European Union law and the European Court of Justice; similarly, by acceding to the Council of Europe's European Convention on Human Rights, it is subject to the European Court of Human Rightsmarker. In effect, these bodies can invalidate or interpret UK legislation for compliance with international treaty obligations, first established as a principle by the Factortame case.

See also

Judicial philosophies of constitutional interpretation (note: generally specific to United States constitutional law)


  1. The historical and institutional context of Roman law, George Mousourakis, 2003, p. 243
  2. Pylyp Orlyk Constitution, European commission for democracy through law (Venice Commission) The Constitutional Heritage of Europe. Montpellier, 22–23 November 1996.
  3. Isaac Kramnick, Introduction,
  4. John Markoff describes the advent of modern codified national constitutions as one of the milestones of democracy, and states that "The first European country to follow the U.S. example was Poland in 1791." John Markoff, Waves of Democracy, 1996, ISBN 0-8039-9019-7, p.121.
  5. Aristotle, by Francesco Hayez
  6. Relectiones, Franciscus de Victoria (lect. 1532, first pub. 1557).
  7. The Law of War and Peace[1], Hugo Grotius (1625)
  8. Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants), "Junius Brutus" (Orig. Fr. 1581, Eng. tr. 1622, 1689)
  9. The American Republic: its Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny, O. A. Brownson (1866)
  10. Principles of Constitutional Design, Donald S. Lutz (2006) ISBN 0-521-86168-3
  11. The Paradox of Self-Amendment, byPeter Suber (1990) ISBN 0-8204-1212-0
  12. Article 79 section 1 of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany.

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