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The United States Constitution established a system of government that aims to derive its power from the people.
Describe the relationship between state and federal governments as established by the Constitution
By starting with the words "We the People," the Preamble to the US Constitution suggests that the Constitution created derived its power from the people; yet it also, in some ways, implies exclusion of non-citizens.
After the Civil War, the Supreme Court held that the United States a single sovereign nation, as opposed to a collection of individually sovereign states.
The Constitution entrusts to the federal government specific established powers over which it has free exercise; yet much of the government's power is exercised concurrently between the federal and state governments.
State constitutions address a wide variety of concerns, and are generally modeled after the federal Constitution.
The phrase "People of the United States" has sometimes been understood to mean "citizens." The reasoning therein is that if the political community speaking for itself in the Preamble to the Constitution ("We the People") includes only citizens, it specifically, in some way, excludes non-citizens. It has also been thought to mean all individuals who fall under the sovereign jurisdiction of the US government.
The phrase can be seen as affirming that the national government the Constitution created derives its sovereignty from the people. It can also be seen as confirming that the government under the Constitution was intended to govern and protect "the people" directly, as one society, rather than governing only the states as political units.
Although in some ways the meaning and implications of the Preamble may be contested, at the least it can be said that it demonstrates that the US federal government was not created as an agreement between or among a coalition of the states. Instead, it was the product of "the People" with the power to govern them directly, unlike the government under the Articles of Confederation, which only governed them indirectly through rules imposed on the states.
Popular Nature of the Constitution
The Constitution is an act of "the People." However, because it represents a general social contract, there are limits on the ability of individual citizens to pursue legal claims arising from it. For example, if a law that violates the Constitution were enacted, it would not be possible for any individual to challenge the statute's constitutionality in court. Instead, only an individual negatively affected by the unconstitutional statute could bring such a challenge. In this same vein, courts will not answer hypothetical questions about a statute's constitutionality. The judiciary does not have the authority to invalidate laws solely because they are unconstitutional, but it may declare a law unconstitutional if its operation would injure a person's interests.
The United States is a union of states, each with its own individual powers. Yet this does not mean the states have power to legislate on all matters. The federal government has its own fields of legislation. If federal legislation conflicts with state laws, the federal legislation prevails and the state must defer to the federal government. The alternative—that any state may at any time leave the Union and thus be free from Union interference in the state's internal affairs—was attempted during the American Civil War when several states seceded from the Union.
There are two types of federal systems: dual federalism and cooperative federalism. Dual federalism holds that the Union and the states individually are equal. Under this view of federalism, the federal government only has the powers expressly granted to it, while the states retain all other powers. Cooperative federalism states that the federal government is definitively superior to state governments and that it should stretch its powers as far as possible. The United States is a union that does not completely fit either definition. The type of federalism that prevails often depends on who is in power at the time, and on that person's interpretation of the Constitution. The Constitution contains safeguards that prevent stretching federalism too far to either extreme, and the Tenth Amendment notably reserves for state governments all powers not expressly given to the federal government within the Constitution.
Relationship Between State and Federal Government
While each state was originally recognized as sovereign unto itself, the post-Civil War Supreme Court held that the United States consists of only one sovereign nation with respect to foreign affairs and international relations. In other words, the individual states may not conduct foreign relations. Although the Constitution expressly delegates to the federal government only some of the usual powers of sovereign governments (e.g., power to declare war or make treaties), all such powers inherently belong to the federal government as the country's representative in the international community.
Domestically, the federal government's sovereignty means that it may perform acts—such as entering into contracts or accepting bonds—that are typical of governmental entities but not expressly provided for in the Constitution or other laws. Similarly, the federal government, as an attribute of sovereignty, has the power to enforce those powers granted to it. The Court has recognized the federal government's supreme power over those limited matters entrusted to it. Thus, no state may interfere with the federal government's operations as though its sovereignty were superior to that of the federal government. For example, states may not interfere with the federal government's near-absolute discretion to sell its own real property even when that real property is located in a certain state. The federal government exercises its supreme power not as a unitary entity, but rather via the three branches of the government (legislative, executive, and judicial); each of which has its own prescribed powers and limitations under the Constitution. Additionally, the doctrine of separation of powers functions as a limitation on each branch of the federal government's exercise of sovereign power.
A unique aspect of the US system of government is that, while the rest of the world views the United States as one country, domestically, US constitutional law recognizes a federation of state governments separate from (and not subdivisions of) the federal government. Each is sovereign over its own affairs. Sometimes, as a means to explain the US system of state sovereignty, the Supreme Court has even analogized the states as being foreign countries in relation to each other. However, each state's sovereignty is limited by the US Constitution, which is the supreme law of both the United States as a nation and each state. In the event of a conflict, a valid federal law has control.
As a result, although the federal government is recognized as sovereign and has supreme power over the matters within its control, the US constitutional system also recognizes the concept of "state sovereignty," wherein certain matters are susceptible to government regulation, but only at the state level, and not the federal level. For example, although the federal government prosecutes crimes against the United States (such as treason or interference with the postal system), the general administration of criminal justice is reserved to the states.
Each US state has its own constitution. These are typically longer than the 7,500-word federal Constitution and are more detailed regarding the day-to-day relationships between the government and the people. Often modeled after the federal Constitution, they outline the structure of the state government and typically establish a bill of rights, an executive branch headed by a governor (and often one or more other officials, such as a lieutenant governor and state attorney general), a state legislature, and state courts, including a state supreme court. (A few states have two high courts: for civil cases and for criminal cases).