Originally, the U.S. Constitution was designed to prevent the formation of a huge confusing body of laws, to keep government simple and to prevent the formation of politically selfish parties. (Smith, 1987, p. xii) In these aims it has failed miserably. However, it was provided with a method for change that allowed it to be modified to fit the needs of the nation as those needs changed. Amending the Constitution is not an easy process, but it is a peaceful one. The first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, is possible the most important change made to this document, but there have been a total of 23 in all, which is surprising for the length of 200+ years. The main function the Constitution has been, for a long time now, the last test of any law in the protection of the rights of the people.
It first established the system of making and changing laws, and it supplies the method for judging those laws as they apply to the rights and privileges of the people. The contents and tenets of the Constitution is our basic value system as a nation, and all other laws are compared with it as a validation process. The independence of the Supreme Court is primary to the smooth functioning of this document by which our laws are judged, as they are the judges, and they must be impartial and incorruptible. A secondary role of the constitution was to establish the system of checks and balances within the three branches of the government and define and limit their powers, define a rule of succession, limit the power of the government at all levels, and to provide a method for changing the constitution. These roles are just as important to the country, but they are less often invoked.
Most of the time, when we hear that the Supreme Court has made an important ruling, the Constitution has been used to judge the validity of a law or of the rulings of lower courts as the laws involved were interpreted by those courts. One landmark decision which many people know about was Rowe VS Wade, which made it illegal for any state to prohibit abortion, thereby upholding both the “separation of church and state character of our Constitution and the rights of women to control their own bodies. Another landmark decision was the Brown VS the State Board of Education removed the “separate but equal” from state laws for education, thereby ending segregation of schools. (Vile, 1997, p. 183-187) In both of these cases state laws were being compared to the Constitution, and both laws were found by the Supreme Court to be in violation of the principals of the Constitution.
When any citizen believes that a law violates the U.S. Constitution, and has been accused of violating that law, that citizen has the right of appeal, granted by the Constitution, to a higher court. Each ruling at each level of the judicial system may be appealed to a higher court. When the case reaches state supreme court level it can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court decides it needs attention, the nine judges elect to hear the case and judge the constitutionality of the ruling of the lower courts and, possibly, of the law by which that ruling was made.
Currently, the Patriot Act is probably in violation of the Constitution, and eventually it will be considered by the Supreme Court. It violates a number of constitutional protections, but has not been taken through the long process of challenge as yet. It will have to be challenged on a federal level, since it is a federal law, and it will be up to the Supreme Court to control both the process and the outcome, according to the value system embodied in the Constitution.
Smith, J. (Ed.). (1987). The American Constitution: The First Two Hundred Years, 1787-1987. Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press. Web.
Vile, J. R. (1997). A Companion to the United States Constitution and Its Amendments (2nd ed.). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. Web.