Provisions for Amendment
The authors of the Constitution were keenly aware that changes would be needed from time to time if the Constitution were to endure and keep pace with the growth of the nation. They were also conscious that the process of change should not be facile, permitting ill-conceived and hastily passed amendments. By the same token, they wanted to ensure that a minority could not block action desired by most of the people. Their solution was to devise a dual process by which the Constitution could be revised.
The Congress, by a two-thirds vote in each house, may initiate an amendment. Alternatively, the legislatures of two-thirds of the states may ask Congress to call a national convention to discuss and draft amendments. In either case, amendments must have the approval of three-fourths of the states before they enter into force.
Aside from the direct process of changing the Constitution itself, the effect of its provisions may be changed by judicial interpretation. Early in the history of the republic, in the 1803 landmark case of Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court established the doctrine of judicial review, which is the power of the Court to interpret acts of Congress and decide their constitutionality. The doctrine also embraces the power of the Court to explain the meaning of various sections of the Constitution as they apply to changing legal, political, economic and social conditions. Over the years, a series of Court decisions, on issues ranging from governmental regulation of radio and television to the rights of the accused in criminal cases, has had the effect of altering the thrust of constitutional law, with no substantive change in the Constitution itself.
Congressional legislation, passed to implement provisions of the basic law or to adapt it to changing conditions, also broadens and, in subtle ways, changes the meaning of the Constitution. Up to a point, the rules and regulations of the many agencies of the federal government may have a similar effect. The acid test in both cases is whether, in the opinion of the courts, such legislation and rules conform with the intent of the Constitution itself.