What is a Constitutional Amendment?

Alan Rankin

A constitutional amendment is an addition or change to the constitution that administers a government or organization. A constitution is the initial charter adopted when such a body is first formed. This is the primary document group members will reference when considering a questionable law or practice. It is designed to apply as written throughout the organization’s existence. Amending a constitution can be a rigorous process, because such amendments must be judged to uphold the spirit of the original document.

The Bill of Rights includes the first ten amendments to the US Constitution.
The Bill of Rights includes the first ten amendments to the US Constitution.

The U.S. Constitution is probably the most famous example of an amended constitution, but it is not the first or only such document. States, other nations, civic organizations and even recreational groups also can be established through constitutions. Every U.S. state, the nation of Sweden, the United Auto Workers union, and the sports club of New York’s Binghamton University are among the bodies that refer to their primary charter as a constitution. The process of approving a constitutional amendment is called “ratifying.”

Constitutional amendments make changes to an existing constitution.
Constitutional amendments make changes to an existing constitution.

A constitutional amendment is a document separate from a constitution. Once ratified, it carries the same authority as the constitution it amends. For example, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution are commonly known as the Bill of Rights. The rights guaranteed by these amendments are part of the U.S. Constitution and must be considered as such. When the U.S. Supreme Court deliberates over a legal issue, it must weigh the Bill of Rights and all other amendments before deciding if the matter is truly “constitutional.”

Amending a constitution is often a complex task. An amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for example, must be proposed by two-thirds of the members of both houses of Congress, and then ratified by three-fourths of the individual state legislatures. Winning this level of support can take years, and most prospective amendments never achieve it. The 1972 Equal Rights Amendment guaranteeing equal rights to women narrowly missed the required state ratification despite being proposed by Congress, and failed to become a constitutional amendment.

The process of ratifying a constitutional amendment can be less rigorous, depending on the organization. The Texas legislature has added almost 500 amendments to its constitution since 1876. The national constitution of India, effective in 1950, has since been amended more than 90 times. Smaller organizations such as towns may allow a constitutional amendment to be ratified by a majority vote of council members. One drawback of this is that such ease of change increases the possibility that a constitutional amendment may change the original intent of the constitution.

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