the Constitution


A pact between nations that, if entered into by the United States through its Executive Branch, must be approved by two-thirds of the Senate under Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution. Presidents sometimes get around this requirement by entering into "Executive Agreements" with leaders of other countries; these are mutual understandings rather than enforceable treaties.

taking the Fifth

A popular phrase that refers to a witness's refusal to testify on the ground that the testimony might incriminate the witness in a crime. The principle is based on the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides that "No person . . . shall be compelled to be a witness against himself," and is applied to state courts by the Fourteenth Amendment. (See also: self-incrimination)

strict construction

Interpreting a legal provision (usually a constitutional protection) narrowly. Strict constructionists often look only at the literal meaning of the words in question, or at their historical meaning at the time the law was written. Also referred to as "strict interpretation" or "original intent," because a person who follows the doctrine of strict construction of the Constitution tries to ascertain the intent of the framers at the time the document was written by considering what the language they used meant at that time.

Section 1981

A shorthand reference to the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which declares African Americans to be citizens entitled to a series of rights previously reserved to white men. Among the rights conferred by Section 1981 are the right to sue or be sued in court, to give evidence in a lawsuit, to purchase property, and to make and enforce contracts, which courts have interpreted to prohibit racial discrimination in employment.

police powers

The fundamental right of a government to make all necessary laws. In the United States, state police power comes from the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which gives states the rights and powers "not delegated to the United States." States are thus granted the power to establish and enforce laws protecting the welfare, safety, and health of the public.


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