Constitutional Republic

A constitutional republic is a form of government in which a representative is elected by the people to govern over them, according to the rules established in the law of the land. An example of a constitutional republic is the United States’ form of government. U.S. citizens elect a President, and other representatives, who then govern them as the Constitution directs them to. To explore this concept, consider the following constitutional republic definition.

Definition of Constitutional Republic

Noun

  1. A form of government in which officials are elected by citizens to lead them as directed by their country’s constitution.

Origin

6th to 8th centuries B.C.            Noted by Aristotle

What is a Constitutional Republic

A constitutional republic is a form of government in which the head of the state, as well as other officials, are elected by the country’s citizens to represent them. Those representatives must then follow the rules of that country’s constitution in governing their people. Like the U.S. government, a constitutional republic may consist of three branches – executive, judicial, and legislative – which divide the power of the government so that no one branch becomes too powerful.

A country is considered constitutional republic if:

  • It has a constitution that limits the government’s power
  • The citizens choose their own heads of state and other governmental officials

Of course, while this is how a constitutional republic is supposed to work, in practice, it is not always run this way. Some republics are governed by constitutions that can be ignored by the head(s) of state.

The types of officials that Americans can directly elect include council members, state representatives, governors, and senators. Certain officials, like mayors, may not be directly elected. For instance, the president is indirectly elected by the Electoral College. The president can then choose certain other officials, such as Supreme Court justices, however the legislative branch must confirm whomsoever he nominates to that position.

Constitutional Republic vs. Democracy

Some believe that the United States is a democracy, but it is actually the perfect example of a constitutional republic. A pure democracy would be a form of government in which the leaders, while elected by the people, are not constrained by a constitution as to its actions. In a republic, however, elected officials cannot take away or violate certain rights of the people. The Pledge of Allegiance, which was written in 1892 and adopted by Congress in 1942 as the official pledge, even makes reference to the fact that the U.S. is a republic:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic, for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” [emphasis added]

The Anti-Federalists and Federalists, as the new nation was being formed, could not agree on how involved the federal government should be in citizens’ lives; a decision on a pure democracy could never be reached. Alexander Hamilton, himself a Federalist, stated that the government being created was a “republican government,” and that true freedom would not be found in a dictatorship nor a true democracy, but in a moderate government.

James Madison, another Federalist, stated that, while citizens would otherwise get together to discuss governmental operations in a democracy, a republic instead leaves the bigger decisions up to its elected representatives. Madison stated that a democracy needs to be “confined to a small spot,” while republics could be “extended over a large[r] region.” What he meant by this, was that by not forming a democracy, citizens could allow representatives to make decisions for them on bigger issues, such as international relations, as opposed to having to find a way to all meet up and discuss these issues together.

Despite the fact that most countries claim that “democracy” is their main goal, most countries govern as republics. However, not all republics are the same; with some, for instance, operating under a president (like the U.S.), and others operating under a parliament (the U.K.), in which the people elect a legislative branch that then decides the executive branch. Even some monarchies operate as republics, despite having royalty as their heads of state.

The following table outlines some of the differences between a constitutional republic and a democracy:

DEMOCRACY REPUBLIC
Ruled by a majority that enjoys unlimited power. Minority groups have no protection. Follows a written Constitution that protects the rights of the minority from being infringed upon by the majority.
Individuals can make their own decisions except in those situations that the majority has limited. Generally, individuals can make their own decisions, especially in situations where the Constitution protects their “unalienable rights.”
While all citizens supposedly have a say in government and are to be treated as equals, the majority often ends up tyrannically ruling the minority. Generally, all citizens are supposed to have an equal say and be treated equally, especially as protected under the Constitution.
The United States is commonly confused for a democracy. However, the will of the people should not, and does not, change the rules that limit the government’s power. Article 4, Section 4 defines the United States as a Republic.
Freedom of religion is permitted to the extent that the majority does not limit religious freedom for the minority. Generally, religious freedom is permitted, especially as protected under the Constitution.
Private property is permitted, though the majority may place limits on the property rights of the minority. Generally, private property is permitted, especially as protected under the Constitution.

Limits on Governmental Power

A constitutional republic is put in place to prevent the government from becoming a tyrannical ruler. The United States Constitution contains protections against what is referred to as “the tyranny of the majority” on the rights of American citizens. Examples of constitutional republic protections include:

  • Congress cannot prohibit the expression of free speech, nor the free exercise of one’s religion, and it cannot infringe on a citizen’s right to possess a gun. (First and Second Amendments)
  • The Senate must be elected by the States, not citizens. (Seventeenth Amendment)
  • The President must be elected by the Electoral College, not citizens.

American citizens have argued in the past for the abolishment of the Electoral College. This argument comes up when a presidential candidate wins the popular vote but loses the election, due to not receiving enough electoral votes to win the presidency.

The 2016 election was the perfect example of this situation. Donald Trump was elected to the presidency by the Electoral College, despite having lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. Those who believed that Donald Trump would become a tyrannical ruler if he were to ascend to the Oval Office fought for the Electoral College to be abolished once and for all. Several citizens created petitions, calling upon the government for this abolishment, and many others voiced their frustrations via protests.

Constitutional Republic Example in Obamacare

There are several examples of constitutional republic being under attack through lawsuits. These types of situations typically arise when the majority passes a law through their representatives, yet other citizens claim the law is unconstitutional. Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of this in recent history is the challenging of the Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as “Obamacare”) at the Supreme Court level.

Congress passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which went into effect in March, 2010. The purpose of the ACA was to provide health insurance to millions of Americans who were not covered. It also sought to limit the extent to which citizens could seek health care services for which they could not – or did not – pay.

Shortly after the ACA was passed, several states and organizations – led by the state of Florida – brought lawsuits before the United States District Court in Florida, claiming that the ACA was unconstitutional. Individuals Kaj Ahburg and Mary Brown also jumped on board as plaintiffs in the case.

The group’s claims were based on a number of grounds, among them was the claim that the requirement for employers to purchase health insurance for their employees interfered with state sovereignty, or the right of the state to remain independent and have control over its own decisions.

Another of these grounds – and Brown’s individual reason for bringing suit – echoed the complaints of several Americans who felt they were being punished financially by the ACA. Brown did not have health insurance, and was being forced to make necessary financial arrangements to ensure that she could comply with the Act’s requirements. Those who could not afford, or simply refused, to comply were to be issued a tax penalty when they submitted their taxes. This individual mandate penalty essentially acted as a sort of punishment for not having health insurance.

Among the additional rulings that the District Court made on this case, it ultimately found the entire ACA to be invalid. This was due, in part, to the fact that the individual mandate that taxed citizens for not having insurance was not an appropriate usage of Congress’ powers of commerce or taxation. The Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court in some aspects, but reversed the District Court on the individual mandate issue. The appeals court held that yes, the mandate could actually be considered separately without invalidating the other parts of the ACA.

When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court was split on the issue of the individual mandate penalty. Chief Justice Roberts, along with Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, held that the mandate was a legitimate exercise of Congressional power. They concluded that the penalty is not a normal tax to be collected by the IRS, and that it is not so severe as to be considered forcible. Further, they ruled that the mandate was not limited to willful violations, such as fines that are imposed upon citizens for breaking the law.

However, Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito disagreed. Their argument was that, because Congress referred to the payment as a “penalty,” then if it were to be considered another kind of tax, that would require a re-write of the Constitution’s Taxing and Spending Clause.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Tyranny – Brutal and oppressive governmental rule.

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