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According to the United States Code, there are four organic laws of the United States:

  1. The United States Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776,
  2. The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union of November 15, 1777,
  3. The Northwest Ordinance of July 13, 1787, and
  4. The Constitution of the United States of America of September 17, 1787.

QUESTION: Does this mean that all four of the above are "equipotent"? If not, on what basis are they ranked? I ask this question because in Supreme Court decisions, it seems to me that it is only the U. S. Constitution that is, in practice, considered.

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    Where in the United States Code are these listed as organic laws? Do you have a citation (The United States Code being bewilderingly massive). Its strange, because only one of this things is actually a law.
    – sharur
    Jan 1, 2023 at 22:00
  • @sharur See, for example, footnote [6] (if the link still works) of en.wikipedia.org/wiki/….
    – DDS
    Jan 1, 2023 at 22:36
  • @sharur In the Front Matter; they have been included since 1878 (see books.google.ch/…) in the revised statutes; however as apparent from the organization, they are not part of the revised statutes or the Code themselves. They were taken from a work prepared by Maj. Ben. P. Poore on order of the Senate (catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001140814) on the organic laws of the U.S. and its states as an authoritative historical collection more than anything.
    – xngtng
    Jan 2, 2023 at 13:59
  • My understanding is that at least one published version of the United States Code includes a section titled "The organic laws of the United States of America" which includes these four documents; there's no law, or other explicit statement, in the United States Code which actually states that these four documents are all organic laws. So the phrase "according to the United States Code" in this question is a little misleading. Jan 4, 2023 at 16:36

4 Answers 4

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Does this mean that all four of the above are "equipotent"?

No. The inclusion of these foundational documents in the Front Matter of the United States Code does not indicate anything regarding their legal status. It is more of a political statement, as a preamble to all laws in today's sovereign federal state, describing the foundation of the United States of America and its constitutional order.

The only constitutional law in force today in the U.S. is the Constitution for the United States of America, beginning with

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

and the subsequent amendments.

The ratification of the Constitution replaced any previous constitutional orders in effect between the States. A new government was created by the Constitution and replaced the old one under the Articles of the Confederation:

Both Governments could not be understood to exist at the same time. The New Government did not commence until the old Government expired. It is apparent that the government did not commence on the Constitution being ratified by the ninth State; for these ratifications were to be reported to Congress, whose continuing existence was recognized by the Convention, and who were requested to continue to exercise their powers for the purpose of bringing the new Government into operation. In fact, Congress did continue to act as a Government until it dissolved on the 1st of November, by the successive disappearance of its Members. It existed potentially until the 2d of March, the day proceeding that on which the Members of the new Congress were directed to assemble.

Owings v. Speed

The States abandoned their old agreement (the Articles of Confederation) and subjected themselves to the new Constitution.

Of course, the other documents remain historically very significant and may shine lights on the interpretation of the present Constitution, for example, in Texas v. White, the reference made to the concept of "perpetual union" found in the Articles.

The Declaration of Independence is not so much a legal document per se but a declaration of the existence of the States sovereign from the British Crown; but such sovereignty is not a result from the declaration, but from the acts of war.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, while remaining in effect under the Constitution by Acts of (the new) Congress, is in any case spent as its territorial extent is extinguished by the establishment and admission of states, who enjoy equal status under the Constitution. See for example, Permoli v. Municipality No. 1 of the City of New Orleans and Strader v. Graham.

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    "but such sovereignty is not a result from the declaration, but from the acts of war." And from the Treaty of Paris.
    – cpast
    Jan 1, 2023 at 22:23
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No. The U.S. Constitution as adopted in 1789 and amended at later dates is the supreme law of the land.

The Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation no longer have any force or effect and are of merely historical interest.

The Northwest Ordinance resulted in property rights in the form of public lands that were important and provided the framework within many Midwestern states were formed, but is also spent.

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They are not equipotent. Today, only the Constitution and Northwest Ordinance, actually has force of law (having superseded the Articles of Confederation completely), the latter being being a law passed by a government formed under the former.

The Declaration of Independence is less of a law, so much as a public repudiation of British legal authority the (then non) United States.

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These writings are not equipotent legal authorities.

The U.S. Constitution, which was enacted later than all the others, declares itself "the supreme Law of the Land," giving it -- as well as all the laws written pursuant to the Constitution -- primacy over the other three documents.

Practically speaking, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Northwest Ordinance are essentially impotent. A court may look to those documents to help understand the meaning of the Constitution, but virtually never to apply the rules they lay out themselves.

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    I wouldn't call the Northwest Ordinance entirely "impotent", just "hasn't been relevant in 70ish years". It still has some bits that can potentially still come up (such as about navigable waters of the Mississippi and St. Lawrence rivers).
    – sharur
    Jan 1, 2023 at 22:12
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    I would also not call the Northwest Ordinance entirely impotent.
    – bdb484
    Jan 2, 2023 at 2:38

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