Constitutional Law

  • 0/5 Stars
Course Length:
15 weeks
  • This course explores the meaning of the Constitution through an examination of leading opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court, an institution that is both legal and political in nature. This semester begins with a focus on the structure of the Court and theoretical arguments for judicial review. During the main part of the semester, we will examine the application of judicial power to questions involving the powers of the branches of the federal government, the relation between the federal and state governments, and the nature of the personal liberties protected by the Constitution. We will pay close attention to the reasoning of these opinions as well as the methods of interpretation used to justify them, and we will explore the implications of court decisions on American political life.
  • This is a challenging course that requires your continual attendance and participation. If you are the type of person who only shows up for exams, drop this course now. You will be unable to pass.
  • In addition, this is not a lecture course. I have structured this course to rely on student participation. If you are reluctant to speak in class, you must overcome this if you want to succeed in law school or in any profession. I have included assignments that should give you some confidence--or at least advance notice--about expressing yourself before the class.
  • A warning to students considering law school: this class may test your taste for the law, but it will not measure your aptitude for, desire for, or future success in law school. The study of constitutional law is more than a legal enterprise. It requires knowledge of history, linguistic theory, moral philosophy and democratic theory; and it raises fundamental political questions about the nature of the Constitution, the role of courts in the federal political system and—most broadly--about the sort of community the American nation is and aspires to be. I consider this course an indispensable element of a general liberal and civic education.



  1. Kommers, Finn and Jacobsohn, American Constitutional Law
  2. McCloskey and Levinson, The American Supreme Court
  3. Readings available on ConCourse



  • Exams: You will write two exams—a midterm during class and a final as scheduled by the university. Each may include objective and essay sections.
    • Alternate or make-up exams will NOT be given without express written permission from the university produced in advance. In compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, all qualified students enrolled in this course are entitled to “reasonable accommodations.” It is the student’s responsibility to inform the instructor of any such needs before the end of the second week of class.
  • Briefs: You will be required to write and present two case briefs during the semester. Appendix E in the text demonstrates how to write an effective brief. Follow that structure, and be sure to include your own assessment of whether you believe the case was rightly decided. Where was the majority opinion especially strong or weak? Do the dissents or concurring opinions have stronger arguments?
    • Briefs should be no longer than two pages, single-spaced—the briefer, the better. Send me a copy of your brief by e-mail or through the course website 24 hours before we discuss the case in class. During class I will expect you to answer questions about the case from me and from other students.
  • Participation: I expect you to come to class prepared to discuss the assigned readings and to debate issues raised by these cases.
    • I reserve the following rights: (1) to call on students even when they do not volunteer (2) to give in-class surprise quizzes that test your knowledge of the readings. I hope never to have to do either. So keep up with the readings and be prepared to participate in class.
  • Paper (optional): You may write an 8 to 12 page paper, due near the end of the semester, on one of the topics of constitutional law discussed this semester or on a case currently before the Supreme Court related to one of the topics covered this semester. The Court’s official website is [].
    • Your paper will require additional research, including cases not discussed in class and secondary sources (books, articles, etc.). You should thus familiarize yourself with Lexis-Nexis--available through our library website--as soon as possible.
  • NOTE: This paper is optional. You do NOT have to write it to pass the class. To be eligible to receive an A or A- for the course, however, you must write the paper. Attempting this paper does not guarantee you an A or A- for the course.
    • I strongly encourage all students to write the paper—especially those who believe test grades may not reflect their true ability.
    • I will be happy to help you at every step in the paper-writing process, from your initial proposal to your final draft. I will distribute more details about this assignment during the first part of the semester.
  • Grading

With paper

Midterm exam 25%
Paper 30%
Final 35%
Brief, attendance and participation 10%

Without paper

Midterm 40%
Final 50%
Brief, attendance and participation 10%

Students who do not write a paper are not eligible to receive an A or A- for the course.


Class schedule

  • Starred cases (*) are on ConCourse
  • Bold cases are most likely to be briefed

Aug. 26 Introduction to constitutional law

Aug. 28 The Supreme Court as a political and legal institution

  • Read: U.S. Constitution (KFJ Appendix B)
  • Federalist 78 (KFJ, appendix I)

Sept. 2 The Constitution and its interpretation

  • Read: KFJ, Chapter 1
  • Understanding Supreme Court Opinions (KFJ, Appendix E)
  • Kerr, How to Read a Judicial Opinion*
  • Home Building & Loan Association v. Blaisdell

Sept. 4 Foundations of judicial review

  • Read: Marbury v. Madison
  • Eakin v. Raub*
  • Federal and state power

Sept. 9 “Necessary and proper”

  • Read: McCulloch v. Maryland
  • Gibbons v. Ogden

Sept. 11 Congressional power to regulate commerce

  • Read: U.S. v. E.C. Knight
  • Hammer v. Dagenhart
  • Champion v. Ames
  • National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel

Sept. 16 How far does the commerce power extend?

  • Read: Wickard v. Filburn
  • Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S.
  • U.S. v. Lopez

Sept. 18 Further limits on federal power

  • Read: South Dakota v. Dole
  • U.S. v. Morrison
  • Gonzalez v. Raich*

Sept. 23 NO CLASS

  • 4 p.m.: Lecture by Dieter Grimm, Justice of the German Federal Constitutional Court
  • “Protection of Religious Freedom in Liberal Democracies: Reflections in the Experience with Danish Cartoons” (McKenna Hall)
  • Separation of powers

Sept. 25 Separation of powers

  • Read: Schechter Poultry v. U.S.
  • INS v. Chadha
  • Morrison v. Olson
  • Clinton v. City of New York
  • Clinton v. Jones

Sept. 30 Presidential power in time of war

  • Read: Prize Cases
  • Ex Parte Milligan
  • Korematsu v. U.S.
  • Ex Parte Quirin

Oct. 2 Presidential power and national security

  • Read: Youngstown Sheet & Tube v. Sawyer (both p. 133 and 199)
  • N.Y. Times v. United States
  • U.S. v. Progressive*
  • Authorization for Use of Military Force (9/18/01)*
  • Iraq Resolution

Oct. 7 Presidential authority after 9/11

  • Read: *Rasul v. Bush
  • Hamdi v. Rumsfeld*
  • Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006)*

Oct. 9 The above continued

  • Read: *Boumedienne v. Bush (2008)

Oct. 14 Voting and representation

  • Read: Baker v. Carr
  • Reynolds v. Sims
  • Bush v. Gore
  • Crawford v. Indiana*


  • The meaning and application of constitutional rights

Oct. 28 Applying the Bill of Rights to the states

  • Read: Calder v. Bull
  • Barron v. Baltimore
  • Slaughter-House Cases

Oct. 30 The above continued

  • Read: Meyer v. Nebraska
  • Pierce v. Society of Sisters*
  • Lochner v. New York
  • Home Building & Loan Association v. Blaisdell
  • West Coast Hotel v. Parrish

Nov. 4 Liberty, property and the right to bear arms

  • Read: *Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff
  • Kelo v. New London*
  • D.C. v. Heller (2008)*

Nov. 6 The death penalty and the Constitution

  • Read: *Furman v. Georgia
  • Gregg v. Georgia
  • McCleskey v. Kemp*
  • Callins v. Collins*

Nov. 11 The above continued

  • Read: *Roper v. Simmons
  • Baze v. Rees (2008)*
  • Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008)*

Nov. 13 Race and the Constitution

  • Read: Dred Scott v. Sandford
  • Plessy v. Ferguson*
  • Brown v. Board of Education
  • Milliken v. Bradley*

Nov. 18 The above continued

  • Read: *Gratz v. Bollinger
  • Grutter v. Bollinger
  • Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle (2007)*

Nov. 20 What rights are fundamental? How do we know?

  • Read: *Ferguson v. Skrupa
  • Griswold v. Connecticut
  • Roe v. Wade



Dec. 2 The above continued

  • Read: Moore v. East Cleveland
  • Bowers v. Hardwick
  • Michael H. v. Gerald D.
  • Washington v. Glucksberg

Dec. 9 The above continued

  • Read: Planned Parenthood v. Casey
  • Troxel v. Granville
  • Lawrence v. Texas

Dec. 11 The above continued

  • Read: *Gonzales v. Carhart (2007)

Dec. 16 FINAL EXAM 10:30 A.M.