Constitutional law is the area of political science that examines the text and substance of the United States Constitution and its development over the last 220 years. It governs the interpretation and implementation of the Constitution, as well as defining the scope of laws within its framework. Many issues can break down into the nature of the relationship between the federal and state governments, as well as the power of judicial review. This is because constitutional law can be a broad, complex, and ambiguous discipline. Some constitutional scholars contend that the framers of the Constitution intended for it to be a “living” document, subject to interpretation and adaptation to the needs of a changing society. Others scholars maintain that the provisions of the Constitution should be strictly construed and their provisions applied in a literal, strict constructionist manner. This guide will offer a good starting point for learning about constitutional law.
Understanding the judicial branch of government is the baseline of beginning to understand constitutional law. At a fundamental level, this comes down to an understanding of the power of judicial review, and the dual court system structure. Initially, judicial review refers to the court’s ability to consider challenges to the constitutionality of federal and state laws, and court rulings are binding on the legislative and executive branches of government. If the court finds these laws to be unconstitutional, the court is obligated and empowered to strike them down. This principle was established in the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison, and it remains central to the power of the judicial branch.
Central to the principle of judicial review is the concept of “self-restraint.” Because judicial rulings are so binding on the other two branches of government, it is through self-restraint that the Supreme Court of the United States does not exercise excessive power, and thus preserves the balance of power between the three branches of the federal government. The Supreme Court has developed a system of doctrine, practice, and jurisprudence that self-limits its exercise of judicial review.
Understanding the dual court system is also crucial to constitutional law. The United States has a parallel system of federal and state courts systems that each has distinct powers and jurisdictions. The federal courts were established by Article III of the Constitution and are governed by acts of Congress. The Judiciary Act of 1789 established the original structure of the federal court system. State court systems vary by state, and are governed by their state’s constitutions. The state and federal courts have concurrent and separate powers which are defined in the constitution, but have changed over time. The highest court in the United States is the Supreme Court. Directly under the Supreme Court are the 11 Circuit Courts of Appeals, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and the 50 state supreme courts.
One of the documents central to the study of constitutional law is the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights refers to the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. These amendments were proposed to alleviate the fears of the Anti-Federalists who were concerned that the Constitution gave too much power to the Federal government. Initially, the Bill of Rights applied to the federal government. However, when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, the rights were also applied to each state through a process referred to as incorporation.
When examining constitutional law in the United States, there are two dominant theories which were mentioned above. Central to these two theories are a differing view of the United States Constitution. The two theories are often referred to as Interpretivism and Non-interpretivism. Interpretivists believe that the judicial role is limited to interpreting the Constitution, and therefore should not act as a social policymaker. Judges should stick to the norms of the Constitution and leave policy to the Legislative branch. Frequently, interpretivists invoke judicial restraint, though critics argue that they hide behind this phrase. Because of these views, interpretivists tend to be more conservative and strict constructionists, focusing on original intent and enforcement of the law.
In contrast, Non-interpretivism is characterized by the view that the judge’s role goes beyond mere interpretation of the law. Because the Constitution was written over 200 years ago, non-interpretivists believe that it is a court’s duty to correct historical legislative errors and use the court system for social change. Critics often levy the charge of judicial activism at non-interpretivists, but without a measure of judicial activism, it is unlikely that landmark decisions such as the Civil Rights Act would have passed.
All this barely scratches the surface of the principals of constitutional law. Controversial decisions like Roe v. Wade and the Citizens United ruling reveal the complex relationship of the Supreme Court with not only the legislature, but the ever-evolving will of the people.
Constitutional Law Basics
- Cornell University Law School Constitutional law: An overview
- Introduction to the Study of Constitutional Law
- What comparitivism tells us about originalism (PDF)
- The structure of federal courts
- Purdue University: United States Legal System
The Constitution & Its Amendments
- The Avalon Project: U.S. Constitution
- How is the Constitution amended?
- Bill of Rights and the Amendments to the Constitution
- Bill of Rights and Later Amendments
- Explore It: The Constitution of the United States of America
- Our documents – although 12 amendments were originally proposed…
The Supreme Court
- The Supreme Court’s New Source of Legitimacy (PDF)
- A brief overview of the Supreme Court
- United States Courts: Educational Resources
- SCOTUS Statistics
Landmark Arguments & Decisions
- Significant Oral Arguments of the Supreme Court 1955-1993
- The Most Important Cases, Speeches, Laws & Documents in American History
- The First Hundred Years: Landmark cases
- Cases – 2013 term
The Separation of Powers
- NCSL: Separation of Powers – An overview
- The Founder’s Constitution – Chapter 10: Separation of Powers
- Teaching with Documents: Constitutional Issues: Separation of Powers
- Yale Law Journal: Due Process as Separation of Powers
- Harvard Law Review: Separation of Powers as Ordinary Interpretation
- A Glossary of Political Economy Terms: Separation of powers