Vermont Law School 1L Study Guide for Constitutional Law

Constitutional Law Study Guide

I. Introduction to Constitutional Law

Constitutional law is the study of the United States Constitution, its interpretation by the Supreme Court, and its application to the rights and liberties of individuals.

II. Structure of the Constitution

The U.S. Constitution consists of a preamble, seven articles, and twenty-seven amendments. The first three articles establish the branches of government: the legislative branch (Congress), the executive branch (President), and the judicial branch (Supreme Court).

III. Judicial Review

Judicial review refers to the power of the courts to review the constitutionality of laws and government actions. It was established in the landmark case, Marbury v. Madison (1803). In this case, the Supreme Court held that it had the power to strike down laws, statutes, and executive actions that violate the U.S. Constitution.

IV. Federalism

Federalism is the division of power between the federal government and the states. Its principles were outlined in the case of McCulloch v. Maryland (1819). The Supreme Court held that the federal government had the power to establish a bank and that state law could not tax federal institutions.

V. Separation of Powers

The Constitution divides the powers of government into three branches to prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful. This concept was reinforced in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952) where the Supreme Court limited the executive power by ruling that the President did not have the authority to seize private steel mills, even in times of war.

VI. Equal Protection Clause

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from denying anyone within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. The case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954) applied this principle in ruling that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

VII. Due Process Clause

The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. The case of Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) extended this right to include the right to counsel in criminal cases.

VIII. First Amendment Rights

The First Amendment protects the freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition. Its application has varied over time. The case of New York Times Co. v. United States (1971) protected the right of free press against prior restraint by the government.

IX. Commerce Clause

The Commerce Clause gives Congress the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, among the several states, and with the Indian tribes. The Supreme Court broadened this power in the case of Wickard v. Filburn (1942), ruling that Congress can regulate purely local activities if they have a substantial effect on interstate commerce.

X. Tenth Amendment and State Sovereignty

The Tenth Amendment affirms the sovereignty of the states by stipulating that powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people. This was demonstrated in the case of Printz v. United States (1997) where the Supreme Court held that the federal government could not compel state officers to enforce federal gun registration laws.

This guide gives an overview of the major themes and cases in constitutional law. However, constitutional law is a dynamic and complex field, and academic requirements may vary by institution. Always refer to your course syllabus and consult with your professor to ensure you’re focusing on the most pertinent information for your specific course.

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