Virginia Law School 1L Study Guide for Constitutional Law

I. Overview of Constitutional Law

Constitutional law establishes the foundation of the U.S legal system. It interprets and applies the U.S. Constitution’s provisions to contemporary legal issues. It covers the powers and limits of the three branches of government, the federal-state relationship, and the basic rights of individuals.

Key Topics in Constitutional Law:

  1. The Constitution Structure
  2. Constitutional Interpretation
  3. Judicial Review
  4. Federalism
  5. Separation of Powers
  6. Individual Rights

II. The Constitution Structure

The U.S. Constitution outlines the framework for the federal government. It consists of a Preamble, seven articles, and twenty-seven amendments. The first three articles define the three branches of government: the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

III. Constitutional Interpretation

Multiple theories explain how the Constitution should be interpreted. Originalism posits that the Constitution should be interpreted as the framers intended. Living Constitutionalism posits that the Constitution should be interpreted in light of evolving societal standards.

IV. Judicial Review

Marbury v. Madison (1803): This case established the principle of judicial review, allowing courts to review constitutionality of statutes. Using the IRAC method:

Issue: Does the Supreme Court have the authority to review acts of Congress and determine their constitutionality?

Rule: Article III of the Constitution grants the judicial branch the power to interpret the law.

Application: The Supreme Court determined that it had the power to strike down laws, treaties, and government actions found to be in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Conclusion: The Court found that it did have such power; thus, establishing the principle of judicial review.

V. Federalism

Federalism is the division of power between the federal government and the state governments. The Constitution grants certain powers to the federal government and reserves the rest for the states.

Gibbons v. Ogden (1824): This case interpreted the commerce clause of the Constitution.

Issue: Does the commerce clause give Congress the exclusive power to regulate interstate commerce?

Rule: Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the Constitution gives Congress the power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”

Application: The Supreme Court concluded that New York’s licensing requirement for out-of-state operators was inconsistent with a congressional act regulating coastal trade.

Conclusion: The law was invalidated, strengthening the federal government’s power to regulate interstate commerce.

VI. Separation of Powers

The U.S. Constitution establishes a system of “checks and balances” that ensures no single branch becomes too powerful.

Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952): This case dealt with the limits of presidential power.

Issue: Does the President have the constitutional authority to seize and operate steel mills to resolve a labor dispute during a war?

Rule: The Constitution grants certain powers to the President, but seizing private property is not one of them.

Application: The court found that there was no statutory or constitutional authority that allowed the President to seize private property in this manner.

Conclusion: The court found that the President exceeded his powers, thereby limiting the scope of executive power.

VII. Individual Rights

The Constitution protects individual rights such as the freedoms of speech, religion, and privacy.

Virginia v. Black (2003): This case interpreted the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.

Issue: Does a statute that bans cross burning with intent to intimidate violate the First Amendment?

Rule: The First Amendment protects freedom of speech but does not protect conduct that incites imminent violence or involves true threats.

Application: The Supreme Court held that while cross burning can convey a message of intimidation, only those acts intended to intimidate are not protected by the First Amendment.

Conclusion: The statute is constitutional as it prohibits only conduct that has the intent to intimidate.

As Constitutional law is a broad discipline, this guide serves as a basic framework for understanding the key components. It is recommended to further delve into each topic, reading the pertinent cases, and understanding the principles and rules encapsulated in each.

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