Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


There are no prerequisites for this course.

Course Overview

The focus of this course is one of the most vital aspects of politics: interpreting and applying the nation's fundamental rules. In this class we examine the structures of power in a constitutional democracy, exploring contests over authority from John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson to Bill Clinton, Kenneth Starr, and the Obama policy agenda. Some of the topics to be considered include: the powers of the federal and state governments, the executive's emergency powers, and the Supreme Court's authority to nullify the acts of other branches. Under these general headings are to be found such issues as the power to protect individual rights, the power to establish an office of independent counsel, the power to overturn a judicial decision through congressional action, and the power to mandate that citizens purchase health insurance. We also consider the constitutional foundations for a variety of individual rights.

While Supreme Court decisions are our core materials, this is very much a political science class. We are more concerned with the political, institutional and policy implications of cases than about legal doctrine for its own sake. Our purpose is to understand what the Court has said about the Constitution's meaning, to identify and assess the underlying theories that inform the opinions of the Supreme Court, and examine the effects of Supreme Court decisions on our society. But because the Court is also a political institution, we will consider how and to what degree constitutional decision-making resembles ordinary politics. To what extent, for example, are the justices political actors seeking to maximize their policy objectives in the same way that legislators do? Does public opinion influence the Court? Finally, how do other political branches, such as Congress and the President, interact with the Supreme Court?


There will be two written assignments. These assignments will be to make a persuasive argument about hypothetical Supreme Court cases based on the materials we discuss in class. There will also be a final exam. This exam will be open notes, but closed book. However, the notes must be your own. Noteworthy classroom participation can affect grades positively or negatively. I expect informed classroom participation. Inasmuch as participation is impossible if you are not present, attendance matters. During most classes students will be called upon to discuss the assigned materials. These will be occasions for dialogue between student and professor, but in each instance where this occurs students other than the student called upon will be invited into the discussion. In other words, I do not view this as a purely lecture course, While there will be times when I will be lecturing, much of the class time will involve discussion among students and between student and professor.

Required Texts

Buy at Amazon Epstein, Lee, and Thomas G. Walker. Constitutional Law for a Changing America: A Short Course. 5th ed. CQ Press College, 2011. ISBN: 9781608716975.

*Note: There will be readings associated with the online website of this book. So it is important to purchase the most recent edition.

Buy at Amazon Baum, Lawrence. The Supreme Court. 11th ed. CQ Press, 2012. ISBN: 9781452220963.

Additional readings come from a variety of sources and are detailed in the Readings section.

Grading Policy

Paper 1 25%
Paper 2 25%
Class participation and legal simulation 15%
Final exam 35%

Students are encouraged to prepare "briefs" of the assigned cases in order to be prepared to examine critically the opinions of the Court.

See "How To Read A Case" by Julie Novkov, University at Albany, SUNY.

Academic Integrity

Students are encouraged to talk to one another outside of class about issues discussed in class and to brainstorm about essays. You often learn best from your peers. However, each student is expected to write his or her own essays and exam notes individually. For more on academic integrity, please see the Academic Integrity at MIT website.