Constitutional Law II, Civil Rights and Liberties: Syllabus

Spring 2010 syllabus (pdf)

Required Texts

David M. O'Brien, Constitutional Law and Politics: Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Seventh Edition, W.W. Norton: New York, 2008. [Referred to as O'Brien]

David M. O'Brien, Supreme Court Watch 2009, W.W. Norton: New York, 2009. [Referred to as SCW]

Additional readings available on-line. These must be printed and brought to class on days for which they are assigned. I have placed all the reserve readings for POL 395 here. There is one (large) Adobe Acrobat file that contains all the reserve readings (Spring 2010 Readings) or you can download each file individually.

Course Requirements and Assessment

I need to emphasize at the outset that this is a very demanding course. Plan to spend a minimum of 3 hours outside of class for each hour in class. That is the amount of time I estimate you should spend on reading, briefing cases, and preparing for class sessions. Weeks in which you have additional assignments due will require more time. At a minimum, I anticipate that you will spend 12 hours per week on this course.

Legal reasoning can be dense, complex, obfuscatory and at times non-existent. Consequently, class attendance, constant reading, and participation are essential and mandatory. I expect every student to attend virtually every class, to be on time, and to be prepared. Our agenda requires you to do a large amount of reading and to do it carefully and punctually.

If you do not feel that your schedule or interest will support such a heavy reading load and time commitment, please do not take this class.


Consistent attendance is a minimum condition of class membership. Students do not receive credit for attending but failure to attend class will negatively affect grades. In a discussion-oriented class such as this one, missing class discussion is missing coursework that cannot be made up.

Participation (25%)

This is an upper-level seminar and we will proceed by means of discussion. Students should be prepared to raise questions and offer critical insights about the reading material and the issues that it raises. Vigorous class debate and discussion is both expected and desirable. That said, respectful engagement of opposing and differing views is an essential condition of reasoned discourse and I will expect you to demonstrate such respect.

Presence alone does not earn participation credit: a passively silent and/or clearly unprepared student earns no credit for participation. You need not speak constantly to participate meaningfully in class. Attentive, thoughtful, respectful, and reflective listening to others constitutes one form of active participation. Come to class having read the material carefully and thoughtfully. Participate in class to the greatest extent you can. Speak when you have something to say. Ask questions when you have them. Listen carefully and respectfully to others. Engage in small group discussions. Come to my office hours. Send me e-mail.

Note, however, that although I construe course participation broadly, you cannot earn an A, B, or C for participation without speaking in class on a regular basis. At some point in your life, you will have to speak publicly. You might as well start now.

Late arrivals are distracting and disrespectful. Persistent tardiness will lower your participation grade.

Case Book (25%)

Since the course will use the case method in examining court decisions, it is important that you be prepared to participate at each class meeting. This course rests upon the conviction that constitutional law is more than just a collection of legal rules. It is a blend of politics, history, and interpretation. Because the Supreme Court acts by deciding cases, students must acquire a talent for reading and comprehending cases as a means toward discovery of what the Supreme Court has done. Briefing individual cases and maintaining a casebook of those cases best accomplishes this. For information about how to brief a case, see the "How to Brief a Case" and the "Sample Brief (with comments) available here.

Students must bring their casebooks to every class. Students are required to brief each case prior to the class for which it is assigned, and be prepared to present assigned cases for the class. In presenting the case, the student will summarize the facts and findings of the Court and will provide an analysis of the logic employed in reaching the majority opinion. A summary of any concurring or dissenting opinions is also necessary. I will collect each student's casebook twice during the semester and once at the end of the semester. These dates will not be announced ahead of time, so it is essential that your casebook is present at each class and is kept up to date. In addition, I may, on occasion, collect briefs due for a particular class. These "spot-checks" also count toward your casebook grade.

Students have two "free passes" regarding casebook collection that they may use during the semester. Use of the "free pass" option must occur before I announce whose casebooks are to be submitted that day. To use your free pass, simply hand me a sheet of paper with your name, the date, and the words "free pass" before class begins. You are still responsible for briefing the cases assigned for the date on which you use your free pass. Note: use of a free pass does not excuse you from a "spot-check" of briefs due on that day.

I will evaluate casebooks based on their overall completeness and the quality of the briefs within. Briefing cases can be challenging and I strongly encourage you to see me early in the semester to discuss your briefs.

Note that all the usual rules pertaining to academic honesty apply to case briefs. While you are encouraged to work with classmates on understanding the Court's opinions, your case briefs must ultimately reflect your own analysis and thought.

Case Presentation (10%)

Each student will present one case to the class. This will require you to prepare a 20-25 minute presentation of the case to the class, and field questions from class members (and me) about the content and significance of the case.

You may choose the case you would like to present from the list of cases we will be reading this semester. Look over the list of required briefs and then include your top three choices in your Letter of Introduction. I will assign cases on a first-come, first-served basis. The following cases are not options for case presentations:

  • Buck v Bell
  • Roe v Wade
  • Planned Parenthood of SE Pennsylvania v Casey
  • Dred Scott v Sandford
  • Plessy v Ferguson
  • Brown v Board of Education 1
  • Bolling v Sharpe
  • Brown v Board of Education 2
  • Your presentation should be based on the full court opinion rather than the edited versions in the O'Brien text. Note that cases range from very short (5-10 pages) to very long (230+ pages). Good sources for the full opinion include the Lexis-Nexis database available through the library and the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University. I must receive an email copy of your brief of the case you are presenting at least one class day before you present the case to the class. So, for example, if you are presenting on Tuesday at 2:30pm, I must have your brief in my inbox by Monday at 2:30pm. I encourage you to consult with me regarding your presentation plans.

    Essay (10%)

    1000-1250 words; due in class on March 1. Assignment specifics will be provided on a separate handout which will be available here.

    Moot Court Exercise (30%)

    This semester, we will, as a class, conduct a moot court session that will simulate the appeal of Sullivan v Florida, a case that the U.S. Supreme Court heard this fall. Early in the semester, you will be assigned a role as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. You will be responsible for uncovering, reading, disseminating, and organizing as much material as possible related to the your justice's approach to the issues raised in Sullivan v Florida, court precedents related to it, and the arguments for and against the constitutionality of the policy at issue in the case. Each justice will complete two research memos relating to his/her justice's judicial philosophy and his/her justice's approach to the 8th Amendment. Justices will then be presented with briefs from both the petitioner and the respondent in this case and will hear oral arguments. Following this, justices will hold a conference to discuss their views of the case, to arrive at a majority decision, and to assign the writing of majority and dissenting opinions (and concurrences, as necessary.)

    A note about the date for the moot court exercise: At our class meeting on Wednesday, February 17, we will vote as a class for the date and time of the court's conference. Attendance at this session is mandatory. Once we have settled upon the date, it is your responsibility to arrange your schedule so that you can attend the oral arguments. No excuses. No exceptions.

    Please note that the due dates for moot court assignments do not appear on the class schedule. Soon after arriving on a date for the moot court exercise, I will distribute the assignments and relevant due dates. They will also be available on the Handouts page of the course website.

    [Final Exam (15%)]

    It is my hope that no final exam will prove necessary for this course. The percentages listed above reflect that hope. If, however, I believe that class preparation and engagement is less than satisfactory, I reserve the right to administer a final exam in take-home form, during the exam period, or both. In this event, the percentages for Participation, Case Book, and the Moot Court exercise will each be decreased by 5%.


    Failure to complete any major component of the course (e.g., failure to attend an adequate number of classes, failing to adequately prepare for substantial numbers of classes, or failing to complete assignments related to the moot court exercise) may entail failing the course as a whole, regardless of performance on the completed components.

    Late assignments will be docked 1 full grade per day for 2 days after the original due date. Except under extraordinary circumstances and with prior permission, assignments will not be accepted if more than 48 hours have passed since the assignment was due. No extensions will be permitted on the submission of casebooks. Assignments will not be accepted via e-mail without prior permission.

    Academic Honesty

    I take the principles of academic honesty seriously and will uphold the policies and procedures of Gustavus Adolphus College. Your continued presence in this class indicates that your work for this course will comply with the academic honesty policy and the Honor Code.

    Dishonesty of any kind with respect to examinations, course assignments, alteration of records, or illegal possession of examinations is considered cheating. Students are responsible not only to abstain from cheating, but also to avoid making it possible for others to cheat. Submitting someone else's work as your own constitutes plagiarism. Academic honesty requires the full acknowledgement of ideas taken from another source for use in a course paper or project. You must include citations for material that you quote or paraphrase from another text; in general, it is better to overcite than to undercite.

    All work that you submit for this course may be submitted only to this course and should be based upon work and thought undertaken only for this course.

    Violations of the Academic Honesty Policy will result in at least a grade of 0 for the specific assignment and/or failure of the course. Students accused and/or penalized for these violations and students who become aware of such violations have specific rights and responsibilities as outlined in the Honor Code section of the College Catalogue.

    Please see the Gustavus Academic Catalog for copies of the relevant policies.


    Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Art of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) work together to ensure 'reasonable accommodation' and non-discrimination for students with disabilities in higher education. A student who has a physical, psychiatric/emotional, medical, learning, or attentional disability that may have an effect on the student's ability to complete assigned course work should contact the Disability Services Coordinator in the Advising Center, who will review the concerns and decide with the student what accommodations are necessary. Upon receipt of documentation from Laurie Bickett, Disability Services Coordinator, I will be happy to work with you on appropriate accommodations.