- Peer Review: “Exploring Constitutional Law”
Exploring Constitutional Law
- Jun 25, 2008 by History
- Douglas O. Linder is a law professor who developed this web site for his constitutional law course. The web site provides a comprehensive overview of the topics, issues, and cases that students are likely to encounter in such a course. More specifically, the site includes the language of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, links to primary documents regarding the drafting of the Constitution and the ratification debates, images relating to important constitutional moments and locations, links to web sites having to do with the Supreme Court and some famous constitutional cases, Supreme Court opinions in a few recent landmark opinions, biographical information on the founding fathers, and sample constitutional law essay and multiple-choice questions. The author has also developed a couple of games -- the Constitutional Trivia Quiz and Bill of Rights Golf -- that give students incentives to read the materials closely. And he has provided links to his other web sites on landmark cases, the First Amendment, and on the constitution and the powers of government. The core of this web site, however, is its collection of "Cases, Notes and Materials." The author has developed a bunch of pages on various constitutional law topics such as "The Power of Judicial Review," "Student Searches," "Is Your Home Your Castle," "Proving Unconstitutional Discrimination," "Separation of Powers," and "Prior Restraints on Publication." The web pages are organized into five categories: Introduction; Bill of Rights, Implied Personal Rights and Due Process of Law; Equal Protection of the Laws; Powers of the Federal Government and Restrictions on State Power; and First Amendment Materials. Each page includes a short essay on the topic, the language of the relevant provision of the Constitution, links to Supreme Court opinions in important cases, and questions for study or discussion. Some pages also include assignments and links to other relevant web sites.
- Type of Material:
- Collection of essays, judicial opinions, images, other primary documents, and questions for students.
- Recommended Uses:
- Law school courses, United States History and Political Science courses.
- Technical Requirements:
- Identify Major Learning Goals:
- To acquaint students with the background on the writing of the Constitution and the creation of the Bill of Rights. To acquaint students with important Supreme Court cases that define and refine rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
- Target Student Population:
- Law students Upper-level undergraduate students and graduate students interested in constitutional law.
- Prerequisite Knowledge or Skills:
- Basic knowledge about US history.
- This web site covers the range of topics typically covered in a constitutional law course and provides excerpts from the primary cases one would use to teach those topics. The author's notes on cases are concise and accurate. And Linder provides access to materials newspaper articles, images, maps, excerpts from articles and books, and brief notes on the author's opinion about particular topics -- to supplement the judicial opinions. One could certainly use the web site in lieu of a textbook for a con law course. One probably also could use the site in lieu of a textbook in a First Amendment course, since Linder's coverage of that topic is especially detailed. It's also important to note that when Linder addresses controversial topics -- for example, methods of judicial interpretation, evolution, gay rights -- he makes an effort to provide information on all sides of the issues, as well as his own opinion. In the case of evolution, he even has published emails from a student, a theologian, and a creationist reader who challenge some of the material on this page of the site. I know that some instructors might choose to decenter themselves in the classroom and promote discussion among students on controversial issues by not revealing their own (the instructors views), but I think that Linder's approach communicates an openness to discussion and disagreement in the classroom. And anyway, it's probably hard for a con law professor who publishes in law reviews to hide his views.
Potential Effectiveness as a Teaching Tool
- First, this web site contains a lot of information that could be useful in courses in law, political science, or history. Second, Linder includes the syllabus for his constitutional law course. This allows instructors to see how the author integrates material on the web site into his law school course. Third, the study questions help students critically read the material before coming to class.
- Historians who might use this material for a course should keep several things in mind. First, the judicial opinions provided here are, by necessity, edited versions. Historians may find that Linder's editing choices leave out material that they find important. Second, the web site is a supplement to a law school course, not a history course. As a result, the site contains very little material from the nineteenth century. Third, the material the site does include is not necessarily organized in a way that makes sense for a history course. Fourth, most of the primary sources are judicial opinions. A very few essays address historical context, but that discussion is often very brief. The "Landmark Cases" web site contains more contextual material, but the cases at that site are not necessarily the ones that one would feature in a constitutional history course. Finally, Linder assumes that students know how to read judicial opinions and does not address that topic. If I were using this material in an undergraduate course, I would talk to students about reading opinions.
Ease of Use for Both Students and Faculty
- (1) In terms of structure, this is a pretty simple web site, which makes it very easy to use. One can access all of the features of the site from the home page. And if the user finds scrolling down the page to be tedious, Linder provides a "minimal scroll" version of the home page that groups the links to all the features in two screens. (The link to the minimal scroll version of the page is at the bottom of the home page.) (2) None of the web sites internal features are technically complex, not even the games, so users dont need powerful computers and lots of memory to use the site. They also dont have to wait while material downloads. (3) Linder continues to update the site with recent case information.
- My concerns are minimal. First, it's not easy to return to the home page if one is in the middle of the game of "Bill of Rights Golf." Second, a few of the links, most of which are on the minimal scroll version of the home page, do not work. Third, the page on "The Powers of Congress Under the Original Constitution" is, because of the breadth of the subject, relatively long. Since one would not cover all of the topics on this page in a single class session, students and instructors would find it easier to find the particular material for individual class sessions were this page split into three or four pages.