Constitutional law is an area of law that deals with the interpretation, implementation, and amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the federal laws that govern the 50 states. It focuses on what the Constitution says, what specific laws mean, and what limitations exist. Because social and political issues keep changing or developing, lawyers in this field often go to court to seek clarification or guidance on the meaning, interpretation, and implementation of the Constitution.
Some of the famous constitutional law cases deal with:
- Freedom of speech
- The right to vote
- The right to assembly
- The right to due process
- Freedom of religion
- The right to be free from forced search or arrest
- The right to privacy
- The right to bear arms
The U.S. has a living and adaptable Constitution; it’s often made the subject of scrutiny. Because of the far-reaching impacts of the Constitution, the Supreme Court is responsible for providing rules, which are often binding, on cases that question the substance and interpretation of laws. Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are possible, though they happen only rarely.
Students of constitutional law learn how to interpret the Constitution and delineate the relationships between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government. Most important, they explore the rights of individuals as enshrined in the Constitution, and how such rights relate to both federal and state governments.
Major Areas of Constitutional Law
Constitutional law is broad and cuts across many areas of practice. Some of the major principles, clauses, and elements include:
The guarantor of the Union, this clause states that all laws made to establish and further the Constitution and all agreements made under the authority of the United States constitute the supreme law of the land. What this means is that the Constitution and federal laws take precedence over state laws, and judges in all courts must abide by this principle in their respective courts.
It’s the idea that the state or federal government can’t take away the liberty or property of a person without going through a fair judicial process. Someone accused of a crime, or suspected of negligence in civil court, must receive a notice of the charges or allegations leveled against them and the chance to be heard in court.
Also, they have the right to a fair judge or jury, legal representation by an attorney, and the right to cross-examine witnesses who testify. The due process clause also requires courts to maintain records of court proceedings and declare the reasons for any decision made.
It’s the power vested in the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether a law or legislation or executive order by the government is constitutional. The underlying idea is that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. The Supreme Court has the final authority of matters relating to the Constitution and requires the courts to rule against any law that conflicts with the Constitution.
Freedom of Speech
The federal government or state can’t remove a person’s right to speak, assemble, or practice their religion. However, the government can place restrictions on the time or place of speech. If the government enforces the restrictions, they must do it across the board. Lawyers often go to court to challenge limitations placed on freedom of speech. Meanwhile, judges endeavor to strike a balance between serving the genuine interests of the public and upholding the individual right to speech and expression.
It refers to the body of fundamental laws and principles that set out the structure and operation of a state. Primarily, it contains the laws, principles, and norms that inform all the actions of the government. Since it lays the groundwork and supports the functions of a state, the Constitution is often long-standing and requires a referendum to change. As the supreme law of the land, it provides a framework under which all laws, statutes, and acts operate. This body of laws also sets forth the right of the citizens, which the federal or national government or institutions or legislation must not violate.
Rule of Law
It’s a principle under which persons, private entities, and institutions are held into account under the law. Justice is delivered promptly by ethical, competent, unbiased, accessible people who reflect the communities they serve. It also requires laws to be just, clear, and applied uniformly across the land while protecting the fundamental rights of the persons.
It’s a clause under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states no person should be denied liberty or deprived of life or property without following due process. This clause also requires the state to guarantee the same rights, protections, and privileges to all citizens. For instance, the state cannot deny a person a driver’s license because of their gender, creed, or race, or other considerations.
Under this clause, the state or Congress cannot make laws that seek the establishment of religion, or laws that prohibit the personal freedom, or curtail freedom of speech, or repress the right of peaceful assembly. It also requires the government to find redress to grievances.
Congressional Domicile: It sets out the conditions under which a person can seek election as a U.S. representative. For example, to be a member of the House of Representatives, you must be 25 years old, be a U.S. citizen for the last seven years, and reside in the state you want to represent.
Commerce Clause: Federal governments derive their legislative authority from this clause. It states that the government can only regulate trade or industry if it impacts commerce between two or more states. It’s one of the most litigated clauses in the U.S. Constitution. While the Supreme Court provides a broad interpretation of the clause, the governments still have the power to control activities within an industry as long it’s eventually going to find its way into mainstream commerce.
Education and Training for Constitutional Lawyers
As with other legal professions, education and training are at the heart of becoming a constitutional lawyer in the United States. A typical path for an aspiring lawyer looks like this:
Step 1: Get a bachelor’s degree: Anyone who aspires to become a constitutional lawyer must complete first a bachelor’s degree in Law, or History, or Political Science, or any major that involves critical thinking and research.
Step 2: Enroll in law school: Once you complete your undergraduate, you undergo a three-year program where you will learn about legal writing, contract law, constitutional law, and other forms of law. Be sure to take courses such as administrative law, public policy, and constitutional law in your law school because these will lay a good foundation for you.
Step 3: Apply for law internships: During your second year in law school, apply for constitutional law internships. These types of internships are competitive. Make sure you maintain a high GPA and build your personal as well as professional networks.
Step 4: Take the state bar exam: Enroll for the bar exam in your state and sit the papers. The exam lasts two days. Bar exams cover all areas of law that an aspiring attorney must pass before they start practicing constitutional law.
You’re likely to spend seven years of full-time study before you can qualify as a constitutional lawyer. The first four years will be at a university, while the last three years will be at a law school.
If you ace the bar exams, you can now apply for legal positions that seek a lawyer with education or training in constitutional law. Think tanks and public policy institutes are good hunting grounds. Also, check out the websites of federal government agencies in your state as they could be hiring lawyers with experience in constitutional law.
Tips for Joining a Law School
- Enroll in an American Bar Association-accredited law school.
- Evaluate the curriculum of the law school before submitting your application.
- Find a school that lays a good foundation on Constitutional Law and Practice.
- Look for a school with research centers and a good library.
- Foster meaningful relationships with members of the faculty.
What Do Constitutional Lawyers Do?
Constitutional lawyers handle cases that involve the interpretation of laws as enshrined in the U.S. constitution. Attorneys often argue cases of this nature in the federal courts, though some make their way to the Supreme Court. Such cases may involve many issues such as rights, equal protection, and privacy.
As a lawyer, you will be at the heart of the legal system, and your cases could set the standard for all forthcoming laws. Because they carry a weighty responsibility, and their interpretations could affect the lives of citizens countrywide, legal experts respect constitutional attorneys.
Constitutional lawyers focus on the law, relationships, and rights of the people as set forth by the Constitution. They not only seek to get interpretations and guidance on the implementation of laws but rights and rules as well. In most cases, they focus on specific issues in a particular industry.
On a day-to-day basis, you will find them discussing court cases with their clients and other lawyers, doing research work to bolster their cases, and offering legal advice. When arguing in the federal courts or the Supreme Court, they often quote constitutional laws in their cases.
The other duty of a constitutional attorney is to defend the rights of citizens as granted by both state and federal constitutions. An attorney can represent a person who thinks someone violated their rights or freedoms. Because of this, people seek out lawyers often to offer representation in civil rights cases or public policy.
Since lawyers deal with the how and what of the Constitution, they ought to be familiar with constitutional law, including the Bill of Rights, equal protection under the law, and other clauses. Cases may start at the lower courts, and if no solution is found, brought to appeals courts and eventually before the Supreme Court for a ruling.
Working as a Constitutional Lawyer
Once you graduate and obtain a state license, you can start practicing at a private law firm, work with advocacy groups, or find employment with federal agencies. Your work might include drafting paperwork, preparing research briefs, and evaluating cases. From time to time, you also will attend court for hearings or to argue your case.
Some lawyers practice constitutional law only. Good examples are Supreme Court justices and their supporting lawyers, who handle cases that touch on constitutional law only. Low-ranking judges often encounter issues that touch on constitutionality while discharging their duties in a civil court or criminal court. While that’s the case, all judges and attorneys are supposed to consider due process.
Nearly every aspect of litigation involves constitutional law, from reading a defendant their rights during a trial to ensuring a person has the right to be heard in civic matters. Regardless of which area you choose to focus on, your work will involve research. You will investigate facts, interview clients and other parties, then compare facets of your case with other similar and relevant cases.
Top Skills to Become a Constitutional Lawyer
Lawyers practicing constitutional law must have a good grasp of the Constitution, laws, and amendments, including all the rulings of the Supreme Court that have set new legal precedents. Also, they have to be detail-oriented and know how to interact with clients.
Practicing constitutional law is a job that involves talking in front of groups, your clients, jury members, and judges. You can only practice law if you have excellent writing and speaking skills. Sometimes, you’ll work on short notice. Because of this, you should be able to soak up any pressure and still deliver.
Good lawyers in this field also ought to be critical thinkers and analysts, evaluating laws and concepts and giving sound interpretation devoid of bias or personal inclinations.
Why Become a Constitutional lawyer?
Studying constitutional law and practicing as an attorney puts you in a pole position to impact society at large. Some of the most far-reaching legal changes in the country arise from the cases these lawyers bring before the Supreme Court. For instance, the Brown vs. Board of Education case of 1954 determined that schools that segregate students along racial lines violate the equal protection clause under the U.S. Constitution. Brown was a landmark case that set in motion the wheels of the civil rights movement in the United States. Lawyers who filed the lawsuit and argued for the cessation of segregation played an essential role in ushering positive social change and impacting the lives of the minorities.
In modern times, constitutional lawyers continue doing a tremendous job in ensuring civil rights and liberties are protected and enforced. For instance, in 2015, the Obergefell vs. Hodges case set a precedent for the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states. The Supreme Court also ruled that states should recognize same-sex marriages that happen in other states.
Another landmark constitutional case, Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, asks whether companies are supposed to provide insurance coverage for employees who choose abortion. The litigants argued such insurance coverage goes against the religious liberties of the owners and the management of firms. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the legislature should finance a less restrictive way of regulating employer-based coverage. As you can see, this ruling touches on the lives of millions of citizens.
Salary and Career Outlook for Lawyers
The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics estimates that the demand for constitutional lawyers is expected to grow by 6 percent between 2018 and 2028. It’s as fast as the average profession in most industries. The bureau predicts that the government will continue being the major employer for attorneys in this field. However, budget cuts could slow the uptake of lawyers.
Experienced attorneys earn up to $89,543 per year. Associate attorneys practicing constitutional law earn $72,928 per year, while staff attorneys take home an average of $59,361 per year. Highly successful lawyers who work for the U.S. Supreme Court command large salaries.
Since this is a demanding role, be ready to put in long hours of work and absorb pressure during trials. As with other fields, there’s intense competition for jobs. Only the best of the best get hired and grow in their careers.
Advancing Your Career as a Constitutional lawyer
Chances are you’ll start as an intern or a junior associate working under more skilled constitutional lawyers or a clerk in a local court. After some years of practice, you’ll gain significant experience. You can step out and practice on your own or get into a partnership with another lawyer. Depending on how aggressive you are, you can even rise to the position of a judge.
Aside from pursuing a career in constitutional law, you can also explore other law-related jobs. Popular choices for graduates include law tutors, legal advisors, and compliance officers. After some years of practicing law, you can get a Master of Laws (LL.M) degree then seek teaching or research positions.