Constitutional law pertains to the fundamental principles that governments abide by to enforce their authority. The purpose of these principles is to grant powers to the government as well as limit what they do. For example, some constitutional principles give the government power to tax the population while others restrict it from arresting individuals without just cause.
When it comes to the US, the Constitution has been the ruling law of the land for over 200 years, and its principles are still in force today. However, the way the US constitution is applied and interpreted by the courts has changed over the years; it also gone through numerous amendments to keep up with the current values of the country.
If you’re interested in constitutional law, below is an outline of how this law works and what you need to do to become a constitutional lawyer.
Constitutional Law Definition
Constitutional law is an area of law that deals with the interpretation, implementation, and amendment of the US 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. As 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 US has a living and adaptable Constitution, and it’s often been the subject of scrutiny. Because of its far-reaching impacts, the Supreme Court is responsible for providing rules, which are often binding, on cases that question the substance and interpretation of constitutional laws. Amendments to the US 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 elements include:
Legislative procedures refer to the rules established by the government to make or legislate laws. This includes processes for amending laws, enacting new laws, amending the constitution, and revising the number of terms or years that a legislative body might serve.
Separation of Powers
Constitutional law divides the power of central government into primary branches. Typically, these consist of an executive branch, a legislative branch, and a judicial branch. This separation of power ensures that one branch doesn’t dominate the others.
The judicial review is the power vested in the US Supreme Court to determine whether a law or executive order by the government is constitutional. As the Constitution is deemed supreme law of the land, the Supreme Court has the final authority on matters relating to it.
Key Principles and Clauses
Along with elements above, below are some key clauses and principles that form part of constitutional law.
The Bill of Rights
The Bill of Rights outlines the fundamental rights of the people in relation to government and makes up the first 10 amendments of the US Constitution. This includes human rights, which apply to the natural rights and freedoms of all people, regardless of where they live (e.g. freedom from religious persecution), and civil liberties, the rights and freedoms granted by the constitution (e.g. the right to a trial by jury or protection from unreasonable police actions).
Freedom of Speech
The government cannot 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. 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.
Rule of Law
The rule of law is 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.
To uphold the rule of law, constitutional law aims to ensure that they are:
- Created in public: The process of making and enforcing laws must be clear, understandable, and open to the public.
- Equally enforced: Laws must be stated clearly, stable, publicized, and evenly enforced.
- Protective of basic rights: All laws must protect individuals’ right, civil liberties, and human rights.
- Independently administered: The judges who interpret laws must do so in an impartial, politically neutral way. It must also reflect the composition of the communities they serve.
As guarantor of the Union, this clause states that all laws made to establish and further the Constitution constitute the supreme law of the land. In other words, the Constitution and federal laws take precedence over state laws, and judges in all courts must abide by this principle.
Due process is a clause that prohibits the government from taking 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 against them and the chance to be heard in court.
Also, individuals 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.
Stated under the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, this clause 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.
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 US 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 eventually finds 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 US. 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 first complete 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 an undergraduate degree, you must undergo a three-year program to learn about legal writing, contract law, constitutional law, and other forms of law. Be sure to also take courses such as administrative law, public policy, and constitutional law.
Below are some 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.
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.
Step 3: Apply for Law Internships
During your second year in law school, apply for constitutional law internships; however, bear in mind these are competitive. Make sure you maintain a high GPA and build your personal and professional networks.
Step 4: Take the State Bar Exam
Enroll for the bar exam in your state and sit the papers, which lasts for two days. Bar exams cover all areas of law that an aspiring attorney must pass before they can practice constitutional law. Passing the bar is also mandatory in all states, including those that don’t require a law degree.
That said, it’s also worth noting that the bar exam format and scoring system varies across states. For example, those completing the bar in California must complete a two-part examination; conversely, in New York students must attain a score of 266 to qualify for admission. Candidates in this state must also pass the New York Law Course and a multiple-choice test.
Step 5: Apply for Jobs
If you ace the bar exams, you can 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 websites of federal government agencies in your state as they could be hiring lawyers with experience in constitutional law.
What Do Constitutional Lawyers Do?
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 issues in a particular industry.
Constitutional lawyers handle cases that involve the interpretation of laws as enshrined in the US constitution. Attorneys often argue cases of this nature in federal courts, though some make their way to the Supreme Court. Such cases may involve issues such as rights, equal protection, and privacy. Because their interpretations could affect the lives of citizens across the country, legal experts respect constitutional attorneys.
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 to offer representation in civil rights cases or public policy.
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 will also attend court for hearings or to argue your case.
Some lawyers only practice constitutional law. Good examples are Supreme Court justices and their supporting lawyers who handle cases that touch only on this area. 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.
What Skills Do You Need 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. These lawyers must also be detail-oriented and know how to interact with clients. Other skills needed for this role include:
Constitutional lawyers must be adept at research for several reasons. For one, they must be familiar with the US Constitution and be able to accurately refer to it in a court of law. During their training, law students are also expected to become familiar with sites like Lawrina so that they are constantly updated about all aspects of the legal system.
Constitutional lawyers must also stay informed about high-profile cases, especially those that set precedents within the legal system. Knowing the ins and outs of these cases requires researching all the perspectives in detail.
Constitutional lawyers need outstanding verbal and written communication skills. Not only are you required to put forth persuasive arguments in court, but you must also communicate cases in writing while presenting facts in a coherent and logical manner. Constitutional lawyers must also be able to clearly interpret and communicate different elements of the constitution. Therefore, confidence, public speaking skills, and the ability to make an argument are essential to this role.
Critical Analytical Skills
Like most lawyers, constitutional lawyers ought to be critical thinkers and analysts, evaluating laws and concepts and giving sound interpretation devoid of bias. Winning a case requires analysis, thought, and careful questioning.
Therefore, part of your training as a constitutional lawyer involves honing your thinking and questioning skills and not taking things at face value. Critical analytical skills are also needed in court to analyze all possible interpretations and angles of a case.
Why Become a Constitutional lawyer?
Studying constitutional law and practicing as an attorney puts you in a 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 US Constitution. Brown was a landmark case that set the wheels of the civil rights movement in motion. Lawyers who filed the lawsuit and argued for the cessation of segregation played an essential role in ushering positive social change and impacting 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, asked 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
As of 2020, the average salary for lawyers is approximately $126,000, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Lawyers employed by government agencies have a slightly different median salary of around $144,300 per year. In that same years, the lowest 10% are said to have earned around $61,000, while the top 10% earned upwards of $208,000.
When it comes to constitutional law, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that between 2018 and 2028, demand for this profession will grow by 6%. In terms of their hours, most lawyers work at least 40 hours per week and are expected to be available around the clock.
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.
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.