POL S 360 A: Introduction to United States Constitutional Law

Meeting Time: 
MW 2:30pm - 3:50pm
MLR 301
Joint Sections: 
LSJ 360 A
Scott Lemieux

Syllabus Description:

This syllabus is a living document! Please check frequently for updates

LSJ/Political Science 360: Introduction to American Constitutional Law

Scott Lemieux, slemieux@uw.edu [No campus meetings this quarter]

Virtual Office Hours: By appointment over Skype/Zoom,  available most weekdays 11-6

TAs and Virtual Discussion Sections:

Carolyn Dapper (AB & AD), cdapper2@gmail.com

Sebastian Mayer (AA & AC), sebmayer@uw.edu, OH: W 12-2pm via Zoom


How the remote class will work:

Main Lecture:  The main lecture will be asynchronous; that is, you will not be expected to livestream it or be available at the precise previously listed time for the class. Every Monday or Wednesday except on school holidays, lectures (generally two or three mini-lectures covering the material for the class) will be posted at the "Panopto Recordings" link to the bottom left of the course page. You should have completed viewing all the lectures for the week by the time of your section Friday. I will also create a discussion forum for each week of lecture that you can use to ask questions while you watch the lectures, which I should generally be able to respond to within 24 hours. 

Please feel free to email questions or schedule a virtual meeting at any time! 

Section: Your discussion section will be having a Zoom meeting at the designated time unless you are advised otherwise. Your TA will provide you with the information to join the meeting. There will also be separate discussion fora for each section.  For full credit, you will be expected to ask and answer questions about the week's readings, based on the instructions from the TA. You will also be assigned brief assignments through your section (see below.)

Important Note: Students will not be penalized if internet access or health issues prevent them from "attending" a discussion.  Participation in the discussion forum and submission of case briefs according to the directions of your TA will be sufficient to get full grading credit for section participation. 

Course Introduction:  This is a course on constitutional powers, civil rights, and the development of American constitutional law.   Because many core rights are linked to our remarkably enduring Constitution, one might think of them as enduring and unchanging.   However, in fact constitutional rights are a contestant site of change and political struggle, and the content of rights and powers has changed considerably even as the formal text of the Constitution remains unchanged.    We will explore these developments – how they occurred, why, and where the law now stands on important questions of constitutional law. We will explore how federal and state powers, capitalism, and civil rights have interacted in their development throughout American history.

The course is designed for students with an interest in American political and legal institutions, legal processes, rights, American political history, and/or the role of courts in society. No prior knowledge of constitutional law is presumed.

Textbook: The text for the class is Gillman, Graber, and Whittington, American Constitutionalism: Volume I: Structures of Government (2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2015). It is for virtual order and rental at University Bookstore and at all major online retailers. In addition, some cases may be posted in PDF files on Canvas.

Reading cases. Although political scientists treat case law somewhat differently than law professors -- we tend to focus more on the reasoning in opinions and less on the particular facts of cases -- this is still a very useful guide to the basic terminology in legal opinions and strategies for reading them.

The Constitution of the United States and Amendments. You will need to refer constantly to the text of the Constitution as you read cases, study for exams, and think about the material in this course.


General Requirements and Class Policies:


  • Online interactions should follow the "netiquette" guidelines of the university. Always treat your peers and instructors respectfully. 
  • This course will comply fully with the Americans With Disabilities Act and all relevant university procedures. If you require accommodation because of a disability please consult the university’s procedures here: http://depts.washington.edu/uwdrs/
  • This course will comply fully with Washington state policy on religious accommodation.
  • Plagiarism, cheating, and other forms of academic dishonesty are forbidden and will result in a grade of “0” for the given assignment.  Plagiarism detection software may be used for all online submissions. Students may also be subject to the disciplinary procedures for such conduct outlined on the University of Washington website: https://depts.washington.edu/grading/pdf/AcademicResponsibility.pdf
  • Any contestation of grades must be done according to the procedures established by your section leader. Dr. Lemieux will not consider any grade complaints until one has been made in writing and addressed by the the section leader.


Exams:  The take-home exams will test your knowledge of the assigned cases and related constitutional controversies and your understanding of constitutional processes and concepts. Exams will consist of multiple choice, short answer and short essay questions. There will be three non-cumulative exams, weighted equally. They will be open-book exams but collaboration between students is forbidden.


Briefs:  Students will be expected to submit case briefs online over the course of the quarter as part of your section work.  Your TA will provide further instruction.  A guide for writing a case brief can be found on p. 713 of your textbook, and I will also post a video lecture explaining the process.   Briefs will be based on a check/check plus/check minus basis.


PREPARING FOR CLASS. The readings for the class consist mostly of excerpts from judicial opinions in Supreme Court cases. Because judges write in the peculiar legitimating language of the law, these opinions can be difficult to understand. Judges can be unreliable narrators; they do not always write opinions in order to explain the issues in a case clearly or honestly. They are not trying to write so that a college student can study for an exam. They write opinions in an attempt to justify their rulings. They are producing arguments in favor of a particular outcome, not creating an accurate record of their reasoning in the case. Judges will sometimes deliberately obscure important issues in a case, offer misleading justifications, and omit very important facts or considerations.


This class has a fairly light reading load for a 300 level class, but this can be misleading.  Because of the way judges write, you will need to read carefully and read between the lines to develop an adequate understanding of the cases.   In some cases you will need to read each case more than once before you will understand it. For most students, it takes considerable time and practice to learn to read and understand cases. Reading should get easier as the semester progresses.


Grade Breakdown: Your final grade will consist 25% each for three exams and 25% for participation and brief assignments.


Class Schedule.   Readings refer to chapters in the main text.  Readings posted on Canvas are denoted with an asterisk (*).


3/30 Class introduction

4/1 Introduction to constitutional law: Ch. 1

4/6 The Early National Era: Ch. 4, I, II, III, IV

4/8-15 The Jacksonian Era: Ch.5 I, II, III, IV, VII (A)*, IX* (Note: the Dred Scott decision is excerpted both in Section III and Section VII, which is in the excerpts uploaded under the "civil rights cases" in the "Files" section. 

FIRST MIDTERM EXAM DUE VIA CANVAS 6 PM MONDAY, APRIL 20. No online lectures will be posted.

4/22-29 The Republican Era: Ch.7 I, II, III, IV, VII (D)*, IX*

4/4-11 The New Deal Era: Ch. 8, I, II, III, IV, V (A,D), VI,* VIII (B)*, IX*

SECOND MIDTERM EXAM DUE VIA CANVAS 6PM WEDNESDAY, MAY 13. No online lectures will be posted.

5/18-6/3 The Post-New Deal Era: Ch. 9, IX*; Ch. 10 II, III(B), IV, X* (E); Ch. 11 I, II, III, IV (A-C), V, VIII (B)*; IX*


Catalog Description: 
Growth and development of the United States Constitution as reflected in decisions of the Supreme Court; political, social, and economic effects. Offered: jointly with LSJ 360.
Department Requirements: 
American Politics Field
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Last updated: 
January 31, 2020 - 4:10am