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Robert G. Moser, Chair BAT 2.116, Mailcode A1800, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-5121

Fall 2008

GOV 357M • 5-Constitutional Interpretatn

Unique Days Time Location Instructor
39480 TTh
9:30 AM-11:00 AM
GSB 2.126
Perry, H

Course Description

Politics is often defined as "the authoritative allocation of values." In the American political system, the Constitution is an important source of authority, and it gives preference to certain values. The Constitution is a document of law, politics, and political theory. Determining what the Constitution means, determining how to determine what it means, and determining who should determine what it means are fundamental tasks for participants in the American political process and for students of it. The course may be of interest to those thinking about attending law school, but it is equally valuable to those who have no such interest. Given the nature of our society, understanding the Constitution and constitutional law is part of a liberal arts education. For the most part, the course does not focus on the "civil liberties" provisions in the Constitution; those important subjects are left to other courses. One objective of the course is for the student to become a constitutional interpreter who contributes intelligently to this ongoing process. Judges have never been, nor should be, the only ones engaging in constitutional interpretation. Presidents, members of Congress, and many others engage in constitutional interpretation. A more complete course would examine their statements and actions in greater detail. Judges, however, play a very important role in defining the meaning of the Constitution. As such, it is important to learn what judges have said the Constitution means and to understand how they came to such conclusions. This necessitates learning how to read and analyze judicial opinions. The student should develop a sufficient comfort level with legal analysis so that she or he can evaluate intelligently some important interpretations of the justices and ask the questions that a student of politics should ask. Prominent among such questions are those concerned with the proper role of courts and judges in the American political system. We concentrate on the primary material--the Constitution and cases--so that the student can begin to develop his or her own ideas without undue influence. Another objective of this course is to improve reasoning and communication skills. Engaging in constitutional reasoning can assist in developing intellectual precision and political persuasiveness. As in most courses, good writing is demanded, but it is also important to develop the capacity to think and speak on one's feet. Mastering the use of language, orally and in writing, increases the ability to think and communicate clearly. Moving toward such mastery is a vital part of education. The course requires a substantial time commitment. The time required varies greatly over the course of the semester, and as described below, it is hard to plan ahead.

Constitutional interpretation lends itself to dialog between professor and student and among students. There are few lectures. I use a combination of the case and Socratic methods. This requires students to come to class prepared and to listen to one another. Students are expected to attend class and participate. I call on students and expect them to be well-prepared. Repeated absences and lack of preparation hurt one's grade. The method of teaching presumes that students heard prior discussions. If a student is not prepared, he or she must put a note on the lectern before class. Repeated lack of preparation will hurt ones grade. It is also in one's long-term interest to prepare thoroughly for each class because the material is cumulative, and the workload in this course increases dramatically as the semester proceeds.

Grading Policy

The major determinant of one's grade will be from an in-class midterm and final exam. There will be other components as well.


Assignments will be given each class period. Most readings will be in the casebook. You must bring your casebook to class. The next day's assignment depends upon how far we get in any given day; therefore, it is impossible to know specific daily assignments in advance.


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