Understanding the Constitution and Supreme Court: Some Resources for We the People

As you may have noticed, Constitutional questions have been in the news more than usual the last few months. For example, do the President's international business relationships violate the Emoluments Clause? Does the phrase "advice and consent" allow the Senate to refuse to consider an outgoing President's Supreme Court nominee? Does the First Amendment allow private businesses to refuse services in the name of religious freedom? How did the Constitutional protection of habeas corpus allow a judge to block parts of the President's recent immigration order?

Understanding how the Constitution applies in these cases is no easy matter, especially for people without formal legal training. While it's supposed to be a document of "We the People," many citizens don't know much about what the Constitution says, or how it really works. As the satirical newspaper The Onion once reported: Area Man Passionate Defender of What He Imagines the Constitution to Be.

Not long ago, I decided that I didn't want to be THAT guy, so I started giving myself a crash course in the Constitution and Bill of Rights (using books, DVDS, and databases from Denver Public Library, of course). Before long, I had a sad realization--I was the area man from The Onion.

I had read the Constitution a few times in my life, but I quickly realized that wasn't enough. It turns out that even if you know the Constitution by heart, you still won't understand how it works in the real world if you don't know how judges have interpreted and applied it. In other words, you have to know something about Constitutional law and the history of the courts, especially the Supreme Court (which has the final say on what the Constitution means, and has also been in the news a lot lately). You need to know terms like "substantive due process," "state action," "strict scrutiny," and others, that never actually appear in the text of the Constitution. And that's not easy for the average citizen to do.

And that's a big problem, because we're supposed to have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people; a government that, according to the Declaration of Independence, "derives its just powers from the consent of the governed." Yet for the most part, we (the people) don't understand how our own founding legal document functions, because Constitutional law is so complicated, and written in such a specialized language.

But libraries and librarians are here to help! We can connect you with all kinds of books, articles, and websites, written for regular citizens instead of lawyers and judges, to help penetrate the murky world of Constitutional law and Supreme Court decisions. Here are a few of my favorites:

Books

The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution / Linda R. Monk This a straightforward, easy-to-understand book that goes through each article and amendment of the Constitution, explaining what they mean, how courts have interpreted them, and how they've affected U.S. history.

The U.S. Constitution / Timothy Harper Yes, this is part of the Idiot's Guides series, but don't that let that bother you. This is a well-written, enlightening book. It spends more time discussing the individual rights in the Bill of Rights and other amendments than the branches of government and their powers.

The Life of the Law: The People and Cases that Have Shaped Our Society, from King Alfred to Rodney King / Alfred Knight This entertainingly-written book explains how American rights and laws emerged from English law, and how we owe our rights today to generations of determined people who fought for them in the courts.

The Supremes' Greatest Hits: The 44 Supreme Court Cases that Most Directly Affect Your Life / Michael Trachtman This is a brief, enlightening book about the most important Supreme Court cases, including major recent cases like Obergefell v. Hodges (gay marriage), Citizens United, and the Hobby Lobby case.

Freedom for the Thought We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment / Anthony Lewis A thought-provoking book about the history of freedom of expression in the United States.

DVDs

Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights / John E. Finn If you want a more in-depth discussion of the legal thinking and court decisions related to speech, religion, privacy, equal protection, and so on, this is an excellent series of lectures from The Great Courses.

Online Encyclopedias/Databases 

If you have a Denver Public Library card, did you know you have 24-hour access to an entire collection of reference books? Gale Virtual Reference Library includes thousands of high-quality reference books in electronic form. It covers all kinds of topics, but for this post I want to point out some great legal references. These are full of excellent articles, written by experts, that let you quickly learn about a topic without reading an entire book. If you're on the go, you can access them through your smart phone.

Gale Encyclopedia of American Law. 3rd ed., Gale, 2011. 14 vols.

Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court of the United States. Macmillan Reference USA, 2008. 5 vols.

Constitutional Amendments: From Freedom of Speech to Flag Burning. 2nd ed., UXL, 2008. 3 vols.

Another great database, with access to magazine and newspaper articles, videos, and primary documents, as well as encyclopedias, is U.S. History in Context

Websites

Interactive Constitution from the National Constitution Center This is a great resource for learning about the Constitution, with commentary by legal experts.

Oyez: IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law This excellent interactive website about the Supreme Court is a good companion to the Interactive Constitution. It features easy-to-understand summaries of Supreme Court cases, and even lets you listen to recordings of the original arguments.

America's Founding Documents: U.S. National Archives High resolution images of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, along with educational materials.

The Supreme Court: C-SPAN A series of videos about the Supreme Court, with video interviews of Supreme Court Justices.

Bill of Rights Institute An educational website on the Bill of Rights, geared toward students and teachers.

Written by Ross on February 3, 2017

Comments

Frank W on February 4, 2017

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I just had a customer ask me at the Reference Desk for some suggestions on good books about the Constitution. Thanks for the post Ross!!

Sarah Evilsizor on February 4, 2017

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So awesome, Ross. Thank you.

SuzanneK on February 6, 2017

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Very informative!

Anonymous on February 12, 2017

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Timely and informative - thank you!