Constitutional law, or con law, as it is popularly known in legal circles, involves interpreting the foundational legal document of the United States against any laws and regulatory actions that have taken shape since its original signing in 1787. Constitutional law helps to delineate the powers of government in its different roles and establish the basic rights of American citizens. Con law also governs the interaction between the three branches of American government as well as between the federal government and state governments.
Constitutional law extends its reach into almost every aspect of the American legal system so all paralegals need at least a basic familiarity with the basis and precepts of con law.
From time to time, however, elemental questions around the rules used to establish the rule of law rise to the forefront as something that concerns all US citizens. When this happens, paralegals working in constitutional law apply their expertise in the matter to help resolve disputes.
Constitutional Law Interprets Modern Quandaries Through Historical Rules
Because the U.S. Constitution was written more than two hundred years ago, there are many questions arising from modern mores and technology that the drafters could not have envisioned. Constitutional law often comes to the forefront when there is a question of interpreting the intent of the founders to questions of modern legal problems.
This means that to an extent not required of other paralegals, con law paralegals must be students of history and precedent. And when constitutional law cases are decided, they often end up in the history books or enter the popular lexicon in ways that most court cases do not.
Anyone who has ever watched a crime drama is familiar with the standard Miranda warnings that police are required to provide to anyone they arrest before questioning them. But few realize that the ‘right to remain silent’ and the ‘right to an attorney’ were questions of constitutional law that had not been resolved prior to the arrest and trial of Ernesto Miranda in Arizona in 1963. A coerced confession lead to his conviction, which was appealed and led to a landmark Supreme Court case that threw out the conviction because he had not been advised of his rights.
Ironically, Miranda was later stabbed to death; his alleged killer was advised of and exercised his own right to remain silence and, in the absence of other evidence, went free.
Con law work is heavy on research and legal writing. The Constitution itself has not been amended since 1992 (and that amendment had been originally proposed in 1789) and before that, not since 1971, so the law itself does not change frequently; the entire document, including all amendments, is less than 8,000 words, so there is not a lot of reading to be done. But the interpretation of those words is constantly in flux. Judgements all over the country and legal writing from attorneys and judges alike are considered and adopted or argued against in cases that, ultimately, may affect how all similar cases are decided.
Paralegals have to track trends in interpretation of Constitutional requirements and should also be familiar with various schools of thought on Constitutional interpretation. Judges tend to fall into distinctive groups with respect to how they view the document, a concept known as judicial interpretation. These groups include:
- Balancers – Attempting to weigh sets of public interests against one another to determine the greater good.
- Originalists – Issuing rulings in accordance with what is believed to be the original intent of the document.
- Constructionists – Finding a reading of plain meaning in the text that requires no further interpretation.
- Structuralists – Seeking meaning in how a given portion of the document relates to surrounding articles and clauses.
Understanding how a judge fits into these, and other, patterns of thought helps paralegals work with attorneys to craft strategy to win a case based on finding arguments that appeal to the judge’s proclivities.
Con law paralegals perform some of the usual paralegal functions when it comes to trial, including drafting motions, briefings, and responses and making the necessary filings on time. They might work to prepare exhibits for the court.
They do not work as frequently with witnesses or evidence. Most con law trial work is appellate work, which does not seek to re-try the case, but merely to review the previous trial. This involves more paperwork, research, and writing than direct involvement with evidence and witnesses.
Applying Paralegal Skills to Defending Constitutional Rights
Con law paralegals frequently find themselves working for non-profits and in public interest advocacy organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) or the National Rifle Association (NRA) which attempt to use legal doctrine to uphold civil rights established in the Constitution.
Many large law firms also have departments or attorneys who specialized in constitutional law. Paralegals may work primarily in such departments or with those specialist attorneys, although they will usually also have other responsibilities within the firm working on cases not directly related to constitutional law. Firms that specialize in handling criminal appellate cases are often places that work heavily in constitutional law questions, since these may provide a basis for appeal.
Interpreting the Constitution to Keep Government Running
The U.S. Department of Justice employs lawyers and paralegals specializing in constitutional law, largely with the mandate of providing legal advice to the government itself to ensure that it follows the rule of law outlined in the constitution as it performs other legislated duties. Con law paralegals also work with Congress and in the Executive branch to ensure that legislation is drafted in accordance with constitutional requirements.
Specializing in Supreme Court Cases
A handful of law firms, typically located in Washington or on the East Coast, specialize, or have departments that specialize, in arguing cases before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court hears only around 80 cases each year and paralegals working in these firms find themselves responsible for managing the details of cases that will feature in national and international headlines.
Supreme Court work is appellate case work of the highest order, requiring exacting attention to detail in making arguments and challenging the findings of lower courts. A paralegal working for an attorney in the Supreme Court bar has to have top-notch research and legal writing skills. Being able to read the tea leaves of Supreme Court politics is an additional in-demand skill at these top-flight law firms.
How to Become a Constitutional Law Paralegal
Every paralegal will study constitutional law in the course of obtaining their degree or certificate, but some schools also offer advanced certificate courses specifically in constitutional law for early and mid-career professionals looking to specialize. You generally need to be enrolled in a paralegal program or have working experience as a paralegal to enroll in these types of advanced certificate programs.
The road to working on con law tends to run through criminal defense. Questions of constitutional rights are frequently encountered in defending criminal cases, since abrogation of those rights can result in cases being thrown out or overturned on appeal. Paralegals who spend much time working in criminal defense will have exposure to at least the basics of constitutional law work.
Related to this are paralegals who work in civil rights practices. Civil rights often come into question in criminal cases, but civil rights firms also focus on larger societal issues and bring civil cases against government when they identify systemic abuses. They are also heavily focused on lobbying for legal protections that are in line with Constitutional mandates.
This is a relatively easy route into constitutional law work since many civil rights advocacy groups are non-profits who are eager for volunteer or other assistance at relatively low pay rates. This is a quick way to build experience in the field and build your resume toward applying for more lucrative positions.
NALS, the association for legal professionals, offers specialty certification programs in immigration and appellate law for currently practicing paralegals. Although not specific to con law, this issues can turn on Constitutional questions and the additional focus on those topics is a benefit to con law paralegals.