Constitutional Law and Civil Rights

Main Content

The U.S. Constitution is the cornerstone of all the nation’s laws, individual rights, and structure of government. Constitutional Law is a foundational course in the first-year curriculum, and upper-level students can choose courses in specific areas of constitutional theory, doctrine, or practice, from civil rights litigation to the First and Second Amendments.

Featured Faculty

Neil Siegel testifying before Congress

Neil S. Siegel 

David W. Ichel Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science

For Neil Siegel, a mature and balanced understanding of constitutional law “requires close attention both to the legal doctrine that is developed by the U.S. Supreme Court and to the ideas about the Constitution that circulate in constitutional politics.” Siegel is the co-author of United States Constitutional Law, which explores the ways the Supreme Court interacts with a range of actors and institutions operating in the sphere of constitutional politics, including social movements, political parties, and governmental institutions.

Selected Courses

334 Civil Rights Litigation

This course focuses on section 1983 of the United States Code, a Reconstruction-era statute that enables private parties to sue any other person who "under color" of law deprives them of the "rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws" of the United States. Class participants will become familiar with the theoretical, procedural, and practical aspects of civil rights litigation, including constitutional and statutory claims, defenses and immunities, and available remedies, including attorney fees. Related U.S. Code provisions concerning discrimination in housing, contractual relations, employment, and voting are examined where relevant. 

342 Federal Courts

The course considers the structure and powers of the federal courts and their relationship to the political branches and the state courts. The topics covered include justiciability, congressional authority to define and limit federal court jurisdiction, federal common law and implied rights of action, the application of state law in federal courts under the Erie doctrine, civil rights actions and immunities of state officials and governments, and habeas corpus. The focus of the course is on structural constitutional considerations relating to both the separation of powers between the three branches of the national government as well as the federalism relationship between the national government and the state governments.

363 Legislation and Statutory Interpretation

Legislation is one of the most important forms of law in modern American society. Indeed, it has been said that we are living in an 'age of statutes.' Almost every aspect of legal practice involves construction of statutes, whether defining the jurisdiction of the courts or establishing the norms to which society must conform. In this course, we will examine the legal theory and practice of the making and enforcement of statutes. The course will begin with a study of the legislative process, with special attention to theories that seek to understand why some bills succeed where others fail. The next unit of the course will consider statutes as a unique source of law, comparing them to the common law and the Constitution. We will then move to the heart of the course, which will focus on how judges and other legal actors (agencies, enforcers, etc.) interpret statutes. 

556 Second Amendment: History, Theory, and Practice

The Supreme Court's decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago have ushered in a whole new era of Second Amendment theory, litigation, and politics. Current events keep issues of firearms, gun violence, gun safety, and self-defense constantly in the news. This seminar will explore the Second Amendment and the various state constitutional analogs historically, theoretically, and pragmatically. Students will be introduced to the historical and public policy materials surrounding the Second Amendment, the regulatory environment concerning firearms, and the political and legal issues pertaining to firearm rights-enforcement and policy design.

758 Originalism and Its Discontents

Originalism is a major school of constitutional interpretation and an important field of study. Legal discussions and public debates regularly feature originalist arguments or criticisms of originalism. To engage these arguments, lawyers and citizens need to weigh the merits of a diverse set of originalist theories. This course is designed to acquaint you with originalist and nonoriginalist arguments; enable you to assess their strengths; and give you an opportunity to sharpen your own views.

First Amendment Clinic

The public mission of the First Amendment Clinic at Duke Law is to protect and advance the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and petition. Students have the opportunity to work directly with clients facing free expression concerns, including defamation, content-discrimination, and reporter’s privilege. The clinic also provides commentary and legal analysis on pending or enacted legislation that implicates First Amendment freedoms, and other governmental as well as academic developments.

Clinic students and faculty in front of courthouse

Meet Neil Joseph '20

Neil Joseph

Neil was part of a First Amendment Clinic team that won a federal defamation case, defending the clinic's client against a $110 million lawsuit for comments he made on Facebook and a newspaper website. Neil helped draft the summary judgment brief and prepared to argue the motion when the court decided to rule on the briefs in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Neil also served as editor-in-chief of the Duke Journal of Constitutional Law and Public Policy, an editor for Judicature, secretary of the Duke Bar Association, ​a member of the Moot Court Board, and a LEAD Fellow, and he had an externship with the N.C. Solicitor General's Office. He's now an associate with Kirkland & Ellis in Washington, D.C.



[The clinic's faculty] invested much time and effort into making our case the best it could be, going over countless drafts of briefs, hours of practice of oral argument, and numerous discussions about defense strategy, while also empowering us. I felt like an integral part of a team. 

Neil Joseph '20
Duke in D.C.
students posing in front of US Capitol
Call to Action Content

Duke in D.C. gives students who are interested in public policy, public service, and careers in the public sector an opportunity to engage in hands-on law practice through a full-time externship experience in Washington, D.C. The program has two components: a semester-long externship placement with a D.C.-area government or non-profit organization, and a weekly seminar course taught by Duke Law faculty.

Duke Journal of Constitutional Law & Public Policy

The student-edited Duke Journal of Constitutional Law & Public Policy examines legal issues at the intersection of constitutional litigation and public policy with articles aimed at practitioners, judges, and legislators confronting new constitutional issues and examining the constitutional and policy dimensions of court decisions and legislation.

Program in Public Law

The Program in Public Law promotes understanding of the nation’s public institutions, of the Constitutional framework in which they function, and of the principles and laws that apply to the work of public officials.

Center for Firearms Law

The Duke Center for Firearms Law is dedicated to the development of firearms law as a scholarly field. It seeks to do so through the development and support of reliable, original, and insightful scholarship, research, and programming on firearms law that will be useful to lawyers, policy makers, and the interested layperson. Launched in 2019, the Center has a two-fold mission: To help support and build the scholarly field of firearms law; and to serve as a balanced and reliable resource on firearms law for scholars, judges, lawyers, policymakers, journalists, and interested citizens.