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Bar News - February 17, 2012

Book Review: The Elements of Constitutional Law: A Guide to America’s Most Timeless and Powerful Document By Albert A. Navarra


Ah, constitutional law. Ya gotta love it.

The author of this smallish and essentially non-academic book notes that:

Even law students struggle with this subject; they often complain that there is no ‘law’ in constitutional law and that it’s all a matter of ‘analysis’. This isn’t true, of course, but it speaks to the difficulty in understanding it.

So, Attorney Navarra - a specialist in worker’s compensation law, by the way – promises us "… clear and concise rule statements …" in this, his first book. He says he won’t offer historical information about the cases and expressly denies that he will offer any personal opinions. Further, he promises to leaven his rule statements with summaries of the most important Supreme Court cases. In other words, his book will be all "Black Letter law", with some necessary and unavoidable exposition through statutes and individual Supreme Court cases.

Black Letter law has its uses, certainly, but we all know that a solid appreciation of the development of the law over time is essential for us as practitioners. We need this in order to achieve an informed understanding of the apparent current state of the law and -- even more importantly - in order to be able to predict its application in our clients’ futures and to do so reasonably accurately. Clients would like "Black Letter law", for sure, but that’s not always possible.

(Remember Harry Truman’s old line about hiring only one-handed lawyers, so they could never begin their opinions with "On the one hand … "?)

A useful approach is taken by the author here, in that he identifies typical constitutional topics (e.g., "Congressional Power to Enforce Civil Rights"), identifies the applicable Constitutional provisions and then provides thumbnail sketches of each of several major cases dealing with particular sub-topics. He does not pretend to offer a detailed and systematic "tour d’horizon" of the chosen topics, but at least the practitioner can get a good idea here of what the major conceptual wrinkles probably are.

It is also important to note that this book does not attempt a line-by-line textual analysis of the Constitution, but merely some of the more important topics.

So, this book may well be of limited usefulness in a law practice, even a general one. Frankly, I don’t think the author ever really intended to include us in his "intended demographic", aiming more at undergraduates and the general public, and maybe the odd law student or two.

However, if you wish to quickly refurbish your own appreciation of a particular area of Constitutional law, this book may be useful, simply by allowing you to test your own recollection of the general rule, of the specific Constitutional provisions and of the reasoning of individual cases against the author’s statement of them.

Also, this same exercise might be very useful to a practitioner who has a practice that is limited to a specific area of law and who wishes to avoid or reduce the usual consequent myopic view of the rest of the law.

All in all, this slender volume belongs on your night table, conveniently located for that brief period between becoming tired and actually going to sleep. The "Oxford Companion to The Supreme Court" might be nicer, but this little book costs only $19.95, and at that price you can’t go wrong.

Associate Professor Laurence J. Gillis teaches on-line law courses at the University of Maryland University College and at UMass-Lowell from his home in Cape Coral FL. He summers in Rye. He was admitted to the NH Bar in 1972.

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