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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"Better Know a Justice" in 1L Constitutional Law?

Although I've been blogging more frequently as of late over @ Lawfare, I still hope to have relevant non-national security things to chat about here @ Prawfs. Further to that, among the tweaks I'm considering for my first-year Constitutional Law course this spring is an idea I'd "borrow" from Stephen Colbert--apropos his "Better Know a District" segments on The Colbert Report, I thought it might be fun to begin each of my 39 class sessions by giving the students background and biographical information on a specific Supreme Court Justice who's particularly relevant to that day's class (via Powerpoint--duh!). So, on Youngstown day, we'd begin with Justice Jackson, and so on... With a couple of doubles or triples and no repeats, I figure I can get through about 45-50 of the 110 different people to serve on the Court (Kagan is #112, but the official list counts Rutledge and Hughes twice.)

There are obvious shortcomings to this approach, including that the focus will invariably skew toward the modern Court (neither Justice Lamar makes the cut under my current draft); that every day can't be Justice O'Connor or Justice Kennedy day; that choosing a Justice on one side of a particular case versus the other might skew the students' perception of the decision; that focusing on Supreme Court Justices (as opposed to lower-court judges, Presidents, or key legislators) further entrenches the already overly court-centric view 1Ls take away from con law, and so on. So far, I haven't been convinced that any of these are dealbreakers compared to the payout on the students' part--which to my mind will include a deeper appreciation for the individual personalities who figure in our study of constitutional law, and, I hope, a greater ability to see the jurisprudence of individual Justices evolve over time. But I'm curious for additional reactions. Do folks think this is a decent idea? A really stupid idea? Both?

Posted by Steve Vladeck on December 27, 2011 at 12:13 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Steve Vladeck, Teaching Law | Permalink


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I was fortunate to have studied ConLaw under Thomas Reed Powell in the fall of 1952. I caught up with him after class one day and asked how he thought the Supreme Court might rule on a case making its way through the lower federal courts on baseball/anti-trust, as it was reputed that Prof. Powell had an earlier role in the SCOTUS decision exempting baseball from anti-trust laws. He replied: "I stopped a long time ago trying to figure out what those bozos might do." [This is as close a quote as I recall. I should mention that "bozos" was not part of my vocabulary back in 1952.] Prof. Powell had known personally many of the Justices during his long career, including in particular Justice Douglas (a former C student) and Justice Frankfurter (a fellow professor at Harvard Law School).

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Dec 29, 2011 6:45:01 AM

I question the "pablum" comment -- I think it is actually more realistic to remind the students that judging is partially personal and that factors into things in some fashion. Also, a bit of change of pace also might help the medicine go down, so to speak.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 28, 2011 11:08:22 PM

Great idea. I do a little of it, and you've convinced me to do more. I never used the "Better know a..." conceit, but now I will! What I do is give the (partial) bio of the Justice in context of the case, not at the start of class - and hopefully I get to remind them weeks later, for reinforcement. So when we do Singleton v. Wolf for 3d party standing, I do the Blackmun bio - Nixon appointee expected to be a conservative, but he had this med background, and then the issues changed...; and then by the time we do Roe, I ask, "who remembers what bio details we discussed about Justice Blackmun?" Same for Jackson: Youngstown is a great chance to show how a Justice who'd argued position X as an attorney (broad prez power) is free to take a diff view as a judge; and then when Jackson comes up later in Railway Express, I reiterate how he was a pragmatist... Fun stuff.

And I think the focus on the modern court (i.e., postwar) is nothing to be ashamed of, because the modern-ish Justices are more illustrative of where the court is, and is going: I want my students to become lifelong-knowledgeable about the Court, and even if Scalia retires later this decade, their familiarity with his background as well as Douglas's will help them see contrasts (e.g., that Sotomayor and Kagan were no Douglas, just as Roberts appeared to be no Scalia as of his appointment).

Posted by: Scott Moss | Dec 28, 2011 10:29:05 PM

Maybe I'm just cranky, but I don't like this idea for two reasons. First, Con Law is such a bloated course, with such pressing coverage issues, that I can't honestly imagine how you could give up even five minutes per class to this (and my guess is that five minutes will creep up to seven or eight or ten because the students, sensing an opportunity, will ask questions to waste time). Second, my personal view is that any extra time built into the course is best spent drilling students on basic skills -- problem solving, basic application of law to fact, building arguments, and so forth. My guess is that they will display pleasure if you give them five minutes of pablum each day, but that they will respect you more in the morning if they think you're helping them hone useful skills.

Posted by: Senior conlawprof | Dec 28, 2011 6:32:12 PM

I think Eric Muller is correct to be concerned but with the right amount of care, the idea sounds interesting, particularly if some emphasis is put on lesser known justices. OTOH, even more well known like Kennedy have biographical details that aren't too well known that might provide a window to their judicial insights.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 28, 2011 12:13:02 PM

I think you'd be better advised to devote the time to a brief historical backdrop of the case under discussion. It will help them understand the dispute better and why the issues mattered. To dwell on the Justices themselves will only reinforce the idea they already will have in abundance, which is that the decisions are nothing but a function of the Justices own personslities and preferences.

Posted by: Eric Muller | Dec 28, 2011 11:47:56 AM

I think it's a great idea. You might address your concern re reinforcing the 1L Court-centric view by occasionally doing something on "Better Know an Advocate" e.g. Webster in McCulloch, etc.

Posted by: Joel Goldstein | Dec 28, 2011 9:13:51 AM

I've done something a bit like this in various legal theory classes. When I first have students read something by Hart or Austin or Hobbes or Foucault or whomever, I give a brief bio and background on them- I try not to make it take more than 5 minutes at most, just so they know something about how to situate the reading. It seems less obviously useful for me for Supreme Court justices, but probably still interesting. My worries would be that it might make students more inclined to attribute rulings to the personalities or backgrounds of the justices, and it would be easy for it to eat into scarce time over the course of the semester. But, if you think those problems can be avoided, it sounds like fun to me, and perhaps even of some use.

Posted by: Matt | Dec 27, 2011 3:15:22 PM

I fear this might be one of those things that is really interesting to the professor but is less so to the students (not to mention the inevitable "do we need to know all these justices' biographies for the exam" questions).

Posted by: Patrick Luff | Dec 27, 2011 3:03:45 PM

I want to sign up for your con law class.

Posted by: sugar huddle | Dec 27, 2011 1:06:33 PM

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