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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Things You Oughta Know If You Teach Federal Courts

At Dan's request, I thought I'd put together the following thoughts for those prawfs who are either new to, or contemplating jumping into, Federal Courts. At the outset, let me just say something that I think most teachers of Federal Courts believe: It is at once the hardest and most interesting class I teach, and I constantly encounter greater challenges--both substantively and pedagogically--in this course than in any of my other classes. That could just be me, though, so please take what follows below the fold with however many grains of salt such an opening warrants.

I.  What Is Federal Courts?

No two people will answer this question the same way, and yet it will necessarily drive virtually every aspect of how you structure the course, which materials you use, what kind of pedagogical approach you pursue, etc. To my mind, there are three classical views of the course:

  1. as an advanced civil procedure course, with special focus on some of the nastier and more intricate questions of subject-matter jurisdiction, removal jurisdiction and procedure, "complete preemption," appellate jurisdiction and procedure, class actions, the jurisdiction and procedure of the U.S. Supreme Court, etc.
  2. as an advanced constitutional law course, with special focus on justiciability doctrine (different schools cover this to varying degrees in the intro con law course(s)), the constitutional scope of federal jurisdiction, the constitutional limits on federal jurisdiction, Congress's power over federal jurisdiction, the constitutional relationship between federal and state courts, the constitutional rules governing non-Article III courts, etc.
  3. as a federal remedies course, with special focus on federal common law, implied causes of action, Bivens remedies, § 1983, sovereign and official immunity, abstention doctrines, and habeas.

I very much doubt that any Federal Courts class sticks entirely to one of these three conceptions. But a lot of how you structure the course and which materials you use will depend on how heavily you want to borrow from each of these models.  To similar effect, different Federal Courts casebooks work to differing degrees based on your own comfort level with (and attraction toward) each of these models.

My own view, as will become apparent, is to teach Federal Courts as primarily models (2) and (3)--that very little of the class is merely about how particular statutes are actually applied. Instead, I've always seen Federal Courts as a far deeper inquiry into the unique role and constraints on the federal courts within the federal system, and so I've gravitated in that direction. Put another way, if most public law classes in law school (including constitutional law) are Calculus, in which students merely apply the structural rules (e.g., the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus), Federal Courts is Analysis, in which we prove why those rules are. Here, that means the course is devoted to explaining both why the Federal Courts are such an integral part of the federal system (including why federal courts can play roles that state courts cannot), and how the Federal Courts preserve their ability to continue to play that role going forward. But again, that might just be me...

II.  Three Credits or Four?

Although a handful of schools (e.g., Harvard) offer a five-credit Federal Courts class (a boy can dream...), the far more realistic issue most of us will confront is whether the course should cover three or four credits. I'm horribly biased here, but I think that, virtually no matter how you answer Question I, above, it's difficult to squeeze all this material into three credits. That said, if you don't have a choice, I think a three-credit Federal Courts class will necessarily either (1) stick to only one of the models described above; or (2) borrow far less heavily from each, and be more of a survey course.

III.  To Hart & Wechsler or Not To Hart & Wechsler?

There are a lot of Federal Courts casebooks out there, and many of them are quite good by almost any standard. But I think the question of casebook choice is still best framed as Hart & Wechsler vs. the field, especially if you gravitate toward a combination of models (2) and (3) from above.  As I tell my students every year, 

Hart & Wechsler . . . is a wonderful book for everything except teaching. It is maddeningly rhetorical, hyper-dense, and includes far too much significant material in the notes after cases . . . and footnotes . . . . That being said, it is a simply invaluable reference and the gold standard when it comes to federal courts casebooks — the entire field of federal courts owes much of its origins to the first edition, published in 1953. By the end of the semester, you may come to hate the book, but I truly believe that it is the best way to fully appreciate the (often endless) complexities of the questions that we will be studying.

And year after year, I pay for that choice in my student evaluations, most of which express deep frustration at a casebook that provides plenty of questions, but no answers (of course, it does provide answers, but that's the point). Having tried teaching the course once from another book, though, it's been my experience that there's an upside to Hart & Wechsler, too--that students develop a deeper appreciation for the nuance that infects most serious Federal Courts issues, and that they realize how much the "law" of Federal Courts is defined by negative inference from the subtleties of what the Supreme Court has not done and/or never said. 

That said, there are compelling reasons not to adopt Hart & Wechsler. Its density makes it hard to cover as much material in the same amount of time; it's much harder for us as professors in the classroom, because we have to spend far more time helping the students divine the "rules," such as they are, from the Federal Courts canon; and it makes for unhappy (or at least overworked) students, who, no matter how hard you try to convince them otherwise, will remain convinced that you're a sadist for choosing that book, as opposed to its competitors.  My own experience has been that, all that said, the pros outweigh the cons, but it's a decision every Federal Courts prawf has to make for themselves. And if you go with the field, it's a fantastic and deep bench; then, I think the real key is finding the book that hews most closely to your intuitive sense of both scope and order of coverage.

IV.  To Habeas Or Not To Habeas?

Regardless of which book you use, there are a ton of difficult coverage questions in Federal Courts, because you just can't cover everything. But the one coverage question that looms above all others is whether or not to cover habeas. These days, if you choose to teach jurisdiction-stripping, you almost have to spend some time on habeas, thanks to Boumediene (if not St. Cyr, Rasul, and Hamdan).  But covering post-conviction habeas as a remedy is a unit unto itself, and there's just no way to do it quickly (unlike, say Bivens or Supreme Court review of state courts). I've tried lots of different tacks, but have never been able to squeeze post-conviction habeas into fewer than four classes. Even then, that's one session on the Suspension Clause and its historical understanding; one session on Brown v. Allen and Fay v. Noia; one session on procedural default and retroactivity; and one session on AEDPA. It's almost professional misconduct to try to cover procedural default and retroactivity in one 110-minute session, to say nothing of covering AEDPA in that time. But then the question is whether to not cover habeas at all, since the alternative is to let it swallow up one-third of the syllabus.  

My own answer, going forward, is to not cover post-conviction habeas in Federal Courts; it's just not useful to teach it at the level of superficiality that I inevitably have to in condensing it to four sessions. But I'm long-winded. There may be ways to do so, or to cover it adequately in six or seven sessions. Either way, I think this coverage decision has to come early on, because a lot of "smaller" coverage decisions will follow.

V.  External Resources for New and Aspiring Federal Courts Prawfs

Finally, in addition to a link to my materials from the last time I taught the course, I'd be remiss in not noting that there is an amazingly helpful, thoughtful, and friendly cohort of Federal Courts professors, especially those on the more junior-ish side. About five years ago, Amanda Frost and I started the "Junior Federal Courts Faculty Workshop" as an opportunity for up-and-coming Federal Courts prawfs to get to present work with senior commentators, and also to come see what our colleagues are up to.  We're both extremely gratified (and excited) to see that the Workshop has taken on a life of its own, and Tara Leigh Grove at William & Mary has already begun putting together the fifth annual gathering, scheduled for October 25-27, 2012, in Williamsburg.

The AALS Section on Federal Courts is also a good group to get involved with. As evidenced by the fact that I'm the Chair-Elect, we're not a very hierarchical bunch, and we usually put on pretty Federal Courts-nerd-satisfying programming @ AALS--including a panel discussion at AALS 2013 on "Non-Article III Courts: Problems of Principle and Practice." The inestimable Don Doernberg at Pace Law School maintains a listserve for Federal Courts issues, which, in what must be a rare complaint for such lists, could stand in my view to be more active.

There are also some great blogs to follow if you're so inclined, especially the "Civil Procedure & Federal Courts Blog," run by Robin Effron (Brooklyn), Cynthia Fountaine (Southern Illinois), Patricia Moore (St. Thomas), and Adam Steinman (Seton Hall). 

I actually think we could stand to have more such resources in the Federal Courts world, but it's certainly the case that new and aspiring Federal Courts prawfs have plenty of places to look for help, guidance, and support, when jumping into the "organic chemistry" of law school.

But I'm curious if folks disagree with any of the above, or would add other observations. The (e-)floor is yours!

Posted by Steve Vladeck on March 21, 2012 at 06:48 PM in Steve Vladeck, Things You Oughta Know if You Teach X | Permalink


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Suzanna -- That's really helpful, thanks! For what it's worth, two weeks of classes is what I've done, too (4 110-minute sessions instead of 6 70-minute sessions), and I think that's the maximum amount that the syllabus will bear. I just increasingly feel like it's insufficient--but maybe that's just inevitable...

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Mar 22, 2012 5:12:49 PM

If anyone is interested, there is a way to teach habeas in six 70-minute sessions (for me, 2 weeks of classes), although you and the students will work very hard.

Day 1: Intro & Exhaustion.
Day 2: Habeas vs. 1983 (listed on my syllabus as Exhaustion Part 2, given that that's the primary difference)(This wrinkle is one of my scholarly interests -- shameless plug could be inserted here or you could just search WL -- but you could use this day for something else instead or simply cut back to 5 days)
Day 3: Procedural Default: Sykes and Schlup (which gets you Fay and Sawyer, too, given the discussions of the latter two cases in the former two).
Day 4: Scope of Review: Particular Challenges (Stone & Withrow)
Day 5: Scope of Review: New Rules (Teague)
Day 6: Scope of Review: Deference to State-Court Decisions (Williams)

(I cover Boumediene in the much earlier unit on Congressional control over jurisdiction, so I don't count it here.)

Whether habeas is worth doing, of course, is an individual decision. Habeas isn't reliably taught anywhere else in our curriculum, and a fair number of my students will go on to federal clerkships, so I feel duty-bound to cover it.

Posted by: Suzanna Sherry | Mar 22, 2012 4:53:01 PM

I took Federal Courts with Professor Fabio Arcila in my last semester of law school; and it was truly the most challenging and rewarding learning experience for me. Along with the three models above, Professor Arcila also integrated a historical perspective to each section of the course. His approach as a legal historian made the course even more enriching.

Posted by: Barbara Burke | Mar 22, 2012 8:15:04 AM

A student of mine once described Fed Courts as the "love child of Con Law and Civ Pro." I only have 3 hours, so it does end up as more of a survey course (perhaps I can go back to my dean and ask for that fourth hour).

I like your three models and see the class as a combination of bits of all 3, with the least focus on # 3. I teach a class on § 1983 litigation (what I like to think of as Fed Courts II) into which I put most of the constitutional litigation and remedies stuff, which allows me to focus on the first two models.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 21, 2012 11:06:26 PM

James -- You say potato...

Posted by: Steve Vladeck | Mar 21, 2012 9:48:01 PM

Federal Courts isn't Analysis, it's Combinatorics.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Mar 21, 2012 7:32:42 PM

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