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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Criminal Law syllabus / course aims and goals

Over the years, I've revised, tweaked, abandoned, and cobbled together a few pages, at the front of the syllabus, about the aims and goals of my first-year Criminal Law course. To avoid exam-grading obligations, I'm messing around with them again. And, if anyone else needs an avoidance-behavior opportunity, I'd welcome reactions and suggestions!  Below the jump . . .

Course Description and (Some) Goals:

            In this introductory course, we will read, talk, learn, and think about the Criminal Law. Our focus will be, for the most part, on what is often called “the general part” of Criminal Law rather than on specific offenses in particular jurisdictions. We will cover technical matters and traditional doctrines as well as the theoretical, philosophical, and moral assumptions, commitments, and goals that shape the ways we define, prosecute, and punish crimes. The study of Criminal Law can and should be challenging and unsettling – and also fascinating and fun. I look forward to working with you.

            A goal for this class, and for the entire first year of law school, is to learn how – and to push ourselves – to read carefully, write clearly, and think rigorously, “like a lawyer.” More specifically, my hope for each one of you is that you will acquire and develop:

(1) The ability to read and the habit of reading legal materials – cases, statutes, constitutions, etc. – in a careful and disciplined way. In many contexts, skimming texts for the “general idea” works fine. In the Criminal Law and law-school contexts, though, it usually doesn’t. As you’ll see, words matter: they can make the difference between going home and going to prison.

(2) The ability to draw relevant and instructive comparisons and similarly relevant and instructive distinctions. This is a big part of what “legal reasoning” is all about. You should be able to pull general principles and rules from one case and apply them to another – or, to explain why they should not be applied and others should be instead. In your law-school classes, when your teachers push you with hypotheticals and changed facts, this kind of reasoning is what we are aiming for.

(3) An appreciation for the fact – and, to be clear, it is a fact – that legal doctrines, rules, tests, and standards reflect and are shaped by underlying premises, assumptions, values, and commitments. You should be able to think critically about these doctrines and identify the premises they reflect and their likely implications. The doctrines and definitions you will study are what they are for certain reasons and because of certain arguments.

(4) A familiarity with a range of traditional and contemporary Criminal Law terms and doctrines and also with certain notable features of the Model Penal Code. Because Notre Dame Law School students come from, and go to, a wide array of jurisdictions, it does not make sense to limit ourselves to any particular jurisdiction’s criminal statutes. It does make sense, though, to notice and appreciate the fact that, sometimes, different jurisdictions take different approaches, employ different definitions, and apply different rules.

(5) The ability to listen carefully and sympathetically to others’ arguments – especially arguments with which you think you disagree, or which irritate or offend you, or which challenge or unsettle you – and to reflect upon them, to engage them, and to respond thoughtfully and civilly to them. To teach, and to study, Criminal Law appropriately requires engaging with a number of difficult and controversial questions and topics.

(6) A genuine and abiding enthusiasm for lawyering and the legal enterprise, and a happy resolution to live your life in the profession – in this vocation – as a “different kind of lawyer.”

            Now, at some point, you will almost certainly ask yourself “why isn’t this class more like Law & Order . . . or Sherlock, or Suits, or Better Call Saul?” The truth is, in the “real world,” there is much, much more to “criminal law” than you will encounter in this course. This course is not (directly) about search-and-seizure rules, policing and profiling, interrogation practices, trial procedures, evidence, post-conviction review, prison conditions, criminology, or the death penalty. Our subject – substantive Criminal Law – is only one part of (what is often, but misleadingly, called) the criminal-justice “system.” The criminal-law process, as it plays out in the trenches, involves and is influenced by bureaucracy, procedural rules, personalities, choices, evidence, case-specific facts, race, budgets, poverty, wealth, politics, fear, prejudice, bravery, and evil. Those of you who decide to practice criminal law (or who really like crime dramas) will want to explore, during your law-school career, a wide variety of other courses. (When the time comes, I’ll be happy to offer suggestions.)

        That said, relatively few of you will actually practice criminal law. So . . .  why is Criminal Law a required course? Here are a few reasons: First, the first-year Criminal Law course is intended to continue your introduction to statutes and to the very important, lawyerly task of interpreting and applying them. You’ll need this skill in many upper-level courses and almost all of you will need it in practice as well. Second, it lays a foundation for understanding and thinking critically about the fairness, rationality, efficiency, and morality of the criminal process and you ought to be able to do these things as a lawyer – especially as a Notre Dame lawyer – and, even more importantly, as a citizen. Third, this course raises fundamental “big questions” about the law. For example: Why do we punish? What justifies punishment? What counts as a harm? When are people responsible and/or culpable for their actions or for the harms they cause? What are the limits on the coercive power of the state? These questions will arise in different forms in many other classes, in many areas of practice, and in any “examined life.” Our hope is that “Notre Dame Lawyers” will take them particularly seriously.

Posted by Rick Garnett on December 18, 2019 at 11:39 AM in Criminal Law, Rick Garnett | Permalink


Your statement of the course goals is masterful! But what percentage of your students will actually read something that long if it won't be tested on an exam? A masterful piece is nice in theory but if only 5 percent of your students read it, it is wasted. Although I love what you've done, I fear that few of your students will actually read it and give it the thought that it requires.

Posted by: Bob Rocklin | Dec 19, 2019 12:30:52 PM

Bravo! You have done one of the things that we legal education reformers have been advocating for years: clearly state the class goals in the syllabus. This helps focus the students and gives them a purpose for doing the work in the class. Students learn more when they have a purpose. I also like that you've put in the reasons for the course. This helps motivate the students.

A suggestion: Send your students an email before every class that introduces them to the class and tells them the goals of that class. If you do this, you will have more focused discussions and more class participation. It also helps focus you.

Posted by: Scott Fruehwald | Dec 18, 2019 12:56:40 PM

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