When Law School Means Something

For some law students, going to law school is about networking and honing the practical skills required to function as a lawyer. While these are important things to master if one wishes to, you know, become a lawyer, for me, law school at its best was never about any of that; instead, it was about the joys and challenges of wonderful classes and the experience of learning the law. (Yes, this is going to be a somewhat idealistic post about law school, so feel free to dive out now if that’s not your cup of tea.)

More than anything else, the key to learning in law school starts with the quality of your professors; beginning with that first Property class, they were my (and everyone else’s) first window into the complexity and beauty of the law. As most people know, law professors employ the Socratic method: each class is carried out as a series of question-and-answer sessions with different students. Some professors question thirty or more students in a single class period; others focus on maybe a half-dozen, going into greater detail with each student. Either way, the experience of being questioned by a professor—someone who is by all appearances a legal master—can be stressful. Thus, life as a law student—especially during those first two vulnerable years—is defined, for good or ill, by one’s experiences in class.

This is where we went to school (photo courtesy of www.nicholasjohnson.org)

This is where we went to school (photo courtesy of http://www.nicholasjohnson.org)

Having said that, the best part about Iowa Law is that it features many wonderful professors. There is Professor Bonfield, a gangly old legend from Brooklyn (having just finished, miraculously, his 50th year teaching law at Iowa), who is famous for employing rhetorical gems—a losing party was often cursed to suffer the “writ of tough bananas” in his lectures—to make his points. There is Professor Stensvaag, a sweet-tempered master of evidence and environmental law, whose end-of-the-year remarks left many of his classes in tears. There is Professor Gallanis, who taught the first law class I ever took (Property), whose warmth and enthusiasm was both endearing and intimidating (and was all the more intense given that it was my first year). There is Professor Bauer, who ended his epic, monstrous civil procedure class with a passage from Twain that was so beautiful and surprising I had to go buy the book. These characters loom large in my memory; their admiration and love of the law inspired us to study the cases they assigned as if we were mining for hidden gems, never wanting to overlook a single detail lest we miss something transcendent. I’d never studied anything as intensely as I did our readings in law school. And as with all great teachers, the ideas our professors helped impart deeply affect the way I think about the law.

Amid a host of terrific, memorable classes, one stands out above the rest. In the fall of Carolyn’s and my third year, we took a class called Federal Courts, taught by Professor Pettys. We had taken Pettys’ (he was always just “Pettys”) Constitutional Law course the previous spring, where we learned about free speech and due process and many other fascinating topics, and were so impressed that we’d signed up for Fed Courts without knowing what we were getting ourselves into. This proved to be a somewhat dangerous move: while Con Law was accessible to anyone with even a passing interest in government and society, Fed Courts was decidedly not. (Everyone has an opinion about the Second Amendment, but when’s the last time you’ve heard the phrase “Pullman abstention” in casual conversation?)

But we’d taken the class because of the professor teaching it. Young, handsome, charming, and brilliantly articulate, of all the professors I listed above, Pettys was the finest—a legal giant among mere mortals, if you will. His classes were works of art; in an hour-long class period, he would call on up to 50 students, moving seamlessly down the rows with precise, searching questions that always moved us collectively towards a deeper understanding of the topic. Since there were only about 50 of us in Fed Courts, Pettys’ rapid-fire style meant that we were on the hook for a mini-interrogation almost every class. To this day, I don’t believe I’ve ever studied harder than I did (with Carolyn by my side, of course) in preparation for those Fed Courts classes. The result—beyond allowing us to survive class day after day—was a deep familiarity with the topics, because the more we dug into the cases, the more we discovered we didn’t know, and the more we then had to learn.

The subject of Federal Courts, broadly speaking, involves when and how and why a lawsuit can land in federal court, as opposed to the courts of a state. If that doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t sound interesting (and I can’t blame you if it doesn’t), think about the somewhat fraught notion of federalism. Federalism is the idea that there’s a division between the functioning of the United States (in the singular sense) and the states themselves—that each entity has its own role to play. So it is with federal and state courts; each has its own jurisdiction, sometimes overlapping, but often distinct. The Constitution grants federal courts power to decide certain categories of cases, but not all cases. What they don’t have the power to decide, for better or worse, is left up to the states.

We started by learning how a “federal question”—any issue raised in a lawsuit that depended on federal statutes or the Constitution—could provide a basis for federal jurisdiction. Then we learned about sovereign and individual immunity, which had to do with when people are barred from suing the state or an agent of the state (for reasons that sometimes make sense and other times seem unfairly designed to shield the state from a well-deserved legal comeuppance). We studied the limited circumstances under which it is permissible for a court to decline jurisdiction, despite technically having the grounds for it. We learned about the difficulties and complexities of lawsuits brought against federal and state actors—known as § 1983 and Bivens claims—in situations where immunity can’t be asserted to protect them. We learned about the differences between suits for money damages, injunctions, and declaratory judgments, and the consequences of those differences in how courts handle cases.

Then, with Thanksgiving nearing and finals beginning to loom large, we began the habeas corpus unit. Habeas corpus (go here for a primer, if you’re interested) is one of those ubiquitous yet mysterious Latin terms that seems to pop up often in the law. Literally, it means “to hold the body”; in legal terms, it is the catch-all vehicle prisoners use—mostly unsuccessfully—to challenge their incarceration. One scholar describes habeas as being “at once the last refuge of scoundrels and the last hope of the innocent” because it is the last-ditch effort of defendants who have tried their case, and failed, at both the trial and appellate level.

We studied habeas for a good four weeks; by the beginning of December, our minds were consumed with the tangled web of rules known as habeas “jurisprudence.” The analysis was a multifaceted puzzle; to solve it in each case, we had to kick our minds into a higher gear. Not only did the cases provoke deep questions such as the fundamental meaning of “due process,” but they also triggered a morass of procedural hoops, time limits, and—depending on the particular case—layer upon layer of human drama and intrigue. There were cases which came out of convictions in southern state courts, with black defendants, where the fairness of the trial proceedings was suspect, but which the federal court (hearing the case on the habeas petition) was loathe to overturn because of the time-honored (if often unwise and occasionally unjust) principle of respecting state court judgments. There were cases where the defendant’s lawyer had failed to object to an inadmissible piece of evidence offered at his trial … only to be prevented from bringing up the error in his habeas petition because the failure to object had forfeited his right to contest the evidence. Then there were cases—this is the last example, I promise—where the state court clearly came to the wrong conclusion, but the federal court refused to overturn the conviction because the state court’s decision could, in some hypothetical universe, be construed as “reasonable.” Regardless, studying each case required a total effort, and though it was exhausting (God, was it exhausting), Carolyn and I loved doing it.

All of this is to say—yes, I’m finally getting to the point—that every now and then Carolyn or I will come across a story, in life or in some legal case we’re researching at work, which triggers memories of a class, a professor, or an idea that stuck from law school. Today was one of those days. I was sitting at work with nothing to do, looking over summaries of recent Supreme Court decisions (for some ungodly reason; I don’t usually do this), when I came across a case involving a Michigan prisoner’s habeas corpus petition. I read the opinion (Burt v. Titlow); I understood what Justice Alito was talking about; and I felt stirrings of the same thrill—that hard-earned feeling of having learned something so completely that it has become a part of my being. It was a good feeling.

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