The teaching of legal history at the Law Center dates from 1875 when Martin F. Morris, a founder and dean, offered lectures on the subject. Morris, a self-described "philosophic historian," studied the past to discern "a purpose and a continuity in human history," namely, the steady progress of civilization and civil liberty from antiquity to his day. Although Georgetown's present legal historians are not likely to join in a search for an unfolding purpose in the past, all share his conviction that a first-rate law school owes its students more than instruction in the canons of legal reasoning and aspects of legal practice. It should also provide students with perspectives on the legal acumen they acquire, so that they can use their new power wisely and with self-mastery. As different as Georgetown's offerings are, they all consider legal history an engaging way to acquire this self-awareness.
Of course, judges, lawyers and law students have sometimes asked legal history to do more. In particular, some study the legal past to discover information that courts can use in deciding cases. Some of Georgetown's courses and seminars do permit students to search out the origins of a doctrine, to revisit landmark precedents, or to explore the legislative intent behind particular statutes. But this view of the utility of legal history is not the dominant approach of the school's offerings. More common is a concern for revealing how law has changed over time. Students should not expect to find authoritative lessons in the past, only analogies whose aptness are for us in the present to decide. They should also expect their teachers to stress differences between the past and present as often as they note similarities.
Two courses offer background and overviews of substantial portions of the Anglo-American legal past. In his English Legal History Seminar: Foundations of American Law, Professor James Oldham uses original trial manuscript sources to introduce students to the 18th-century English common law system, much of which was transplanted to the colonies. American Legal History, taught by Professor Daniel Ernst, takes up the years since Reconstruction with special concern for the development of the U.S. state.
The rest of the offerings allow students to conduct their own research in areas of their professors' special expertise, including the history of the jury, the history of ideas, the social history of gender and the family, and the constitutional history of speech in the United States.
Many of these seminars require that students work in the unusually rich sources available at or within walking distance of the Law Center. These include the Edward Bennett Williams Library's microform edition of English Legal Manuscripts, the Folger Library, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the libraries of the federal departments.
J.D. Seminar (cross-listed) | 2 credit hours
This course will explore the contemporary strategies used by movements seeking law and social change. An early wave of critique in the analysis of law and social change centered on the distinction between rule change and culture change, and stressed the shortcomings of litigation and reliance on courts in bringing about deep or lasting change. Today, most legal rights organizations have significantly modified the litigation-centric model to adopt a strategy more consistent with multi-dimensional advocacy, an approach to social change that self-consciously uses multiple strategies for change, including litigation, legislation, administrative and policy advocacy, as well as communications research, at national, state and local levels.
This class will analyze the role of law in achieving social movement goals. Topics will include both practice-grounded and more abstract questions. In the former category, the class will study the advantages and disadvantages of different institutional venues, choice of clients, the role of electoral work and the dynamics of insider/outsider tactics, how framing decisions are made and with what consequences, the role of electoral work and direct action, the impact of communications research and public education work, and the process of anticipating and responding to limitations of working within the law.
The course will also cover some of the classic and continuing debates over the role of law in social movements, including questions such as:
- The Hollow Hope debates: What does success look like?
- The role of majoritarian institutions in securing minority rights
- The risks of de-radicalization or disempowerment
- The dynamics of internal stratification
The class will meet as a once-a-week seminar. Several of the class sessions will bring in guest speakers who are experienced in lawyering for social change in a variety of movements. Students working in teams will take responsibility for structuring and leading an informal interview style discussion with the guest speaker(s), drawing out their reflections on the history, directions, challenges and strategic turning points in a movement with which they are or have been affiliated.
In addition to interviewing one guest speaker, each student will write a paper analyzing how a particular legal campaign has used and/or is using some of the strategies discussed in class and with what results. Papers should
- Situate the legal campaign in the broader legal/political landscape in which it is engaged;
- Describe the strategic and tactical choices being undertaken and the results; and
- Analyze how its experiences illustrate or refute (or both) arguments in the theoretical or social science literature.
Students may select a campaign for either progressive or conservative change, or will be assigned to a particular movement.
Final grades will be based on class participation, including interaction with guest speakers, and the paper. (The paper for this course will not satisfy the upperclass legal writing requirement)
Students should leave the course with a much more nuanced understanding of what is involved in working as a lawyer toward “making the world a better place.” They will learn how some challenges recur across issues; how social movements affect law as well as the other way around; and how to bring theoretically informed critical thinking to practice.
J.D. Course | 4 credit hours
With such watershed events in the civil rights movement as Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the civil rights acts of the 1960s, the eradication of racial subordination in America seemed an achievable goal. Yet, in America today, racial minorities continue to experience social and economic disadvantages, and race relations remain strained in many respects. Whether law has aided or impeded the cause of civil rights in the past and the extent to which law can help to resolve racial issues in the present and future are questions of considerable controversy. This course will examine the response of law to racial issues in a variety of legal contexts. Topics will likely include the meaning of race and racial discrimination, intimate relationships, child placement, employment, education and integration, policing and criminal punishment, free expression, and political participation. Classes will center on candid discussion and participatory exercises about the issues raised by the assigned material. The course will cover most of the seminal "race" cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Recommended: Constitutional Law II: Individual Rights and Liberties.
Note: Laptops may not be used during class sessions.
J.D. Course (cross-listed) | 2 credit hours
The subject matter is classical Roman law as it was born, developed, and reached maturity by about 160 CE. The first half of the semester focuses mainly on constitutional structures; the second part on contracts and tort, including practical exercises on reported ancient cases. Whenever is possible and useful, the expositions and explanations are given in a comparative manner vis-à-vis the common law of English origin. A student who completed this course should have enough knowledge and skill to begin a career of iurisprudent (wise person of the law); that is, they should be considered qualified to assist the Magistrate in his daily work at the Roman Forum; a position similar to that of clerking for an American judge.
J.D. Seminar | 3 credit hours
A distinctive set of political, philosophical, and economic ideas underwrites American law. These provide elements for thinking like a lawyer, especially when one must come up with creative legal arguments, understand new areas of doctrine, or shift areas of practice altogether. This seminar aims to equip students with an introduction to a selection of elemental ideas that underpin American law, including liberty and tyranny; sovereignty; trade and commerce; and enfranchisement. We will explore these ideas within a broadly historical framework, concentrating especially on their development in England and then the United States in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. No prior study of history, philosophy, or political theory is necessary.
Students will write papers that select a current (21st century) significant legal question and to analyze it using one element covered in the course. The legal question may come from any area of American law, including but not limited to corporate law, constitutional law, securities law, tort law, family law, immigration law, bankruptcy, consumer protection, labor and employment law…. Students will submit rough drafts for comments from the professor. They will also have an opportunity to receive peer feedback on their work-in-progress. Final papers will be evaluated with consideration for originality, creativity, quality of writing, and to ability to absorb and constructively use feedback. Seminar grades will be based on the paper grade, the quality of class participation, and the quality of constructive feedback given to fellow students. The technical requirements for the paper (e.g. minimum length, citation format, submission for WR credit) are given in the in the Student Handbook (page 5).
The weekly plan for the course is below. The readings listed will be the focal point of discussion; many will be available at the course website. A list of books (e-format fine) worth obtaining:
- John Locke, Two Treatises on Government
- Blackstone’s Commentaries, Book 1
- Thomas Paine, Common Sense
- Jacobus tenBroek, The Antislavery Origins of the Fourteenth Amendment (this book is out of print, so must be borrowed from a library or purchased used)
- John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women