In the intensive three-week course “Legal Studies: Intro to Law,” (May 22-June 12), CMC Salvatori Professor of American Constitutionalism Ralph Rossum will illuminate law by studying it with ideas and methods gleaned from several of the other disciplines in the social sciences and humanities.
We talked with Professor Rossum about what Tocqueville had to say about politics in the United States, how students should continually expose themselves to good writing, and the best advice he ever received from a teacher.
CMC: In what way, exactly, is law a “central social phenomenon?”
Rossum: Tocqueville once remarked that “[s]carcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question.” His words may have seemed to many an overstatement one hundred seventy five years ago, but they were utterly prophetic. Courts, judges, and legal processes dominate our political life today. The course I’m teaching this summer, Government 95, will introduce students to the structure and operation of the federal and state courts in the United States. It will then narrow its focus and address the question of the institutional capacity of these courts to act not only as specific, retrospective decision-makers but also as society-wide, prospective policy-makers. It will then further narrow its focus and explore the debate over how the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution and its various provisions. It will then focus like a laser beam and takes up a detailed consideration of two of the most important cases to come before the Supreme Court in a generation: the first is now before the Court and likely to be decided just weeks after the conclusion of the course, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (addressing that University’s diversity-based affirmative action program); the other was decided last summer, National Federation of Independent Business v. Sibelius, addressing the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act also known as Obamacare. The course will examine in detail the relevant prior case law and assess the quality of appellate advocacy in these cases by carefully reading the party and amici briefs filed in these cases, and listening to their oral arguments. Finally, it will conclude by examining how the debates over these critical constitutional questions play into the politics of the appointment and confirmation of Supreme Court justices.
CMC: Can you describe the moment when you knew you wanted to be a teacher?
Rossum: I knew I wanted to be a college professor the moment I walked into my first constitutional law course as an undergraduate at Concordia College. C. Harding Noblitt received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, was a gifted teacher, and convinced me by his example that I wanted to teach constitutional law as well. I followed in his footsteps doing my graduate work at Chicago, where I also studied under his onetime professor, the legendary C. Herman Pritchett.
CMC: What is the best advice you ever received from a professor when you were a student?
Rossum: Read more as a producer than as a consumer; that is to say, read a book or article not simply to understand what someone has to say but also to identify how you can build on that argument, make it your own, and incorporate it in your thinking, teaching, and writing.
CMC: Given the challenges that graduating seniors face entering a tough, global job market, what advice would you give to those students? How can they be more competitive? And, is there an advantage that a CMC education affords them?
Rossum: The job market is very difficult for recent college graduates. However, what employers want in those they hire is what CMC offers: very bright young men and women who can write well and think analytically. The better students can express themselves in writing and orally, the better will be their prospects. Students should take courses that continuously expose them to good writing and that relentlessly require them to write and speak with command, confidence, and competence.
CMC: What is the single favorite thing you like to do during summer?
Rossum: The summer allows me to spend full time on writing. I have just finished reading the copyedited manuscript and page proofs for the 9th edition of my two-volume casebook, American Constitutional Law. I have also just finished writing my next book, Understanding Clarence Thomas: The Jurisprudence of Constitutional Restoration. I’ll be reading the copyedited manuscript and then the page proofs this summer, and I’ll be beginning the research on my next book on the jurisprudence of Justice Samuel Alito. I have previously written a book on Antonin Scalia, who along with Thomas is the other originalist on the Court.
Alito will be a very interesting project, as his jurisprudential approach is more libertarian and minimalist than Thomas and Scalia; it is less obvious on its face and must therefore be carefully teased out of his opinions first on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, where he served for 16 years, and then on Supreme Court since his elevation in January of 2006.
Note: Professor Rossum’s most recent book is: The Supreme Court and Tribal Gaming: California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.