Law 416 - The Supreme Court of the United States
Professor of Philosophy
J.D. UC Berkeley-Boalt Hall, 1985
B.Phil. University of Oxford, 1990
D.Phil. University of Oxford, 2000
This is a course on the Supreme Court of the United States, with a special emphasis on the Court’s status as a political institution in American life. As lawyers and citizens, we mostly are concerned with the outcome of the Supreme Court’s processes – the decisions handed down each year by the Court. But in order to understand these decisions, we need to understand the institution that generates them. How are nominations to the Court made? How does the Senate decide whether to confirm a nominee? How does the Court decide which cases to take? How can advocates improve their chances of getting the Supreme Court to take a case? How do the Justices reach their decisions? Who are the other players in the process and what roles do they have? Through the readings and class discussions, we will try to answer such questions and come to a better understanding of the Court and its processes.
The initial months of Donald Trump’s presidency suggest that his tenure will be a fascinating time to study the Supreme Court, and in particular the Court’s role as a check on executive and legislative power. We will consider the Court’s role as the accepted final decisionmaker for many of the nation’s most important controversies. We will give special attention to the Supreme Court’s interaction with the executive branch.
The Court’s current makeup highlights the importance in U.S. political life of the Court nomination and confirmation process. We will examine the role of the President and the Senate in this process.
We will devote a few class sessions to investigating the internal workings of the Court, from its selection of which cases to hear, through oral arguments and the Conference, to the opinion-writing process.
An integral feature of the course will be exercises in which the students take on the role of Justices. For example, in our study of the certiorari process, students will be assigned real cases in which petitions for certiorari are currently pending before the Court. Students will evaluate the “certworthiness” of petitions and undertake to persuade their colleagues in Conference of which cases the Court should hear. Similarly, students will take the role of Justices in deciding real cases that are before the Court this Term.
The course aims to familiarize students with the role that the Supreme Court plays in the nation’s political culture; to equip them with tools for understanding the considerations the Court itself employs in choosing and deciding cases; and to develop skills relevant to advocacy before the Supreme Court or other appellate courts. Students will gain a greater appreciation for the Court as an institution and will develop a more nuanced and sophisticated way of thinking about the important cases that the Court will take up in the future during their own legal careers.