Seeing the law in action

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Kristina Wyman's picture
Pablo A. Sierra Carmona

“The people made the Constitution, and the people can unmake it. It is the creature of their will, and lives only by their will. But this supreme and irresistible power to make or to unmake resides only in the whole body of the people, not in any subdivision of them” wrote Chief Justice John Marshall in Cohens v. Virginia.

The United States Constitution highlights two principles: The individual liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, and the importance of majority rule, which is the basis for a democracy. The clashes between these two principles are explored in Dr. Greg Weiner’s “Problems in Civil Liberties” course.

As most courses at Assumption, Problems in Civil Liberties explores multiple readings from different thinkers across the aisle. However, this course offered something different: It took, thanks to the Liberty Curriculum project of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, students to see a federal courtroom in action on Tuesday, February 24. The class visited the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to hear arguments in three cases as special guests of Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann, a political scientist and former aide to U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Katzmann served as Moynihan’s teaching assistant while getting his Ph.D. in government from Harvard University.

With Katzmann presiding, along with circuit judges John M. Walker Jr. and Gerard E. Lynch, the court began its session with a tight schedule. The judges heard three arguments dealing with a wide range of issues, from insurance contracts (First Mercury Insurance Company v. 613 NY Inc., et al.), to Eighth Amendment claims (James Crawford v. Andrew Cuomo, et al.), to fraud involving Holocaust survivors (U.S. v. Kramrish, et al.). The Court, engaged in heated arguments, shed light on the impact the law has on individuals.

After the three arguments, the judges left to meet in conference. While the judges met, one of Katzmann’s law clerks entertained the class by answering questions regarding the cases, his role as a clerk and how the judicial process works. After Katzmann finished conference with his colleagues, he returned to the courtroom and opened up the floor for questions. The students asked him about his experience as a federal circuit chief judge, the role of the federal courts and his experience as an aide to Senator Moynihan. He expressed how as a judge, he enjoys helping as his clerks now and in the future.

Katzmann later took the class up to his chambers, where he showed the class the official commission, signed by President Bill Clinton, which was given to him after the U.S. Senate confirmed him. He joked that if he didn’t have his commission, there would be another Marbury v. Madison problem. He also shared to the class a photo of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s confirmation hearings, as well as a photo of Justice Sonia Sotomayor being sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts. Sotomayor, before joining the Supreme Court, served as a circuit judge at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Katzmann shared that he was a witness as she took the oath to become a Supreme Court justice. After showing the students his chambers, he told the students on how fortunate they were to have Weiner as their professor.

The trip to meet Katzmann and witness arguments at the court proved to be a positive experience for the class.

“It was a unique experience,” said senior Nicole Riel. “The best part of the trip was listening to Judge Katzmann’s insights about the process and his views on legal theory.”

“I thought the trip was a really fantastic learning experience,” said junior John Guerra. “As someone who has generally studied more of the philosophical side of political science, I thought it was both interesting and a nice chance to see the technical side of the political system. I thought that both observing the various court hearings as well as speaking with the Judge were real learning opportunities and I would recommend this trip or something similar to anyone interested in the study of law or politics.”

“Watching the judges and attorneys interact with each other illuminated the intricacies of laws, and just how difficult it can be to definitely interpret laws,” said senior Kieran Hillery.

“This was an extraordinary educational experience we were very fortunate, thanks to the generosity of Judge Katzmann and ISI, to have. The students were able to see civil liberties as a breathing, vital matter of constitutional dispute,” said Weiner. “Judge Katzmann was generous with his time as ISI was with their resources, and we were deeply grateful for both.”

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