553: Introduction

History 553: Law & American Society, Spring 2019

Course Introduction

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This abstraction called the Law [is] a magic mirror, [wherein] we see reflected, not only our own lives, but the lives of all [who] have been.

---Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Every generation, while finding its own uses for the Court, has preserved the Court as a symbol of the need for limits and for continuity in a nation of novelties. The Supreme Court has thus become the American political conscience, a kind of secular papacy, a new search in every generation for what the more large-minded and more foresighted of the Founders might have meant if they were alive. It is the Great Remembrancer of our foundations.

---Daniel J. Boorstin


We meet three times a week every week of the term. We will set up a regular meeting schedule at the start of the term, but meeting days may vary, so check the syllabus and watch your email for details. You are responsible for knowing about schedule changes and will be marked absent if you miss a class. Keep all four blocks free, and we may use fat block from time to time too. When there are no classes on a day when we normally meet, we'll change the meeting times so that we have three classes.

You’re accountable for daily reading assignments, 3-5 written exercises of varying length, and oral arguments prepared for mock trials. The homework expectation for courses that meet three times a week is 95 minutes per assignment.

Every student has a responsibility to participate in class discussions– to ask and answer questions, offer ideas and opinions, respond to classmates’ comments and participate in mock trials throughout the term. Be prepared to discuss the questions posed on the syllabus and bring questions and observations of your own to class.

Daily participation includes the role of "legal point person." When this task falls to you, you are responsible for beginning the discussion each day by calling our attention to a news item about the law, explaining what the item was about, why you found it interesting or significant, and how it relates to something we've been doing in class. Your presentation should take two or three minutes, and you should be prepared to answer questions. You should read the article carefully before class and be ready to summarize it and answer questions about it. Use the template (Word document) at the bottom of this page to create a bulletin board item. Great Supreme Court reporting can be found at the news websites listed below.

Students are also responsible for being familiar with guidelines on rewrites, late papers and plagiarism. For more specifics on these and other issues, including class participation and grading, go to Course Requirements.


Lawrence M. Friedman, Law in America

Peter Irons, A People's History of the Supreme Court

and Jeffrey Toobin, The Oath

A notebook and/or a binder or folder for handouts







SCOTUS blog. This site provides links to all sorts of articles and links on the Supreme Court, including links to the briefs and oral arguments about Supreme Court cases.

The following reporters and columnists from the mainstream press tend to view the court from a center-left perspective.

New York Times: Adam Liptak , or Linda Greenhouse

Slate: Dahlia Lithwik

New Yorker: Jeffrey Toobin

NPR: Nina Totenberg

Washington Post: Bob Barnes

Los Angeles Times: David Savage


Think Progress: Ian Millhiser

For further-left articles on the law, see the Law and Political Economy blog. One of the editors of this site is Exeter Alum Jedediah Purdy, a law professor at Duke University, who wrote this NYT op ed suggesting how the left can "reclaim the Constitution."

Here is a site that just focuses on President Trump's impact on the law: http://takecareblog.com/about-us.

CONSERVATIVE LEGAL OPINION: The mainstream news outlets lean to the left. The conservative Federalist Society has a blog here. Toobin calls Mark Levin "the country's most widely followed commentator on the Constitution." Old friend Walter Stahr objects to Levin, who is a pro-Trump conservative-radio provocateur, and recommends Ricochet, a general source of "center-right" commentary, including some articles on the law. Look for commentary by John Yoo, Richard Epstein, and John McGinnis, and the briefs on SCOTUS blog for conservative views, Mr. Stahr recommends.

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