Course led by retired justice brings law to life
During one class period, students talked with Justice David Stras about his time clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his current position on the Minnesota Supreme Court.
During another class, Judge Susan Richard Nelson led students in a discussion about how cases find their way to the federal district courts.
And every time the group met, the students analyzed constitutional law using insight their instructor, retired Minnesota Court of Appeals Justice David Minge ’64, gained during his time on the bench.
This semester, students in American Constitutional Law had the opportunity to do more than read and discuss cases. They were able to learn about some of the most important periods of U.S. history directly from people who work on a daily basis with the constitutional issues they studied.
The purpose of the course is to introduce students to the principles of American constitutional law, emphasizing how civil rights and civil liberties have been central to Supreme Court jurisprudence. When Minge learned that Associate Professor of Political Science Douglas Casson, who usually teaches the course, would be researching at the University of Oxford while on sabbatical this spring, he pursued the opportunity to teach at St. Olaf in addition his seminar at the University of Minnesota Law School.
Minge used judicial experience combined with his legislative experience to ensure students looked at material from a variety of different angles. His four terms representing Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives allowed him to paint the picture of how Supreme Court rulings are implemented through the creation of laws.
“It’s crucial to analyze how the legislative branch looks at constitutional issues in order to understand their effects,” he says.
In addition to hearing Minge’s insights about the cases covered in the material, the class of 21 students heard from a variety of guest speakers throughout the recently ended semester.
“The speakers we had were stimulating because they gave us a feel for different perspectives,” Minge says. “Not only did our guests offer various career experiences, but they offered a wide range of worldviews that enhanced our study of the material.”
When the students briefed a property rights case earlier this semester, Minge invited the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the law firm that had litigated the case before the Supreme Court to lead a class discussion about the constitutional questions at hand.
After the class had read cases involving the American Civil Liberties Union, the class welcomed the executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota to share stories regarding the kinds of issues the organization represents in court.
Whether the class was hosting a speaker or Minge was leading the conversation, the students were able to hear insights from professionals who worked with the constitutional issues they had been studying.
“I enjoyed our speakers because their experiences provided us with personal accounts of what careers in the field of law might look like,” says Ken Fox ’14. “As a potential law school applicant, their stories have helped answer some personal post-graduation questions.”
Although many students enrolled in the course are political science majors, being a major is not a requirement to be in the class.
“This course embodies what the liberal arts is all about — it teaches students how to think,” Minge says.