Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Positive Aspect To Audio-Visual Legal Education

We have all heard complaints about Audio-Visual (AV) classes at the law school. To be honest I don't think it's that bad, just distracting when invariably something goes wrong each class. We are used to it though. We say to each other, "Par for the course. It's AV. What else do you expect?" Once one accepts that fact, it starts to feel normal. Good? Not good? I leave that up to the comments section.

I draw your attention, however, to one very important and positive aspect to AV: the power to record and watch later. This never seemed all that important to me until this past week when three of my professors scheduled their final review sessions, all at the same time! It appears that Wednesday afternoon is hot real estate in the final review market.

The good news? Because of our stellar AV capabilities I will be able to attend all three sessions, though I will have to pick and choose which sessions to view live and which to view recorded. In an AV-less world I would have to choose which session to attend, send my partner-in-law-school-crime to the other session, and we would BOTH miss the third. Or, we could always send an ambassador to the third.

All this to say: HURRAY! I have found something that makes me so very glad we have AV. What say you? Is it enough to outweigh the random glitches and snafus throughout the year?

Back to the negatives, from the teaching perspective, if students know the session will be recorded the professor may end up reviewing to a room of empty seats and a video camera. Hence, the image.

Monday, November 24, 2008

"Debt Is The Slavery Of The Free" - Publilius Syrus

I emerge from studying to quickly draw our readers' attention to a recent fact noted by "The U.S. government is prepared to lend more than $7.4 trillion on behalf of American taxpayers, or half the value of everything produced in the nation last year, to rescue the financial system since the credit markets seized up 15 months ago."

This fact is placed in greater perspective by an additional fact: the national debt (accrued from the late 1700's until today) as of 6:30 p.m. GMT on November 24th was $10.6 trillion plus. A little more perspective: the national debt has continued to increase an average of $3.93 billion per day since late September 2007.

For more on the national debt, check out this foundation which is presided over by David Walker. Walker served as Comptroller General of the United States and head of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) from 1998 to 2008. According to Walker, the "real" national debt is closer to $52.7 trillion. Considering his position within the government for the past ten years, I consider him a reliable source.

Back in September I wrote a post, to which I commented that my preferred course of action is: Let Them All Fail. In other words, do nothing (from the government's perspective). Click here to watch Peter Schiff, again on, make a similar argument in light of the fact that we are already so deeply in debt.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Crisis of Conscience

“I intend to give my brother burial. I'll be glad to die in the attempt, -- if it's a crime, then it's a crime that God commands.” . . . “God and the government ordain just laws; the citizen who rules his life by them is worthy of acclaim. But he that presumes to set the law at naught is like a stateless person, outlawed, beyond the pale.” ~Antigone

In Professional Responsibility this week, we discussed ethical issues surrounding Lieutenant Colonel Vandeveld’s resignation as prosecutor from the military commissions in Guantanamo. Among the many issues, one in particular stood out to me, the tension that LTC Vandeveld expressed over trying to reconcile his faith with his professional obligations. In his words, “I am a resolute Catholic and take as an article of faith that justice is defined as reparative and restorative, and that Christ's most radical pronouncement - command, if you will - is to love one's enemies.”

We don’t know the extent of LTC Vandeveld’s crisis of conscience, but I will say that I do not believe loving one’s enemies and ensuring justice is served are mutually exclusive. Christ also said to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.” LTC Vandeveld’s declaration is somewhat parallel to Antigone’s struggle in Sophocles’s play, and worth considering in that context. To the extent governing authorities in our lives conflict, which should ultimately prevail? As future attorneys, to what extent should our moral compass govern our zealous representation of a client?

Penn State Visiting Assistant Professor, Gregory McNeal has also posted on LTC Vandeveld’s resignation on his blog, here.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Ideology aside, I am shocked by the reaction to the passage of Prop 8 in California via the very democratic process of the people voting. If the outcome is not favorable to some, there are other democratic processes by which to change that. Recall that Prohibition was later repealed by a constitutional amendment when the wisdom of the earlier amendment was called into question. We live under the Rule of Law, which as Judge Smith of the 3d Circuit recently reminded students at the law school, is a law of rules.

There are rules that we follow. There are ways to amend constitutions and ways to repeal those amendments. I encourage all those raging about Prop 8 to gather their senses and accept the current will of the people. Almost half of the country did not vote for President-elect Obama on November 4, but those who lost accepted the will of the people as such and resolved to respect that decision. Respecting the outcome of elections is critical to our success as a peaceful and law abiding people.

I heard San Francisco's Mayor, Gavin Newsom, suggest in an interview on CNN that perhaps Prop 8 was not a constitutional amendment and that the issue is now up to the California Supreme Court to decide. I merely refer the Mayor and any readers of this blog to a voter guide issued by California State itself. The website makes it clear that at least before the election's outcome the Secretary of State thought that Prop 8 was a constitutional amendment. Perhaps history will be re-written by four or more of the California Supreme Court's seven members.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bye Bye Blackberry

As long as we're talking technology, I shuddered to learn that President Elect Obama will govern without his Blackberry. Security concerns and the Presidential Records Act point towards e-mail blackout for our next president.

It both ironic and sad that the first president to run a laptop on the big desk in the oval office won't have access to e-mail. Sunday's New York Times reported: "For years, like legions of other professionals, Mr. Obama has been all but addicted to his BlackBerry. The device has rarely been far from his side — on most days, it was fastened to his belt — to provide a singular conduit to the outside world as the bubble around him grew tighter and tighter throughout his campaign."

He gave up smoking. But Blackberry blackout may be even harder.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Never Try to Steal a Law Student's Computer

A thief broke into a first year law student's apartment armed with a baseball bat and threatened to "smash his head in." The student allowed the thief to take his wallet and guitar, but when the thief attempted to take the student's laptop, that was too much. The student sprang to action, wrested the bat away from the thief, and landed him in the emergency room. The story is reported at The stress and pressure of law school should never be underestimated.

A law student's computer becomes an appendage in its own right. We rarely are separated from them for too long. Outlines, case briefs, class notes, and email are all part of our daily routine and are essential ingredients in a successful semester. No doubt portable computing technology makes law school life easier, but does being wired most hours of the day detract from education? We are a generation who is used to being plugged in, but being plugged into the virtual world may prevent us from being plugged into the environment (classes, conversations, home) physically present to us. Some sociologists see a positive correlation between the rise of connectivity and the decline of "social capital." In other words, they posit that as we are more connected through our computer screens, we lose connection with those who are co-present with us in the real world. (For more, see the Economist's Special Report on Mobility.)

In law school, the decline in social capital is a detached presence in the classroom; a decrease in the class collective, if you will. Certainly portable computing technology is efficiency-enhancing (a proficient typist can type more quickly than hand-write), and so the more insights can be captured coherently and legibly. On the other hand, being online (as opposed to just word-processing) is a distraction. Some have suggested banning computers in lectures, while others have recommended a wifi dead-zone in classrooms. The former seems like throwing the baby out with the bath water, and the latter seems paternalistic to me. After all, aren't we old enough to take ownership of our choices? Thoughts?

Thanks to Jim Vincent for the story tip. Illustration by Bell Mellor.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

In All Things, Charity

In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity. Richard Baxter

This seems a wise creed for a free society such as ours. Translated into a modern-day political context, we might apply the creed as follows:

Unity in war,

Liberty as to who you marry,

And, of course, charity toward our political opposites.


An enthymene is a syllogism, one leg of which is implicit. So if I say to you, "in necessary things unity," you are coming into the proposition media res: you assume what constitutes "necessary things" is agreed upon. Surely I, the speaker, have some conception of what things are necessary. And my goal with respect to you is to have you ratify the principle without setting parameters:

In necessary things, unity. Yay!

A is a necessary thing. Therefore: unity with respect to A. (Oh no, we didn't agree with that!)

Consider: What are the chances a pro-life advocate would classify partial birth abortion under "doubtful things", to which liberty must be extended? And what strange things would a galloping environmentalist place under the "necessary things" rubric? And so on.

Classifications can get very muddled when, for example, the Supreme Court uses the text or extrapolations of the text of the 14th amendment or the Bill of Rights to extend the category of "doubtful things" to which we must extend liberty, by in effect calling them necessary things, to enforce unity.

So it seems that to say, "In necessary things unity; in doubtful things liberty; in all things charity" is to say, "In all things charity" when your audience is not sufficiently monolithic to inform, via the cake of custom, the terms "necessary things" and "doubtful things."

Therefore, and without meaning to play the role of cosmic killjoy, and while very happy that there are apparently many, many people in this country who felt for the first time in their lives Tuesday night that the promise of America was a promise to them, I offer my take on the message of "change:"

Change is value neutral; indeed content neutral. For example, I am currently sitting down typing this post. Should a malevolent MD rush into the room and force upon me a barium enema, I will experience change. I will even have forced upon me the hope for yet more change. As Frederick Douglass said, "all progress is change, but not all change is progress." (see enema example above).

President-Elect Obama has certainly brought change in two respects that I can indentify: the complexion and person of our chief executive and the perception millions (maybe billions) here and around the world have of America. Good news.

I agree with Charles Krauthammer that the President-Elect has both a first class intellect and a first class temperament. And I am counting on both of those faculties counseling moderation. The danger of course is that the message received from the victors is that the country (which does also include the 46% of Americans who voted for McCain) has voted for change, without limitation. The devil, as always, is in the details.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Virtue of Democracy

Barack Obama’s victory will go down in history as nothing short of remarkable. “America,” he powerfully stated, “is a place where all things are possible . . . The dream of our founders is alive . . . The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.” President-elect Obama’s campaign success will surely be studied for his effectiveness in mobilizing millions of supporters to not only vote, but to participate in the campaign process. Some have quipped, “When you have a community organizer on the ticket, you have an organized campaign.” But all the organization in the world could not ensure victory; I believe Obama’s true success is found in his ability to inspire and lead. As Senator McCain noted in his concession speech, “[Senator Obama] inspired the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president.”

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency is an example of a fundamental truth of human nature that we desire to be a part of something larger than ourselves. Barack Obama provided the people of this country with a vision they could follow: Hope and Change for the public good. His vision inspired action, and action produced results. The message of change resonates with everyone differently, but I think one of the most significant achievements of President-elect Obama’s campaign is, as Senator McCain indicated, that people believed their collective action could effect change and thus influence the public good.

Individual Americans do have the power to influence the political direction of this country; this is the virtue of democracy. The Americans who elected Barack Obama did not wait in lines on Tuesday as private actors pursuing their own best interests; they waited in lines as citizens of a nation united in their desire for change. In his victory speech, President-elect Obama said, “The change we seek cannot happen without the spirit of service and sacrifice . . . In this country, we rise and fall as one party, as one people.” The spirit of democracy is alive and well in the U.S.A., and if the citizens of this country continue to believe that through collective action the public good can be served, I feel hopeful for America.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

History Made

Congratulations to President-elect Barack Obama for being the first African American in our nation's history to secure the Presidency. Not only did he win, but he won decidedly with the electoral college going in his favor, 2 to 1. What an awesome day for everyone in our country to see that as a people we can rise above the sins of our past.

For those who are Republicans, you have experienced four to eight years of bitterness on the part of Democrats towards President Bush. I call upon you to not give in to the temptation towards bitterness, cynicism, and fear. Instead, support President-elect Obama when you agree with his policies and speak with passion but respect when you disagree.

It's going to be an interesting four years. I know that in the years to come my children and grandchildren will ask me what I did on my watch. I want to be able to look them in the eye and have no regrets.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Divided We Stand

One day left until the election; I cannot wait. Certainly, the election will decide a number of important issues, but I am ready for people to get back to normal. Elections seem to bring out the suppressed zealotry latent in many of us. Throughout the campaign, the political-faithful have become more and more religious in their advocacy for their candidate. As the election draws closer, and the prognosticators louder, I can’t help but wonder what will happen on Wednesday morning. Will we know who the forty-fourth President will be, or will we re-live the nightmare (and embarrassment) of the 2000 election? Assuming there is a clear winner, how will he mend the ideological rift dividing the country? Politics, after all, is religion to many. Religious beliefs drive their vote, and those who profess agnosticism or atheism hold their political beliefs just as dearly as their pious brethren. With so many harsh utterances on both sides of the aisle, can we heal from the campaign?

In short, yes, of course. We are Americans, and Americans know how to roll-up their sleeves and get to work. We will be sore from the battle, but we must be unified in our goal of getting this nation back on the track to prosperity and peace. The divisions that separate our two major political parties will remain, and in that sense, there will be schism still. But, by loving our neighbors (even if their yard sports a sign that differs from that of our bumper sticker), and treating each human being with respect and graciousness, we can heal.