Contemporary Legal Issues

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Course Level:
Course Length:
15 weeks

Course Objectives:

This course has two objectives. First, we will attempt to examine in detail a number of contemporary legal issues which have captivated the national attention. Second, we will attempt to ascertain the proper relationship between morality and the law in light of these issues.


Course Requirements:

Each student will write three short papers (no more than four pages in length). These papers will be presented in class, at the beginning of each session, in order to facilitate discussion. Each of these papers will be worth 15% of your total grade, and they will be due at the beginning of the class session in which the material is being covered. Late papers will not be accepted. There will also be a take home final examination, due at 6:30pm on May 26th, which will be worth the remaining 55% of your grade. The final exam question will be given at least four weeks prior to the due date, and I will be happy to read drafts and offer advice until May 20th. Competence in written English is expected. Papers with excessive spelling and/or grammatical errors will be returned ungraded for revision and will suffer a significant grade penalty as a result. Attendance and participation are both expected and required. Learning begins with reading and thinking, but is greatly enhanced by argument and debate with others who share dissimilar views. While argument and debate is expected and encouraged, so too is respect for your fellow students with whom you will invariably disagree. You will be penalized for excessive absences and/or insufficient participation. Please note that this syllabus is not a contract, and should not be understood as such. I reserve the right to alter any of the terms and conditions contained herein as I deem necessary.


Required Text:

In an effort to keep costs down, there is only one required text. Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Legal Issues, 8th edition, M. Ethan Katsh, ed., (hereafter TS) is available for purchase at the bookstore. Additional readings, when necessary, will be made available to you in the form of handouts.


Course Outline:

  • February 10-Introduction.
  • February 17-Impeachment.
  • The Federalist, #66, #70.
    • Joseph M. Bessette and Gary J. Schmitt, “What Does “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” Mean?”
  • February 24-Gay Rights.
    • TS 252-266.
    • Richard D. Mohr, “Gay Basics: Some Questions, Facts, and Values.”
    • Paul Cameron, “A Case Against Homosexuality.”
  • March 3-Hate Speech.
    • TS 108-127.
    • First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
    • ACLU, “Why Free Speech for Racists and Totalitarians.”
    • George F. Will, “Nazis: Outside the Constitution.”
  • March 10-The “Separation of Church and State:” School Prayer and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
    • TS 146-166.
    • First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
    • Thomas Jefferson, Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, January 1, 1802.
    • Warren Rudman, “On the Dangers of School Prayer.”
    • Jeremiah Denton, “In Defense of School Prayer.”
    • Harry Jaffa, “Emancipating School Prayer: How to Use the State Constitutions to Beat the ACLU and the Supreme Court.”
  • March 17-Abortion.
    • TS 168-189.
    • Don Marquis, “Why Abortion is Immoral.”
    • Jane English, “Abortion and the Concept of a Person.”
  • March 24-Regulation of Internet Pornography and Pornography Generally.
    • TS 190-213.
    • First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
    • Francis Canavan, “The First Amendment and Pornography.”
    • Ann Gary, “Pornography and Respect for Women.”
    • James A. Gould, “Why Pornography is Valuable.”
  • March 31-Spring Break-No Class.
  • April 7-Affirmative Action and Quotas.
    • TS 214-227.
    • The Declaration of Independence.
    • The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
    • Edward Erler, “The Affirmative Action Trainwreck.”
    • Richard Wasserstrom, “A Defense of Programs of Preferential Treatment.”
    • Barry R. Gross, “Is Turn About Fair Play?”
    • Thurgood Marshall, “The Case for Racial Quotas.”
    • Thomas Sowell, “Are Quotas Good for Blacks?”
    • Douglas A. Jeffrey and Brian T. Kennedy, “A Citizen’s Guide to the Affirmative Action Debate.”
  • April 14-Sex Crime and its Ramifications.
    • TS 288-317.
  • April 21-Physician Assisted Suicide.
    • TS 228-251.
    • Oregon Death with Dignity Act.
    • Michael Uhlmann, “Looming Battle on Assisted Suicide”; “The Legal Logic of Euthanasia”; “The Bishop Blinks”; and “Uhlmann Responds.”
    • Archbishop William J. Levada, “The Bishop Replies.”
  • April 28-The Death Penalty.
    • TS 270-287.
    • The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
    • The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
    • Hugo Adam Bedau, “Capital Punishment.”
    • Ernest van den Haag, “The Ultimate Punishment: A Defense.”
  • May 5-Legalization of Drugs.
    • TS 338-360.
    • Ethan A. Nadelmann, “America’s Drug Problem: A Case for Decriminalization.”
    • James Q. Wilson, “Against the Legalization of Drugs.”
    • Film: Reefer Madness.
  • May 12-The Role of the American Judicial System.
    • The United States Constitution, Article Three.
    • Sam J. Ervin, jr., “In Support of Judicial Restraint.”
    • Ramsey Clark, “In Support of Judicial Activism.”
  • May 19-On Law and Morality.
    • Alisdair MacIntyre, from After Virtue.
    • James Rachels, “Can Ethics Provide Answers?”
    • Melville J. Herskovits, from “Cultural Relativism: Perspectives in Cultural Pluralism.”
    • James Rachels, from “The Elements of Moral Philosophy.”
  • May 26-Final Exam Due.