Students in Professor Julie L. Hershenberg’s fall federal government honors class will have the chance to stand in for the jurists and interest groups who helped shape American policy as they debate U.S. Supreme Court cases from throughout our country’s history. The class is being offered at a time when Justice Antonin Scalia’s death and lack of political will have left the court with only eight members, possibly into 2017.

Cougar News asked Professor Hershenberg about what students can expect from the class.

How will this class be different from other federal government classes?
Students enrolled in the honors course will learn about the federal government through the eyes of the landmark Supreme Court cases which have shaped American history and jurisprudence.  The students themselves will simulate Supreme Court deliberation that introduces them to the difficult role of the courts in balancing individual rights and public safety. Topics covered include: the nature of the Supreme Court’s authority; separation of powers; federal limits on state powers; and individual rights, including economic rights.

I’ve heard students will use the mock courtroom at Spring Creek Campus to argue some of history’s landmark cases. Is that true?
The students enrolled in this honors course will meet each Monday evening in our beautiful Abernathy Courtroom.  The class will consist of both lecture and hands-on deliberation in the roles of the United States Supreme Court, as well as the attorneys who argue the cases.  Students also will have the opportunity to learn about and role-play the various interest groups who assist in getting the cases to the Supreme Court for review.  I am currently in the process of ordering their judicial robes and am very excited for the students!

What do you hope students will get out of that experience?
The purpose of this Honors course is to introduce students to how the court functions, the decisions that the court and justices make, and the impact of those decisions on American lives.  The interactive nature of the honors course will help build students’ analytical skills, as well as assist them in gaining confidence in public speaking and debate.  Finally, the course will provide students an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the judicial branch, which is often the most mysterious of the three branches.

What cases will you be studying?
The landmark cases will begin with Marbury vs. Madison, the famous case in which the Supreme Court expands their constitutional power of “judicial review” – the ability to determine the actions of the president and/or Congress as unconstitutional. We will also review important civil rights and civil liberty cases such as Plessy vs. Ferguson, Brown vs. Board of Education, Tinker vs. Des Moines, Texas vs. Johnson as well as Roe vs. Wade and Lawrence vs. Texas.  Students will also deliberate on the 2000 election and the divided court in Bush vs. Gore. The course will conclude with the current Supreme Court’s most recent decisions.

Why focus on the Supreme Court’s role in shaping America’s government? Will you be comparing/contrasting the other two branches’ roles as well?
In today’s political economy, students are questioning the role of the citizens in a constitutional democracy. The First Amendment guarantees American citizens the right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”  By using the lens of the Constitution and Supreme Court cases, students will examine the essential structure of the federal government and how the three branches work together in the betterment of our democracy.  Students will gain an awareness of the process and the factors that influence the court’s decision to hear particular cases, as well as the extent the Supreme Court makes social and public policy.
We will examine the ways that other government branches respond to decisions by the court and the impact of those decisions on American life, such as Bush vs. Gore and the political background of the Affordable Care Act and the subsequent case which addressed the question of whether the president had exceeded his constitutional authority.

Do you plan on discussing the current political climate of the court and the ways that an eight-justice court will have to approach cases before it – assuming a ninth justice is not appointed over the summer?
The constitutional powers of the three branches, including the way in which each branch checks the other will be analyzed.  The president’s power of appointment and the Senate’s power to block those nominations will be discussed in light of the recent refusal of the Senate to consider his most recent nominee, Merrick Garland.  The class concludes by examining the current Roberts Court and the role Justice Antonin Scalia played in shaping judicial policy during his 30-year term on the Supreme Court.

The class is GOVT2305 S7H, meeting at the Spring Creek Campus. You can learn more about this and other Honors classes on every campus by checking the e-schedule online and searching for the “Honors Course” attribute type.