I just got back from Reykjavik, where I spent a week teaching the American legal system and American Constitutional Law at the University of Iceland. My thirty-three students were mostly Icelandic, but several were from other countries, including Switzerland, Poland, Belgium, Norway, and France. Fortunately for me, they speak English.
My course was for credit, meaning that after sitting through twelve lectures, the students had to take an exam. One of the exam questions asked the students to identify the Supreme Court case they considered most interesting and to explain why.
The first case I taught was Dred Scott v Sandford, the 1857 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled that Scott could not seek his freedom in federal court because neither he nor any other slave or descendants of slaves qualified as a “citizen.” Abraham Lincoln called the decision an “astonisher,” and it is generally regarded as the worst decision in the history of the Supreme Court.
Several students chose the Dred Scott case as most important. They saw Dred Scott not just as a party in a lawsuit but as a human being. One wrote that she could not “imagine that the right of being a citizen could be doubted because of his skin color.” “It’s strange,” she continued, “that before I took this class I had never heard of this case before! And now, for four whole days, I can’t think of anything else.” Another student was puzzled by “how vitriolic the mindset of the legal system must have been at the time.” Yet, noted another, the case shows that “leaving aside the notion of one being able to own another person, through the bad or wrong decisions the rule of law can progress.” A student said she was “glad to hear that it is ‘the worst case’ in America.”
Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 school desegregation case, was also a popular choice. “I love that case,” a student wrote. “I found it really interesting that the same body that created the 14th Amendment, overruling Dred Scott, and then also made law to separate people by color [in schools].” Another student was struck by “how legal ‘facts’ are in essence sensitive to the moral and social practices of the times,” and by the “vivid contrast between originalist interpretation in constitutional law and the ‘living document’ approach.”
Several students picked the Court’s free speech cases. A French student was “very surprised, in a good way, by the decision to consider burning a flag being a form of speech.” Another student thought it was “really smart” of the Court in New York Times v. Sullivan to create “a dichotomy between public figures and private ones” in defamation cases. The Citizens United decision did not come off so well. “I think there should be a ‘cap’ on donations,” wrote an Icelandic student. “I look forward to watching if it will be overruled in the future.” A student majoring in both political science and law” was “shocked, amazed, angry, sad and more to see how much money rules politics.”
Our class spent considerable time discussing human rights decisions. “The right to marry whomever you love has always hit home,” one of my Icelandic students wrote, adding that she “never in a million years expected the outcome of the Obergefell case.” “I don’t think I will ever forget the day your fine country finally put everyone on an equal footing with regards to marriage.” Although one student was impressed by Chief Justice Roberts’s view that the gay marriage issue should be decided by the people, not by the Court, he “couldn’t help but be mesmerized with Justice Kennedy’s words on the importance of marriage in society.”
My hours in the classroom, and reading the students’ exam answers, were pure pleasure. As usual, I learned more than I taught.