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When Experiential Learning and Collegiality Come Together

Professor Glenn Smith

“Regardless of a students’ professional trajectory, it is an advantage to understand the sophistication and nuances of the highest court in the land and the justices serving on it.”

So says California Western Professor Glenn Smith, as he talks about the Supreme Court Simulation seminar that he teaches at least once a year to a select group of advanced students with a particular interest in constitutional law and the Supreme Court.

Created by Professor Smith several decades ago, the seminar enables students to step into the shoes and robes of the justices and the lawyers arguing before them.

“This can be a special part of their education,” says Professor Smith. “I do not know of another program like this that puts the students into roles as current Supreme Court justices, so that they understand how difficult it is for the Court to put together a majority position on very challenging and complex cases.”

In the seminar students spend the first 4–5 weeks studying key aspects of the Court's processes and dynamics. They then test their knowledge by simulating 4–5 actual controversies on the real Supreme Court's docket.

In one class session, oral argument before the Court is simulated—with two students role-playing lawyers arguing for the two sides, using the arguments made in the actual briefs disputants filed with the justices. In a second session, the students play roles as real justices meeting in their “case conference” to reach a tentative decision. Other course days and assignments evaluate what students are learning from the simulations and explore how the conference result would be expressed in actual Court opinions.

“Students routinely gain a sense of a particular justice's frame of reference,” says Professor Smith. “Students may not necessarily agree with their real-life alter egos, but they gain respect and an understanding of where the justices are coming from. This can dispel the notion so often propagated by the media that ideological polarization is a complete explanation of Court decisions.”

A key aspect of the seminar is preparing the student simulators for the arguments and case decisions. And this leads to a second core strength of California Western in addition to the passion for experiential learning illustrated by Professor Smith’s seminar and so many other courses at the law school. Namely: a faculty culture of generosity and collegiality.

Professor Robert DeKoven joined the recently-completed seminar to add his unique insights about student speech rights to the class’s preparation for simulated argument and decision in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. (a high-profile case challenging the power of school officials to punish off-campus speech).

Retired Professor Larry Benner helped the students understand the Fourth Amendment issues involved in Lange v. California (another prominent controversy about whether the “hot pursuit” exception to the warrant requirement should extend to misdemeanors).

Professor William Aceves reprised an earlier presentation on the Court’s shadow docket about COVID restrictions vs. religious free exercise.

“The Supreme Court deals with very complicated and controversial issues across a broad range of cases,” says Professor Smith. “I can't possibly be an ‘expert’ in all of them, so it means so much to the students and me to have our faculty generously share their special perspectives.”

Professor Smith is quick to point out that the seminar is not designed for budding Supreme Court Justices but for those students who can connect with the broader issues the seminar reveals.

“Learning and understanding how a Supreme Court Justice considers the cases before them is going to influence a student’s perspective on how to practice law,” says Professor Smith. “Whether their interest is as a litigator, a legal advisor, a mediator, or a policymaker, the unique experiences acquired in this seminar deepen a student’s analytical capacities, advocacy skills, and professional judgment.”