Although students in U.S. in the World 18: “Thinking About the Constitution” usually learn about the concrete applications of the Constitution during University Professor Laurence H. Tribe’s lectures in Harvard Hall 104, a dozen students saw constitutional law in action on a field trip to hear the oral arguments about the Defense of Marriage Act on Wednesday.
The group attended the oral arguments in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit for two cases challenging the constitutionality of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage at a federal level as the union between a man and a woman.
For the teaching fellows who organized the trip, the opportunity to see how the Constitution figures in current events is a central part of the class’s philosophy.
“The focus of this class is to understand the world around us by teaching basic constitutional law, and going to these trials teaches [that] better than we ever could,” said Joshua A. Matz, the course’s head TF.
Matz and fellow TF Marco P. Basile ’08, both students at the Law School, led and organized Wednesday morning’s trip.
Anticipating a packed court room, the group arrived at the court house two hours before oral arguments began. Matz gave students an introduction to the details of the case, outlined the arguments that would likely be made, and described the political leanings of the three judges sitting on the panel—Chief Judge Sandra L. Lynch and Circuit Judges Juan R. Torruella and Michael Boudin.
Most students watched lawyers deliver their arguments from the packed courtroom, but a few latecomers had to observe the hearing on flat screens in overflow rooms.
For Matz, the oral arguments gave students exposure to “one of most important constitutional law cases seen in this country, debated by some of the best lawyers.”
Many of the arguments presented by the case’s lawyers cited the legal concept of rational basis, arguing that all law must be founded on logical rather than arbitrary criteria. For Tribe’s students, these arguments touched on many of the approaches to constitutional law presented in the course.
“Professor Tribe logically explains law.” Jacob S. Miller ’15 said, adding that Tribe often asks students, “Is that the way it should be?”
Students on the field trip, many of whom aspire to careers in law, said the trip gave them a better sense of how these issues can play out beyond a classroom discussion.
“I was surprised by how much emotion the lawyer representing the state of Massachusetts showed,” Taonga R. Leslie ’15 said. “Going to this hearing really reinforced the fact that this is a government made up of the people.”
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