Spring 2018 Course Schedule

American Courts: Structure, People, Processes, Politics (LAW-838-001)
Russell Wheeler

Meets: 04:00 PM - 05:50 PM (Tu) - Capital - Room C317

Enrolled: 8 / Limit: 22

Administrator Access


Assessment: Take-home exam, essay questions,Class Participation


Seminar Objectives: This seminar explores the structures, processes, and people of American judicial systems, with some (but hardly exclusive) emphasis on the federal courts. It offers a look beyond the façade of judicial decisions and opinions and should be of special interest to those who anticipate working in the courts temporarily as law clerks or interns or regularly as litigators or judges.

More specifically, it considers court organization and nomenclature, the processes and institutions that produce the national federal rules of procedure and evidence and local variations. It analyzes the various methods by which state and federal judges are selected and the roles of executive officials, legislators, the bar, interest groups, sitting and would-be judges, and, in many cases the voting public—and the impact of selection processes on the make-up and behavior of the judiciary. The seminar examines the ethical rules that govern judges and the mechanisms for dealing with allegations of judicial misconduct and disability. It asks how the courts deal with legislators (who fund and, to a degree, govern the courts), and with the press and social media, usually the principal means by which the public learns (or doesn’t learn) what courts do. Finally, it explores the reasons for changes in recent years in how trial and appellate courts dispose of the cases before them, including the decline in the number and proportion of trials and of traditional appellate procedures.

I ask each class member to select a federal district court to provide specific focus on the seminar themes.

Seminar Sequence: The seminar has three parts.

Part I (five sessions) covers “Structure and Personnel” (changing role of courts in the early 21st century, structure and personnel of the courts, court governance and rule making, and selection and education of judges).

Part II (four sessions) covers “Dealing with the Judicial and Political Environment” (judicial ethics, judicial-legislative relations, courts and the media in their various forms).

Part III (four sessions) covers “Court Performance” (trial court case processing and appellate court case processing and structural revision).

Grading and Assessment: Grading is based on three essays on assigned topics, submitted at the conclusion of each of the three course parts. The essays do not require outside research. The purpose of the essays is to allow students to demonstrate familiarity with the readings and class discussion and ability to analyze conflicting points of view. Grading also reflects participation in class discussion.

ULWR: The three essays do not by themselves meet the ULWR standards. I am, however, prepared to supervise Upper Level Writing Requirement projects that elaborate on any of the essay assignments or other mutually agreed-upon topics.

Textbooks and Other Materials

The textbook information on this page was provided by the instructor. Students should use this information when considering purchases from the AU Campus Store or other vendors. Students may check to determine if books are currently available for purchase online.

The seminar does not use a standard textbook. Instead, I will post materials I have developed, which include excerpts of scholarly and popular articles, cases, legislation, as well as substantial amounts of original text and illustrative tables and charts that I have developed for the seminar. I will post the readings for Part I by late December or early January.

First Class Readings

The first class will provide an overview of the course elements, requirements, and grading policy; no advance reading is necessary for the first day.