June 29, 2020

Each class teaches an important lesson, but one particular class at Cornell College challenged students to a whole new level.

Meghan Yamanishi’s Block 7 class, Constitutional Law: The American System, undertook a block simulation of three current Supreme Court cases, including Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, better known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).

Zoom class reunion during oral argument of Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California. Pictured: Top row: (L to R) Nathan Gunn, Meghan Yamanishi, Clara Haverstic, Jackson Manwaring-Perks, Ella Acquah. Bottom row: Kenny Capesius, Ethan Ellis, Sebastian Hough-Lecuona, Sunny Khan and Oliver Trousdale.

The case that impacted many Americans took center stage during the three-and-a-half-week block course. It was the only course Cornell students took, so they could focus only on content.

“The aim of the course was to give them a better understanding of how American constitutional law is ‘made’ and the skills to do it by wrestling through the material,” said Yamanishi, a Cornell librarian with a degree in UCLA law. . “It was a very demanding course and the students really took the opportunity.

DACA context

The case began in 2017 when President Donald Trump ordered an end to the Obama-era program, which protects undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.

Cornell College President Jonathan Brand joined more than 600 other colleges and university leaders in a statement in favor of DACA. The name of Cornell College can also be found in this legal notice 2019 against stopping the program.

On June 18, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the government had wrongly terminated DACA, because the to treat the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) used to terminate DACA was inappropriate.

“The DACA affair was an excellent illustration of the complexity of relations between branches of government,” Yamanishi said. “The executive branch has expanded its power in relation to the legislative branch over time, with executive decrees and agency regulations increasingly being the source of law, rather than mere legislation. Since these practices were not provided for in the text of the Constitution, there are not many clear and clear constitutional principles to resolve disputes over them. “

The lesson

Constitutional Law: The American system focuses on the structure of U.S. government, as established in the Constitution, and how Supreme Court rulings have interpreted and influenced that structure over time.

Yamanishi students participated in a simulation of a block of the same DACA Supreme Court case with students playing the roles of current and past judges. She was not surprised that the outcome of the mocked Cornell case was “remarkably similar” to the outcome of the actual court ruling.

“They made essentially the same decision, for the same reasons, and even ended up with the same judge writing the opinion, John Roberts, along with concurring and dissenting votes that mostly matched the actual votes of the judges,” Yamanishi said. . “One of our ‘historic’ judges, Hugo Black, who died nearly half a century ago, voted with the majority; and it turns out the real Chief Justice Roberts quoted the real Justice Black in the decision. Overall, I think the class did a remarkable job of understanding both the underlying legal issues and their respective judges’ approaches to legal interpretation.

Sebastian Hough-Lecuona, a rising senior with a double major in religion and Politics, played the role of Judge Hugo Black, asking questions and write an opinion following Black’s style and philosophy.

“I learned a lot from this course, such as how to build arguments the way lawyers do, how to frame your arguments and how to read legal briefs,” Hough-Lecuona said. “I was happy to see that my class and I predicted the case correctly and that our reasoning for the decision was correct. I’m glad it turned out this way because I think it strengthens the rule of law in America. ”

The rise of Sunny Khan, a international relationships major, defended the government’s position in the simulation. Seeing the matter unfold in real life soon after class ended brought the whole lesson home for Khan.

“The Supreme Court citing the same factors that we discussed in class, in the final decision and passing judgment almost made me feel that I was personally involved in the case,” Khan said. “Most importantly, I was happy with the result. Even though I had pleaded the legal aspect of the case, I morally wished for a different outcome.

Oliver Trousdale ’20 shared the sentiment. They played judge Sonia Sotomayor.

“I am honestly surprised by this result but also very happy. I think Congress needs to act to protect young people and their families, ”Trousdale said. “The United States is the only country they know and we need to do better. Overall it was a difficult exercise, but I feel like I have a much better understanding of the law.

Future applications

Kenny Capesius ’16, who studies at UCLA Law School, knows that an understanding of the law is vital for students considering a legal profession. Yamanishi asked him to play the role of Chief Justice in the simulation.

“I strongly recommend that you consider taking one of the law courses offered at Cornell, such as this course taught by Professor Yamanishi,” Capesius offered as an adviser to the students. “I think it’s helpful to have had an introduction to some legal concepts. At the very least, it gives you some insight into the kind of readings and discussions law schools need. “

Yamanishi says that more students have become interested in this course because these broader structural roles of constitutional law have taken center stage. Abstract issues like when the president can invoke emergency powers have an immediate impact on people’s lives.

And this is a case that has a direct impact on the lives of its students.

“The little things we discuss, the ideas we become familiar with, the policy designs we study all have practical, long-term and real-life implications,” Khan said.

It’s a lesson learned from a 233-year-old document that still challenges the thoughts of 21st century students.

“I think we have also seen how fragile the rule of law can be: even noble and well-written laws and court decisions – and the Constitution itself – are only as fair and effective as the people who apply them, and only as strong as people’s belief in them, ”Yamanishi said.

Yamanishi also teaches a course on Constitutional Law: Rights and Freedoms, which focuses on the rights and freedoms of citizens. It is proposed to Block 8 next year.