James Roth ’77 on Returning to Classroom, Taking ‘Great Cases’ Class

January 8, 2020

Editor’s note: Alumni Voices is an occasional series of articles by alumni sharing their perspectives. We debut this web feature with a piece contributed by James Roth ‘77, who last semester returned to Mondale Hall as a senior student.

Minnesota Law: Alumni VoicesLast year I took advantage for the first time of a state law that allows senior citizens to audit courses in any state supported institution of higher education in Minnesota without payment of tuition or activity fees. The course I chose for fall semester was Professor Robert Stein’s “Great Cases That Shaped the Nation.”

The course covered 24 U.S. Supreme Court decisions beginning with Marbury v. Madison and ending with Obergefell v. Hodges. Also included was exploration of three highly publicized trial court cases (Lizzie Borden, Scopes Monkey Trial, and O.J. Simpson) and a moderated discussion of the Watergate impeachment proceedings featuring Vice President Walter Mondale ’56, Jill Wine-Banks (a member of Archibald Cox’s special prosecution team) and Francis O’Brien (chief of staff to Peter Rodino, chair of the House Judiciary Committee).

Vice President Walter F. Mondale ’56 and Jill Wine-Banks, a member of Archibald Cox’s special prosecution team in the Watergate impeachment proceedings

I was the only senior student in a class of 39. The last time I took a course from Professor Stein was in the fall of 1973 when I took real property law. Professor Stein asked me after one of the first classes how things had changed since my days in law school. I told him the students were younger and smarter, the list of courses and seminars is vastly larger, and of course Mondale Hall is a huge improvement over Fraser Hall. As for classroom experience, Professor Stein’s pedagogical style is similar, but there has been a technological revolution since the old days. Professor Stein and students in the class incorporated PowerPoint slides into presentations. In his lecture on Lizzy Borden, Professor Stein added a link to a song by the Kingston Trio. I told him that never happened in my law school days.

Professor Stein started each class with a description of each of the justices who participated in the decision, including biographical information, judicial philosophies, and some historical and political perspective. After his initial discussion, the students would make their presentations elaborating on the case holdings and significance as well as more historical, political, and sociological perspectives. There were two or three students assigned to each case.

Sometimes we would also discuss how the issues were handled in other countries. Professor Stein would often end with a provocative question like whether we agreed with the majority or whether the justices should incorporate international law precedents in their decisions.

A highlight of the experience was a surprise visit by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. On the morning of the day of the Stein Lecture that was to feature her, the justice came to a special session of our class as a guest. One of the students in our class wrote her a letter afterward, and she wrote back. Several other U.S. Supreme Court Justices have visited the Great Cases class over the years.

Throughout the semester, Professor Stein would sprinkle his lectures with colorful stories about his personal interactions with the justices over the years. These stories ran the gamut from his conversation with Justice Douglas picking him up at the airport as a young professor to attending a World Series game with Justice Kennedy. Another example was reading from a letter exchange he had with Justice Blackmun over the justice’s cameo performance as Joseph Story in the movie “Amistad” after he retired from the Court.

There were students from other countries in the class including China, Japan, Korea, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Colombia. I was able to interact directly with several of them outside of class. In addition to discussing cases we talked about current events in Hong Kong, China, Spain, Colombia, Ireland, and Norway. We also discussed their reactions to events here. It was stimulating and enriching and fun being back on campus and engaging with the law school community including international students.

I highly recommend his course to anyone interested in being back on campus, continuing learning, and in interacting with current law students. I had a great experience.

—By James Roth ’77

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