This course—syllabus here—comprises four parts. You will examine

(1) how judges and lawyers interpret the law;

(2) how “matters of fact” differ from “matters of law”;

(3) how past court decisions (i.e. precedents) influence current decisions.

Finally, having mastered these foundational topics, you will participate in a

(4) mock trial on a topic of your choice, such as, Trump’s travel ban, Obama care, same sex marriage, abortion.

For more information about each part, please scroll down.


1. Interpretation

week 1: Mon Aug 28 & Wed Aug 30

Viewing laws as rules that are applied to individual cases is the most common picture of legal reasoning (see e.g. here, although see also here). Is this picture accurate? How are rules applied to individual cases?

reading –  Schauer, Rules—in law and elsewhere [PDF]

week 2: Wed Sept 6 — No class on Mon Sept 4 Labor Day

We will read a case in which a legal rule about inheritance was interpreted and applied according to its purpose and not its letter.

reading – Riggs v. Palmer (1889) [PDF]

NB: Assignment #1  [PDF] – due Wed Sept 6

week 3Mon Sept  11 & Wed Sept 13 

Same topic as last week.

week 4: Mon Sept  18 —  No class on Wed Sept 20

Some judges believe judicial decisions should be guided primarily by the text of the law; others believe the purpose of the law should play a pivotal role. We will examine their arguments.

watching –  Scalia and Breyer Debate the Constitution [video]

week 5: Mon Sept 25 & Wed Sept 27

We will continue the discussion “text versus purpose” by looking at a divorce case decided by a court in Yemen.

reading – Messick, Interpreting tears [PDF]

NB: Assignment #2 [PDF]  – due Mon Sept 25


2. Facts & Laws

week 6: Mon Oct 2 & Wed Oct 4

Legal reasoning is not only about rules and their interpretation, but also about “facts”. In this respect,  we will examine the distinction between “matters of fact” and “matters of law”.

reading –  Schauer, Law and Fact [PDF]

week 7: Wed Oct 11 — No class on Mon Oct  9

Same topic as last week.

watching – Twelve Angry Men (1957)

NB: Assignment #3 [PDF]  – due Wed Oct 11

week 8: Mon Oct 16 & Wed Oct 18

The standard of proof in criminal cases is beyond a reasonable doubt. What does that mean, exactly? 

reading – in re Winship (1970) [PDF]

week 9: Mon Oct 23 & Wed Oct 25

We will see how the law/fact distinction is apparent in decisions by appellate courts.

reading – People v. Goetz (NY 1986) [PDF]

NB: Assignment #4 [PDF]  – due Mon Oct 23

3. Precedents

PDFweek 10: Mon Oct 30 & Wed Nov 1

A past case applies to a new case when the two are sufficiently similar, but how to decide when the similarity is “sufficient”?

reading – Schauer, Practice and Problem of Precedent [PDF]

week 11:  Mon Nov 6 & Wed Nov 8

Legal precedents can be overruled. As an illustration, we will first read an old court decision in favor of racial segregation…

reading – Plessy v.  Ferguson (1896) [PDF]

week 12: Mon Nov 13 & Wed Nov 15

…and then, we will read a more recent decision banning racial segregation

reading – Brown v. Board of Education (1954) [PDF]

NB: Assignment #5  –  due Mon Nov 13

4. Mock Trials

week 13: Mon Nov 20 & Wed Nov 22


week 14: Mon Nov 27 & Wed Nov 29


week 15: Mon Dec 4 & Wed Dec 6


week 16: Mon Dec 11

Final overview of the course

NB: Final report [PDF] – due Dec 13

Mock trials topics (feel free to find your own!)

Trump travel ban

links to relevant materials will be posted soon

Obama care

reading – National Fed. of Ind. Business v. Sebelius (2012)

parsing the opinion [video]

text of opinion [PDF]

oral argument [link]

petitioner’s brief [PDF]

respondent’s brief [PDF]

more materials about the case [link]

Same sex marriage

reading – Obergefell v. Hegdes (2015) 

text of the opinion [PDF]

oral argument [link]

petitioner’s brief [PDF – PDF]

respondent’s brief [PDF – PDF]

more materials about the case [link]


reading – Roe v. Wade (1973)

text of the opinion [link]

oral argument [link]