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: Aug 27

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: Sept 3

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 Sept 3

week 3: Sept 10

Same topic as last week.

week 4: Sept 17

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]

watching –  Sotomayor’s Senate hearing  [video]

week 5: Sept 24 

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]

2. Facts & Laws

week 6: Oct 1 – No class

NB: Assignment #2 [PDF]  – due Oct 1 – model assignment #2 [PDF]

week 7: Oct  8 – No class

week 8: Oct 15

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

reading –  Schauer, Law and Fact [PDF]

watching – Twelve Angry Men (1957) [video]

NB: Assignment #3 [PDF]  – due Oct 15 -model assignment #3 [PDF]

week 9: Oct 22 

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

reading – in re Winship (1970) [PDF]

week 10: Oct 29 

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

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

NY State court structure [link]

NB: Assignment #4 [PDF]  – due Oct 29 – model assignment [PDF]


3. Precedents

week 11:  Nov 5 

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 12: Nov 12 

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 13: Nov 19 

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

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

NB: Assignment #5  [PDF] –  due Nov 19

4. Mock Trials

Mock trial schedule [PDF]

week 14: Nov 26 

Death penalty


week 15: Dec 3 

Same-sex marriage


week 16: Dec 10 


NB: Final report [PDF] – due Dec 15 – please email this to instructor

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


reading – Myers v. Schneiderman (2017) [link]

Death penalty

reading – death penalty cases before US SUp. Ct [link]

Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972)

Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976)

Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977)

Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008)

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]

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]

Rights of suspects in police custody

reading – Miranda v. Arizona (1966) 

text of the opinion [PDF]

oral argument [link]

case overview [link]

Boyfriend case – Michelle Carter

Grand jury proceedings

decision by Mass. Sup. Ct. on grand jury indictment [PDF]

brief by ACLU in favor of defendant [PDF]

prosecutor’s brief in response to defendant’s brief [PDF]

Trial proceedings

defendant’s motion for not-guilty verdict [PDF]

judge first-degree conviction [video] [link]

legal analysis of conviction judgment [link]

newspaper analysis [link]

Sentencing proceedings 

decision [video] [video]