I have had great success using the Iowa Supreme Court's landmark Varnum v. Brien ruling as a tool in my college composition classes. At 68 pages, it is a long, challenging read. Because it is very carefully reasoned, tightly argued, and contains copious references to Iowa and national precedents, it is an ideal model for argument. Most importantly, it is a case which ignited a firestorm in reaction, is absolutely relevant in our lives today, yet also offers a way to talk about contested issues which invites my students to look deeper than the typical sound bite opinions which are such a pervasive, abominable feature of contemporary American political discussion.
That's why I will have to make the time, soon, to read Chief Justice John Roberts' majority opinion upholding the Affordable Care Act. So far, I've read the media accounts of the decision, that Roberts upheld the individual mandate portion of the act as a constitutional exercise of Congress's power to levy taxes. Yet to be determined is what the effect will be on future rulings which invoke the interstate commerce clause of the constitution. And, it is curious, to me at least, that Roberts took pains to note that the Court did not rule on the wisdom of the ACA, only on its constitutionality, and that it is the prerogative of the electorate to select leadership to enact policy. Is Chief Justice Roberts inviting the GOP to launch a political crusade (I'm tempted to write "jihad!") this election year against the ACA?
But back to Varnum v. Brien. Before asking them to read the Iowa court's opinion, I ask students to write their definition of "freedom." We spend time discussing some fundamentals of American government: the "five freedoms" of the First Amendment, the equal protection clauses of the US and Iowa constitutions (students are surprised that the Iowa language originally read "All white men, being by nature free and equal"), the separation of powers and the federal system. Very little of this is new to my students, many find it boring and irrelevant to their lives, and every semester I have someone ask, "does the First Amendment include the right to bear arms?" Such is the state of our political discourse!
I have my students read the Varnum decision because it's difficult. I require them to report on one of the precedents which the Iowa justices cited: I selected Brown v. Board of Education, West Virginia v. Barnette, Lawrence v. Texas, and Loving v. Virginia as the most important precedents. Those decisions are a hard read, too. I ask students to summarize the facts of their selected case, report which constitutional principles the court relied on in its ruling, and connect their precedent to the Iowa court's ruling in Varnum. I teach composition, not constitutional law: reading court decisions is a real-world exercise for students in extracting key information from a long document.
My pedagogical goals are straightforward: get the students to read challenging texts, focus on extracting information, place those texts in a broader context, connect those texts with their own perspective and experience, and discuss contentious issues in a dispassionate manner. Yes, I have an implied citizenship goal: encouraging students to see how seemingly distant events, in both space and time, have created the civic space they occupy now. My goal as a person is to let my students discover how history, seen as the process which produces events, touches their own lives.
When students read the original trial judge's sentence of the Lovings requiring them to leave Virginia for 25 years; how a little black girl could not attend her local, segregated elementary school; how Barnette's daughters were expelled from school for obeying their Jehovah's Witness creed; how police entered Lawrence's apartment on a false complaint, and; reading the list of the legal and social benefits which married couples enjoy, history and the law become less abstract, more urgent.
We all would benefit from thinking a little harder about our shared history as a people, and the struggles which produced that history, before aping the blather we just heard on talk radio.