Foundations of Law: New course introduces 1Ls to fundamental concepts and themes of U.S. legal system

August 19, 2013Duke Law News

A new course for first year Duke Law students is designed to expose them to the foundational legal concepts, themes, and issues in the study of law, including the historical and theoretical underpinnings of the American legal system and administrative law framework.

Foundations of Law is being taught, in the fall semester, by Professor Jeff Powell, an expert in constitutional law whose scholarly focus has included the study of the history and ethical implications of American constitutionalism, the powers of the executive branch, and the role of the Constitution in legislative and judicial decision-making.  The course will be taught in the spring semester by Professor James Salzman, an environmental and administrative law scholar whose work addresses topics spanning trade and environment conflicts, drinking water, environmental protection in the service economy, wetlands mitigation banking, and the legal and institutional issues in creating markets for ecosystem services.

“The goal of the course is encapsulated in the title,” said Salzman, the Mordecai Professor of Law and Nicholas Institute Professor of Environmental Policy. “We want to ensure that all the first-year students have a strong foundation in the basic history of law, and the important ways that we can analyze legal issues.”

“We want to address the overarching themes, concepts, and ideas that don’t fit into any particular curricular pigeon hole,” added Powell.  “They may get addressed specifically by different professors in different substantive courses.  They may get picked up in the legal research and writing program.  And sometimes they just fall through the cracks – all the teachers know these things, but nobody has particular responsibility for them.  Our idea is to have a course that does that.” 

Powell, a veteran executive branch lawyer, will facilitate students’ introduction to what he calls “the intellectual mind-set of the 21st-century American lawyer,” including some essential concepts that seasoned lawyers and law teachers may take for granted.  These include, Powell said, the crucial assumption that knowledge of law involves far more than knowing a concrete set of rules, “and to know the rules is not to know the law,” and the various ways a precedent can be applied to a legal problem. 

Powell will start the semester by giving his students a grounding in legal history.  “We’ll see how things that are deeply significant in 21st century American law can be seen at work in the 1300s, or their origins can be seen in 19th century social change.  Much of what you’re trying to learn as a first-year law student in 2013 arises out of this historical shaping.”

Salzman will focus the second semester of the Foundations of Law course on administrative law, a crucial area for young lawyers given the prevalence of regulatory problems in legal practice, he said.  Administrative law is traditionally confined to the upper-year curriculum.  Salzman will examine how and why the administrative state came to be, what roles agencies play, their powers and limitations, and how statutes and regulations are read.

“The course grew out of a two-year dialogue we had among the faculty considering additions to the first year curriculum,” Salzman said. “Obviously all the students are learning contracts and they’re all learning torts, but a solid foundation in administrative law is important for first-year students because so many will end up using it in their practice.”

Salzman said he plans to have students put their new knowledge to use in an extensive case study exercise to end the course.

“It will deal with a very topical issue -- whether the Clean Air Act can require permits for greenhouse gases from power plants -- which is a nice combination of statutory and regulatory issues.”

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