Although it was ratified over two hundred years ago and refers to militias and quartering soldiers, the Bill of Rights is the lifeblood of one of BWL’s liveliest classes: Constitutional Law. Presiding at the long Conference Room table, where historic and late-breaking Supreme Court cases are studied in this twice-weekly senior elective, is Martin Michael, partner with the firm SNR Denton and husband of Lower School Director, Kevie Michael.
“For years and years and years, almost as long as I’ve been a lawyer, I’ve also wanted to teach,” says Mr. Michael, who was admitted to the New York Bar in 1975 and litigates cases involving intellectual property disputes. “Ever since grade school, I’ve been interested in Constitutional Law. I’m also an amateur historian. I’ve always had the desire to tell somebody what I’ve learned over the years.” So when Headmaster Frank J. Carnabuci III offered him the chance to lead a senior elective, Mr. Michael says he “jumped at the opportunity. I was really anxious to do it.”
Now in its second year, the class moves through three to five cases during each forty-five minute period. Students begin by summarizing the cases; Mr. Michael then provides his views, asks questions, and opens the class to general discussion. James Kapnick ’12 appreciates this: “If we have relevant questions from the real world, we can discuss them.” “It’s a lot of material,” admits Sean Kaufman ’12. “He doesn’t check up on you [with quizzes]; it’s up to you to manage your work. It’s a preview of what college will be like.”
Mr. Michael begins with “the earliest cases that make sense in interpreting the Bill of Rights,” but his curriculum also absorbs present-day cases of relevance. Regarding the Fourth Amendment, which concerns search and seizure, the class studied the nuances of surveillance in the digital age; regarding the Fifth Amendment, which protects against Double Jeopardy, they studied the Casey Anthony on O.J. Simpson murder cases. Mr. Michael sends students emails with relevant links; he also takes time to translate the “real world” application of court judgments.
Invariably, as it moves from one case to the next, the class presents Mr. Michael with more raised hands from students than he can accommodate. He also finds that “Sometimes, students go off on a tangent.” When discussing the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, for instance, he recalls a student mentioning a case about the Pledge of Allegiance. “I tell them ‘Not now – we’ll discuss that case in a later class.’ But I like that – that shows that they’re interested.” According to Noah Kossoff ’12, “Subjects come off each other, and it spirals and snowballs, and it becomes a whole other conversation. We’re building ideas on ideas.”
Mr. Michael appreciates the difference between the courtroom and the classroom: “Although students may not agree with what I am saying, there is no real adversarial environment. They voice their opinions and I voice mine. But in the law, you have to come to a resolution. A court must decide or the parties have to reach an agreement on what the terms of the contracts will be.” As a result, he has no trouble making it to first period class at 8:00, earlier than he typically arrives at his firm. “I look forward to the class all the time,” he says.
Students appreciate the practical aspects the class brings to their lives. Evan Friedland ’12 says, “I’m interested knowing my rights so that when I’m not with my parents, I’ll feel a lot more comfortable.” Noah Kossoff is already exercising his knowledge: “Any time I get into a discussion with my parents or brothers, my mind automatically goes to what is constitutionally right.”
“This is definitely not a typical class,” says James Kapnick, who notes the difference in being taught by one whose perspective goes beyond the classroom. “Mr. Michael knows a bunch of different ways rulings can be applied. Lots of times, you can make up scenarios, ask him questions, and he can handle it,” he says.
Perhaps Noah Kossoff offers the best comment a teacher can hear: “I don’t think anyone is really worried about the grade. Even though half the class grade is based on participation, everyone is there to just learn and discuss and argue.”