Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Prof. Barack Obama, Constitutional Law III: The Course Outline

    Much has been written about Barack Obama's time at the University of Chicago.  According to the University website:
From 1992 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Barack Obama served as a professor in the Law School. He was a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996. He was a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004, during which time he taught three courses per year.
Breitbart explored Obama's teaching in The Vetting back in the spring of 2012.  The New York Times published copies of exams and at least one syllabus from the classes he taught.  One of the courses, added in 1996, was entitled "Constitutional Law III." A former student of Obama's was quoted in the Alumni magazine of the university in 2009:
“In Con Law III we study equal process and due process. He was incredibly charismatic, funny, really willing to listen to student viewpoints—which I thought was very special at Chicago,” says Elysia Solomon, ’99. “There were so many diverse views in the class and people didn’t feel insecure about voicing their opinions. I thought that he did a really good job of balancing viewpoints.”
    Obama was the target of much criticism and analysis for referring to the Constitution as an "imperfect document" in an interview in 2001.   This interview took place during the time he was still teaching Constitutional Law III at the university.  Recently, I discovered a comprehensive outline of that course online at the University of Chicago website that sheds more light on the president's views (at least at the time) on the foundational document of the United States.

    Apparently the collection of class outlines is not actually intended for the public. (Scroll down on that page and under "Constitutional Law III" you find simply "Obama".)  If you click on "home" at the top, you are asked to enter a user name and password, so it may be that these pages were inadvertently placed outside a firewall.  Indeed, if you enter just the domain name ("http://blsa.uchicago.edu/") you are redirected to "http://uchicagoblsa.weebly.com/" which is the Black Student Law Association home page.  Under the "Current Students" menu, the only selection is "Course Outlines".  Selecting this brings up this page:
Each outline was written by one or more students. The University of Chicago chapter of the Black Law Students Association makes no attempt to ensure the accuracy and integrity of class discussions or coursework analysis as communicated in each outline. The outlines may reflect the personal opinions of their student creators.
    Clicking on the indicated link once again brings up the request for a user name and password, so access to these student outlines is apparently inadvertent as I speculated above.  I would assume this loophole might be closed if this blog post receives any publicity, so I have downloaded the Con Law III document that is the subject of this post, but none others so as not to take undue advantage of this hole in the firewall.

    Now onto the outline itself (here is the link to the PDF file), keeping in mind the disclaimer above ("Each outline was written by one or more students," not by Barack Obama himself.)  After an introductory section called "What is Equality", the outline immediately moves into "II. Slavery and the Constitution."  First, the three direct references to slavery in the Constitution are enumerated.  Then these three points are listed:
(a) Constitution is arguably pro-slavery document - 7 of 15 “influentials” were slaveholding planters.
(b) Document seems to put slavery beyond “national regulation.”
(c) “What precisely is the value of the Constitution and of the concomitant nation that would justify even an extra week’s slavery?”
    It is difficult to know exactly how items (a) and (b) were framed by Professor Obama.  Were these his views?  Or are these just restatements of common observations among those in the legal field about the Constitution? Hard to say.  However, item (c) is a quote from a book written in 1988 by Sanford Levinson, a law professor at the University of Texas.  This fall he is a visiting professor at Harvard.  In 2009, Professor Levinson was interviewed by C-SPAN about his book.  The blurb of the interview says:
Professor Sanford Levinson talked about his book, Constitutional Faith, in which he argues that the U.S. Constitution is worshiped to a degree that it is unhealthy for our democracy.
A book signing and speaking engagement with Levinson just this August was promoted as follows:
In his widely acclaimed volume Our Undemocratic Constitution, Sanford Levinson boldly argued that our Constitution should not be treated with "sanctimonious reverence," but as a badly flawed document deserving revision. Now Levinson takes us deeper, asking what were the original assumptions underlying our institutions, and whether we accept those assumptions 225 years later.
Harper's magazine did an interview with Levinson in June 2012.  Here's the opening paragraph:
The American Constitution has been the subject, just as Thomas Jefferson predicted, of a great deal of “sanctimonious reverence,” especially from American politicians who make comments demonstrating they know little about it. But the Constitution has few more-dedicated critics than political scientist and law professor Sanford Levinson, who has offered the most thorough explanation yet of why it has effectively ceased to be an attractive model to other nations around the world. 
    Obviously I am straying somewhat from the original subject of my post, Barack Obama's Con Law III course.  But as many have tried to do for the last six years, perhaps not often enough, is provide context in which to interpret Barack Obama's actions and beliefs.  Does (or did) Barack Obama see the Constitution as a "badly flawed document deserving revision"?  Since there is no recording of his lectures (that I know of,) we have just this course outline and his other public statements and documents on which to rely.  And from this short section towards the beginning of his course, natural questions arise about what kind of attitude Professor Obama displayed for the Constitution when teaching his students.

    I intend to delve further into the course outline in future posts, as I expect others will also with far more legal and Constitutional law background than I possess.  Time will tell what other insights can be gained about the thinking of Barack Obama through this newfound document.

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