PLSC 304: Contemporary Legal Issues

In this course, we will consider five contemporary legal issues from an interdisciplinary perspective.  Incorporating legal analysis, social science, literature, biography, film, social theory, and philosophy, we will study the following issues:  capital punishment, affirmative action, campaign finance reform, international law, and civil liberties after 9/11.

Learning Outcomes:

Students will:

1. Demonstrate critical thinking, writing and research skills with respect to the most significant legal issues in American and international law.

2. Demonstrate knowledge of the theoretical and philosophical approaches to legal questions.

3. Apply theory to specific legal questions and issues.

Required Texts:

Three copies of a course reader are on reserve at the library.

In addition, the following books should be purchased:

  • Truman Capote, In Cold Blood, Vintage Books
  • Louis Pojman and Jeffrey Reiman, The Death Penalty: For and Against, Rowan & Littlefield
  • Christopher Edley, Jr., Not All Black and White, Hill and Wang
  • Anthony Corrado, Beyond the Basics: Campaign Finance Reform, Century Foundation Press
  • Mark Green, Selling Out, Regan Books
  • Geoffrey Robertson, Crimes Against Humanity:  The Struggle for Global Justice, New Press
  • Stephen J. Schulhofer, Rethinking the Patriot Act: Ideas for Reform, CenturyFoundation Report

General Information:

This course will emphasize critical reading and analysis of the assigned texts.  Class meetings will be a combination of lectures and discussions. Readings should be completed before the class meeting in which they will be discussed. This enables students to get the most out of the lectures and to participate effectively in discussion.

Discussion: During class discussion you are not expected to have fully developed points of view about the course materials, but you are expected to participate. You will be rewarded for trying; you will not be penalized for being wrong or unclear, but it should be clear that you have done the readings and are working toward mastery of the material.

Questions: None of us, myself included, knows everything about the topics of this class. It is our responsibility to ask others who may know the answer, either in class, in office hours, or over dinner. I expect that you are learning the material, not that you know it. As much as possible, try not to be shy or embarrassed about what you don’t yet know. The biggest failure in learning any material, in college or in life, is to fail to ask questions about things you do not know.

Availability: I expect that all of you, either alone or in groups, will contact me throughout the semester. I am almost always available to discuss the course material, or other life issues. Because I maintain an “open-door” policy, you should not hesitate to stop by my office during office hours–or at other times. If you would prefer to schedule a time during non-office hours, simply contact me by phone or email and we will schedule an appropriate time.

Laptops and Cell Phones:  Laptops may not be used is class.  Cell phones must be turned off and put away during class meetings.

Evaluation Criteria:

This is a discussion course.  It follows that the value of our meetings will hinge on your advance preparation and on your willingness to engage the issues actively in class.  When you are doing the readings, keep in mind that you will be expected to participate in the debates outlined in the readings, reject some positions, embrace others, and defend the choices you make.

Grades will be based on the following:

  • Term paper:  25%
    • Outline (5%)
    • Rough draft (10%)
    • Final draft (10%)
  • In-class presentation:  10%
  • Final:  35%
  • Attendance and in-class participation:  15%
  • Online participation:  15%

Term Paper:  Students will undertake research into one of the topics we study, write a term paper, and present their research in class.  Papers should be approximately 3500 words in length and should include research that goes beyond the scope of the course material.

You should start working on your term paper immediately.  On Sept. 16, you will need to hand in an outline, which must be at least 250 words in length and must include a thesis statement.  On Nov. 11, a rough draft of your paper will be due.  The final draft will be due on Dec. 9.

Oral presentation of research will take place on the date that best corresponds to the topic selected.  You should speak for approximately 15 minutes and field questions afterward.  Students who present early in the semester will not be expected to have finalized their research.  Students who present later, should have more definitive conclusions.

Both drafts of your paper must be submitted to as well as in hard copy.  Our password is “legal” and our course ID is 2367628.  Make sure you enter the password in lower case letters.

Final Exam: The final will be an in-class exam.  It will be a combination of short answer and essay questions.  The final will be given on Dec. 16.

Attendance and Participation:  This grade will be measured based on attendance and preparedness (i.e. whether students are prepared to engage in discussion of the reading).  Students who miss more than one class will automatically suffer a deduction of one-third of a grade (e.g. a B+ becomes a B).  Students who miss more than two classes will suffer a full grade deduction (e.g. a B+ becomes a C+).

Online Participation:  After our in-class meeting, class discussions will migrate online to Blackboard.  There will be a wiki posted each week, with discussion questions from the previous week’s reading.  Each week, students must post at least 250 words in response to these questions and/or to the responses given by classmates.  Students will receive feedback on their online participation, with a “3” designated excellent participation, a “2” designating adequate participation, and a “1” designating less than adequate participation.

Schedule of Meetings and Required Readings:

Sept. 2-Sept. 23: Capital Punishment

Sept. 2: Introduction

film: Kristof Kieslowski, Killing

Sept. 9:  All articles in the Reader

Sept. 16: Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (entire)


Sept. 23: Pojman and Reiman (entire)

Sept. 30-Oct. 21:  Affirmative Action

Sept. 30:  Rosh Hashanah (NO CLASS)

Christopher Edley, pp. xi-73, Amy Gutmann, pp. 106-138 in the Reader

Oct. 7: John McWhorter, vii-xv, 164-183, 224-238 and Michael Lind, pp. 1-15, 97-216 (both in the Reader)

Oct. 14: Edley, pp. 74-177 and all remaining articles on affirmative action in the Reader

Oct. 21-Nov. 4:  Campaign Finance Reform

Oct. 21: Corrado, Beyond the Basics: Campaign Finance Reform (entire), “The Pull of Money,” (Reader)

Oct. 28: Mark Green, Selling Out, pp. 1-104; Savage, ‘High Court Upholds most of Campaign Finance Law’ (Reader); ‘Excerpts from ruling on the Campaign Finance Law’ (Reader); Corrado, ‘A History of Federal Campaign Finance Law,’ pp. 27-35 (Reader); Federal Election Campaign Acts, 1971, 1974, 1976, pp. 52-57 (Reader); Ortiz, ‘Constitutional Restrictions on Campaign Finance Regulation,’ pp. 63-66 (Reader); Buckley v. Valeo, pp. 67-77 (Reader), ‘The Reform Debate,’ pp. 95-120 (Reader)

Nov. 4: Green, pp. 147-288, all remaining articles in the Reader

Nov. 11-Nov. 25:  International Law

Nov. 11: All articles in reader and Robertson, pp. xxi-xxxiv, 1-97


Nov. 18: Robertson, pp. 151-302

Film: The Trials of Henry Kissinger

Nov. 25: Robertson, pp. 346-392, 427-536

Dec. 2-Dec. 9:  Civil Liberties after 9/11

Dec. 2: Schulhofer, The Enemy Within (entire),‘Assessing the New Normal,’ (entire), Ashcroft, pp. 3-8 (Reader), and Summary of the Patriot Act, pp. 19-24 (Reader)

Dec. 9: All remaining articles in the Reader




The Department of History and Political Science mandates that all submitted work adhere to the Turabian/Chicago style delineated in Kate Turabian, et. al., A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, University of Chicago Press (available at the Wilson Library Reference Desk). Here you can find a quick and useful guide to the Turabian/Chicago style for citations.


  1. One seat space between students when possible.
  2. No bathroom breaks except in the case of illness or emergency.  Student should discuss this circumstance with the proctor prior to the start of the exam.
  3. No materials on the desk except for pens/pencils, bluebook or writing paper and exam.
  4. Under no circumstances can students access electronic devices during the exam.
  5. Exam proctors will note any violation of these rules and those will be considered in the final grade.


Your work will be evaluated according to the following criteria:

A— designates work of extraordinarily high quality; reflects unusually thorough and comprehensive understanding of issues at hand; presents a clearly identifiable thesis and argument that demonstrates cogent and creative development and support of ideas.

B— designates work of high quality; reflects clearly organized and comprehensive understanding of issues and hand; presents substantive thesis and argument with evident development and support of ideas.

C— designates work which minimally meets requirements set forward in assignment; reflects some organization and development of ideas, but develops argument in superficial or simplistic manner; may only address part of the assignment or be otherwise incomplete.

D— designates work of poor quality which does not meet minimum requirements set forward in assignment; demonstrates poor organization of ideas and/or inattention to          development of ideas, grammar, and spelling; treatment of material is superficial and/or simplistic; may indicate that student has not done reading assignments thoroughly.

F— designates work that does not meet ANY of the standards set above or which is not handed in.


Plagiarism is a prevalent but highly unethical practice. Plagiarism will result in the immediate failure of this course and disciplinary action which could lead to expulsion from the University. If you are having problems in the course, please come and talk to me about it rather than doing something that could put your entire college career in jeopardy.

Plagiarism includes, but is not limited to the following:

·The direct copying of any source, such as written and verbal material, computer files, audio disks, video programs or musical scores, whether published or unpublished, in whole or part, without proper acknowledgment that it is someone else’s.

·Copying of any source in whole or part with only minor changes in wording or syntax, even with acknowledgment.

·Submitting as one’s own work a report, examination paper, computer file, lab report or other assignment that has been prepared by someone else. This includes research papers purchased from any other person or agency.

·The paraphrasing of another’s work or ideas without proper acknowledgment.

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