Peter Sagal’s “Constitution USA” carries Con Law I pop culture assignment

peter_sagal_and_motorcycle_1Invited to experience constitutional law at work in popular culture, to what source are law students likely to turn? Hands down, the answer is Constitution USA, a documentary series by Peter Sagal (right), host of the National Public Radio game show Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! (photo credit) The 4-part Constitution documentary 1st aired on Public Broadcasting Service stations about a year ago, and all 4 episodes remain available for viewing online here.

That availability no doubt helped draw to the series about half the students in my Con Law I class. In order to make up some missed classes, the group as a whole had been assigned to review an instance of constitutional law in American culture, and then to write a 1,000-word reflection paper. A range of possibilities was suggested:

► Audio of the arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. Chosen for review were pending cases like Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Hall v. Florida, Bond v. United States, and Town of Greece v. Galloway, as well as decided cases like Fernandez v. California (2014), Kansas v. Cheever (2013), Fisher v. University of Texas (2013), Virginia v. Black (2003), United States v. Lopez (1995), and Gonzalez v. Raich (2005). Particularly interesting were students’ comparisons of actual arguments to their own moot court experiences – not to mention one student’s concern that in a certain case, a certain advocate had seemed “slightly snarky” in responding to the women Justices.

► Documentaries like Sagal’s Constitution USA, Black/White & Brown (2009), and a 2008 PBS series.

► Feature films. Chosen for review were All the President’s Men (1976), Amistad (1997), and Gideon’s Trumpet (1980).

► Symposia. Chosen for review was a session on “Cybersecurity & National Defense” at a Georgia Law/Rusk Center conference.

► Books by Justices or  about the Court. Chosen for review was Brian Doherty, Gun Control on Trial (2008).

Given those choices, more than half the class watched one of Sagal’s Constitution USA episodes: “Built to Last,” on the how and why of the Constitution’s two-century longevity; “It’s a Free Country,” on the Bill of Rights; “Created Equal,” on the long and winding history of equality in America; or “A More Perfect Union,” on the state-national interplay known as federalism. Students reported that the series brought the Constitution home, helped them see the big picture, put human faces on what in casebooks sometimes seem abstract cases. One said it refreshed fuzzy memories of a Constitution-on-TV classic, ABC’s animated Schoolhouse Rock! (image credit)  (Warming a law teacher’1672s heart, another student wished for “more law” in Sagal’s presentations.)

The makeup exercise brought to many students’ minds the very 1st text-interpreter we studied this semester, Humpty Dumpty. Many students’ papers, moreover,  shared this takeaway: Change takes time, and figuring out how and whether to deal with change are enduring questions of U.S. constitutional debate.

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