30 October 2009

Get a License or Else!

The lawyer plays a central role in many of my classes. In my Introduction to American Law class, we learn what it takes to become a lawyer. What I generally do not cover is this questions: What happens to people who practice law without a law license? Usually cases dealing with this question involve instances where one is actually engaged in the practice of law is questionable. Put another way, we are usually not talking about someone who shows up in court pretending to be a lawyer. Normally, we are talking about non-lawyers offering services, such as drafting wills or trusts, that are legal in nature. One company in Ohio recently found out what happens when one crosses the line between simple consulting and the practice of law. The Columbus Dispatch has more.

29 October 2009

A Peek Inside the Court

During a recent visit to the University of Alabama, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clearance Thomas gave UA law students and audience members a glimpse inside the otherwise secretive decision making process of the Court. As students in most of my courses learn, appellate arguments in the United States usually involve judges asking the lawyers of both parties numerous questions. A typical hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court looks more like an question and answer session than an argument being presented by lawyers. But according to Justice Thomas, this Q&A is at best unnecessary and at worst downright bothersome. The Associate Press reports:
Thomas - who hasn't asked a lawyer a question during arguments in nearly four years - said he and the other eight justices virtually always know where they stand on a case by reading legal briefs before oral arguments.

"So why do you beat up on people if you already know? I don't know, because I don't beat up on 'em. I refuse to participate. I don't like it, so I don't do it," Thomas said during an appearance before law students at the University of Alabama. . . .

Thomas scoffed at the idea that the justices try to use questions to influence the opinions of fellow members of the court. "All nine of us are in the same building," he said. "If we want to sway each other we know where we are. We don't need oral arguments to do that. It doesn't make any sense to me.

The Tuscaloosa News has more on Justice Thomas' visit.

27 October 2009

Still On The Books

Fresh on the heels of our discussion in my course "The Law and Social Change" comes this piece from the First Amendment Center in the United States:

Watch your language out there, because profanity and blasphemy could lead to criminal charges. We might hope that First Amendment-protected free speech lets us utter profanities, blasphemies and other choice phrases that occasionally slip from our intemperate tongues. After all, the U.S. Supreme Court protected a man who wore a jacket into a Los Angeles County Courthouse bearing the words "Fuck the Draft." That led to the famous Cohen v. California (1971) ruling in which Justice John Marshall Harlan — a conservative during the Warren Court years — uttered a phrase that has become First Amendment lore: "One man's vulgarity is another's lyric." But hold on. Yes, in a free society adult citizens outside of special contexts (jobs, military, school) can speak their minds in the open air. But if you think old laws punishing profanity and blasphemy no longer exist, you're wrong — a surprising number of state laws still prohibit such speech. Even though the laws are rarely enforced, they are still on the books.
You can read more here.

20 October 2009

Welcome Back and Congrats to Medical Marijuana Users

After a long break, I will resume posting topics of interest to students in all of my classes on this blog. I'd like to start by revisiting a topic familiar to former students, and one that should be of interest to students in any of my classes where we discuss some aspect of the United States Government. As I wrote back in summer of 2008, medical marijuana users in states like California, where the use of pot for medical reasons was made legal under state law, were put in a bind several years back when the U.S. Supreme Court said that the federal government could arrest and prosecute people for using marijuana, a practice the Bush Administration was in favor of, because it violated federal law. Put another way, the use of medical marijuana was legal under state law but illegal under federal law. What was a medical pot user to do?

Unless you have been in a cave for the past year, you know that there has been a sea change in Washington D.C. with the election of President Obama, and it appears that this change is even reaching the medicinal pot users. How so? Well, the Department of Justice (the federal office responsible for enforcing the federal anti-pot laws) recently decided that the limited federal law enforcement resources may be better spent going after real criminals instead of people who are doing something perfectly legal under their state's law. They will no longer enforce federal law against medicinal pot users in states where the use of medical marijuana is legal.

For those new to this blog and/or this topic, this issue really illustrates: 1) how state and federal governments can have different laws, 2) how the laws can sometimes conflict, and 3) how a change in government can make a huge difference, among other things.