Tuesday, May 01, 2007

In Perpetuum Rei Testimonium

One of the first indignities a frosh law student must face is the first year Civil Procedure course. While necessary for obvious reasons, Civ Pro generally marks the first contact that the student has with The Law, having to endure a year's-worth of interminably dull material, navigating impenetrable and archaically-worded cases. Usually the first case a new law student reads is the super dense Pennoyer v. Neff, in which they are forced to grapple with all kinds of new concepts and continuously consult Black's Law Dictionary to decipher terms like "quasi in rem", in the often futile attempt to discern the primary import of the case- the stunningly revolutionary concept that a state's jurisdiction does not extend past its borders. (If this seems counter-intuitive because you still had to pay that speeding ticket in Iowa even though you reside in Minnesota, it's because the case was decided before states began passing the so-called "long-arm laws"; laws that were necessitated by Pennoyer.)

And since Civ Pro is also a 1L class, most professors tend to take the approach that the weak must be weeded out. Reading assignments are very long and often the prof will require you to brief all of them. Most classroom time follows the Socratic method; students are "kept on the hook" for long stretches of time, grilled about the details of the cases they read the evening before, the professor never answering questions but merely posing them.

I have many fond memories of my time in law school. None of them originated in Civ Pro.

Oh the memories are there. I had a particularly old, crusty (but actually quite personable outside of classtime) prof who was showing the effects of his advanced age. He missed a fair amount of classes to to one illness or surgery or another. One time he asked me a question about the reasoning in a particular case. I provided what I thought was the complete, comprehensive, concise and correct answer.

"No, I don't think so," he said. "Try again".

So I tried in vain for 3 minutes to find the "correct" answer, feverishly combing the case for the relevant passage. After 3 minutes of silence, and me feeling every eye in the room fixed on my sweaty brow while no "gunner" dared save me, he adjourned the class and told me to come back next time with the "correct answer". At home, I reread the case several times, and was still unable to glean the answer he was looking for. Frustrated and more than a little apprehensive of looking like a turd in front of my entire class again, I did what any future officer of the court might do.

I skipped that class.

Afterward, I asked a friend who did attend what the damn answer was.

It was the exact same answer I had provided in class, and that the prof declared to be wrong. Apparently, because of his advanced age or whatever, he didn't hear me correctly. I couldn't find the right answer because I had already given it, and was looking elsewhere for it.

That professor's name was Judge Donald Lay. He sat on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals for something like 35 years, and he taught overconfident and underexperienced law students Civil Procedure.

And he taught me that in order to be right, you need to speak loudly. So now you know whose fault that is.

Judge Lay died Sunday. He was 80.

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