Course Spotlight: Federalism

The Notre Dame Law School has long pursued excellence in Constitutional Law, and more broadly, in the field public law—the law that regulates the structure of government and its relations with individuals and foreign nations.  The Law School’s Program of Study in Public Law provides a foundational course of study for students interested in government lawyering, judicial clerkships, criminal justice, constitutional litigation, administrative regulation and adjudication, public policy, and many other public law fields.

Among its many offerings in public law, Notre Dame’s Federalism Seminar has provided a unique capstone learning experience for many students.  This course explores the history, political theory, and judicial doctrine surrounding the relationship between the federal government and the states in the U.S. federal system.  The course considers issues of federalism as they arose during the Founding of the Constitution through Reconstruction, as well as during other important moments in U.S. constitutional history, including in the New Deal and Civil Rights eras.  Along the way, students extensively examine the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court on federalism.  Students participate in weekly discussions on course topics, and prepare a substantial research paper on the question in the field.

Professor A.J. Bellia—who teaches the course and who authored Federalism (Aspen 2011), the first casebook on U.S. federalism—aspires to use the course to teach first-rate lawyering.  “A primary goal of the course, no doubt, is to help students understand the origins and development of the U.S. federal structure.  This is our heritage—and the system in which all lawyers in the United States continue to operate.  We should appreciate its rich history and complexity.”  At the same time, he explains, the material provides unique opportunities for students to develop their lawyering skills.  “In the realm of federalism, courts have relied heavily on primary historical sources and principles of political theory. In this course, we typically read the primary sources before we read the cases.  In this way, we examine the history and theory of federalism both for the sake of learning it, and for the sake of considering its legal relevance.  Along the way, we learn a great deal about the kinds of arguments that lawyers make in disputes about the meaning of enacted laws, and what are the most effective ways of refuting such arguments,” says Bellia.

The goal is simple—to help our students take a large step forward on the path toward becoming more knowledgeable and skilled advocates.” 

Federalism is one of many small classes in the field of public law in which Notre Dame students interact closely with their professors and with each other.  Such courses, according to Professor Bellia, “are an important catalyst for our students’ success in public law.”