Building community despite political differences
After President Donald Trump was elected into office, Marc Spindelman, Isadore and Ida Topper Professor of Law, found himself along with Professor Terri Enns in conversation with a group of students interested in careers in public life. These students, diverse in their political outlooks, wondered what impact the new Trump administration would have on substantive law and what those changes would mean for the legal landscape they would soon face, as both citizens and as lawyers.
Inspired by this conversation, Spindelman’s Autumn 2017 course, The Rule of Law in the Age of Legal Change introduced students to ideas about the rule of law and various policy changes being advanced by the Trump administration across a range of fields, including immigration, healthcare, the environment, education, consumer finance, and policing. In addition to hearing from national guest experts, including members of the Moritz faculty, students worked with local community partners and in small groups to plan public educational programming designed to teach the community at large about various legal reforms in areas they were interested in and studying about.
“The 2016 Presidential election made clear how alienated many in the public had become from our legal institutions and the rule of law ideals that undergird them and guide them and their governance rules,” Spindelman said. “At the same time, the 2016 election underscored the ongoing challenges and importance of getting people to talk and work with one another across their political differences toward shared community ends.”
Jay Payne ’18, former president of Law School Republicans, enrolled in the course to better understand the legal structure that often frames more contentious policy and political discourse. After the 2016 election in particular, Payne said he noted that political viewpoints, including his own, were at times criticized without deeper dialogue. As a result of his experience in the course, he said he feels more comfortable participating in difficult conversations about politics.
“I observed how people’s guards can be gradually lowered when they feel understood and respected,” he said. “Employing empathic listening techniques when emotions run high is not easy to teach in a classroom or apply in your personal life. I tried to catch myself from merely responding or trying to prove a point, instead of expressing a sincere desire to understand.”
Payne, who has a background in environmental engineering, was partnered for the class with the Ohio Farm Bureau. He observed ongoing efforts by state officials to address pollution and wastewater runoff contributing to toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie.
“Professor Spindelman’s inclusion of conservative and liberal speakers, class reading, and class conversation helped me better understand the fundamental discussions that our government leaders face,” he said. “I felt this course facilitated an honest and emotion-filled conversation about law, policy, and politics that I found lacking within my legal education.”
For 3L Matthew Diowatt, who was partnered with the Columbus-based nonprofit Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed, the course was an opportunity to learn from stakeholders with different points of view. Diowatt, who is also currently earning his master’s degree in environmental and natural resources at Ohio State, hopes to eventually work in climate change policy.
“The issues we talked about and discussed were incredibly complicated and there’s no silver bullet for them,” he said. “Working through that complexity requires working vertically and horizontally through institutions and various community stakeholders who are actually being affected by the policies and forming inroads so that they can speak to one another.”
As part of her community placement with Rubén Castilla Herrera, an organizer involved with grassroots movements like Central Ohio Worker Center and the Columbus Sanctuary Collective, Brooke Mangiarelli ’18 became immersed in the story of Edith Espinal, who has been in sanctuary at the Columbus Mennonite Church since 2017 to avoid deportation to Mexico. Mangiarelli shadowed meetings with between church officials and Espinal’s family and observed local protests against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well.
“It was really unique to see how the new immigration policies were impacting families rather than reading about it in a textbook and answering questions in a lecture hall,” said Mangiarelli, now an associate Bricker and Eckler LLP. “I got some really incredible, unique experiences out of that, which ultimately inspired me to get more involved with immigration law and to do pro bono immigration work.”
Guest speakers throughout the semester included Chad Readler, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Civil Division, U.S. Department of Justice; Michael Cannon, director of health and policy studies at the Cato Institute; Megan Ceronsky, former Special Assistant to the President and Associate Counsel to the President during the Obama administration; Timothy Jost, a former professor at Moritz; and Marbre Stahly Butts, Director of Partnerships at Law for Black Lives. Moritz faculty who shared their expertise included Professors Amna Akbar, Cinnamon Carlarne, Ric Simmons, and Chris Walker.
“The time seemed right to develop a new kind of law school course, one that would not only introduce students to a range of contemporary legal developments but that would also give them a chance to work with and across their viewpoint differences to engage and educate the larger community about the rule of law and the institutions, laws, and policies that give shape to the qualities and directions of our lives,” Spindelman said. “Law students, I knew, could make a difference in the communities that we all live in by sharing what they were learning about the rule of law, substantive policy, and the power of conversation—both talking and listening. In truly remarkable ways, the students in this course turned the learning they were doing into a rich source of community-empowerment and community-building.”