Health law hearings offer live case study

Boston-area law schools incorporate health care debate into classrooms

Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Robert Greenwald (center), a professor at Harvard Law School, says more courses are examining “cutting-edge law and policy issues.’’

For Martha F. Davis, a law professor at Northeastern University, the Supreme Court debate on the Affordable Care Act could not have come at a better time: the week before her constitutional law class’s annual mock trial.

Just like the attorneys who duked it out in the US Supreme Court, four students will stand at the front of the class and debate either side of the health care case.

“You’ve got to respond to what people are reading in the paper,’’ Davis said. “When there’s a new Supreme Court decision that relates to what you’re talking about, students are going to have questions about how that fits in.’’


Professors at law schools across the region are incorporating the Supreme Court health care debate into their curriculum, assigning hot-off-the-presses legal briefs for nightly reading and playing audio clips from oral arguments hours after they are recorded in court. Using ongoing cases like this one, they say, propels law classes beyond decades-old case books and into the real world.

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“There’s an increasing number of classes that are really trying to inform, learn about, and discuss cutting-edge law and policy issues,’’ said Robert Greenwald, a clinical law professor at Harvard Law School and director of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation. “It’s a growing percentage of what law school is all about.’’

Harvard Law School’s Federalist Society met in empty classrooms Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons to listen to the audio recordings of the court debate, said the group’s president-elect, Joel Alicea. Munching on pizza and burritos, the students kept quiet as they listened and followed along with the online transcript, chatting about the oral arguments through texting and e-mail.

“People are respectful for everyone else listening in, but we also laughed when something humorous happened,’’ Alicea said. “Justice [Antonin] Scalia and Justice [Elena] Kagan had some very humorous lines.’’

Mark Barnes, Harvard University’s senior associate provost for research, teaches about the Affordable Care Act in two of his classes: one on health care, and the other on federal funding.


For him, it is not a matter of adding a present-day spin to the curriculum. The class would be incomplete, he said, without covering this pressing legal matter.

“For students practicing in this new world of law that looms before us, understanding a major development like this is critical,’’ Barnes said.

And the real-time dimensions of this topic of class discussion mean students often come to the table with plenty of knowledge about the issue.

In years past, Davis said, she has avoided the health care debate in mock trials. She feared that the nuances of the so-called commerce clause - the part of the Constitution that allows Congress to regulate interstate commerce - were too tricky for first-year law students to debate.

“It’s so much in the news, and people are so well-informed,’’ Davis said. “I don’t think it’s going to be too difficult for the students to feel very comfortable getting on top of the issue.’’


In Kevin Outterson’s class at Boston University, “Constitutional Health Care Litigation,’’ which he co-teaches with Abigail R. Moncrieff, the Affordable Care Act is not just a pit stop on the syllabus: The entire two-semester course focuses on the legislation and its path to the Supreme Court.

The primary objective of the class was for students to write four real-life amicus briefs, documents filed on behalf of organizations that are submitted to the Supreme Court to help inform justices’ opinions.

Outterson compared the class to a typical first-year course, in which students read about hundreds of legal cases, each distilled to just a few pages. But this class is different, he said, because students are immersed in one legally contentious issue for an entire school year.

“Unlike many law school classes, this has a real edge of reality to it,’’ Outterson said.

Even more, he said, the legislation’s terms - specifically the clause that allows people under the age of 26 to stay on their parents’ health care policies - have made them very interested in the outcome of the case.

“We had some students who were not just theoretically invested in the law, but have a personal stake as well,’’ Outterson said.

The briefs were due in the middle of January, and many of the students, like second-year Paul Payer, 24,worked on them straight through winter break. He recalled his friends staring at him in shock when he texted a legal citation to one of his classmates while watching a hockey game at Fenway Park.

“That’s ultimately the reason why a lot of law students go to law schools, to be able to take their beliefs and views and apply them to the real world,’’ Payer said.

Martine Powers can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story gave an incorrect job title for Mark Barnes, Harvard University’s senior associate provost for research.