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Students get first-hand experience exploring major policy issues

May 15, 2018

Students in National Security Law, along with several students from Professor Finkelstein's seminar in Law and Morality of War pose for a...
Students in National Security Law, along with several students from Professor Finkelstein’s seminar in Law and Morality of War pose for a photo with Hon. Thomas Ayres, General Counsel of the US Air Force, in his office at the Pentagon.
As part of the Leo Model Government Service & Public Affairs Initiative, Penn Law faculty offered four policy research seminars during the Spring 2018 semester.

As part of the Leo Model Government Service & Public Affairs Initiative, Penn Law faculty offered four policy research seminars during the Spring 2018 semester. Students and faculty participants in these seminars visited with policymakers, practitioners, and other experts, enabling them to learn about cutting-edge public policy issues. 

“Through the generous support of the Leo Model Foundation, we were thrilled to support a growing number of students and faculty on such a diverse array of field trips this past semester,” said Neta Borshansky, Director of Government Programs.

“These trips allow for real dialogue about the topics discussed in the classroom, inspire students to consider new career paths and uses for their law degrees, and allow our students to forge connections with practitioners that will stay with them as they navigate the legal profession,” she added.

In topics ranging from health law, conviction integrity, Black Lives Matter in historical perspective, and national security, the seminars examined social and policy matters while offering students the opportunity to conduct field research. 

“The policy research seminar initiative gives Penn Law students exceptional opportunities to learn from both our premier faculty and from leading experts in the field about how law helps address some of society’s most pressing problems,” said Cary Coglianese, the Edward B. Shils Professor of Law and the faculty chair of government and public affairs at Penn Law.


Public Health Law and Policy, with Professor Eric Feldman

During the course of the semester, students in Eric Feldman’s seminar focused on urgent issues of law and public health, particularly those involving individual rights and the well-being of an entire community. Seminar students traveled to Washington D.C., to meet with Mitch Zeller, Director of the Center for Tobacco Products, Food and Drug Administration. They also spent time with the FDA’s Chief Counsel, Rebecca Wood.

During the visit, the seminar learned about how Director Zeller’s career came to focus on public health in general along with his attention on tobacco. He explained the evolution of the FDA’s central role in tobacco regulation and how the FDA currently approaches tobacco control while focusing on nicotine reduction.

Chief Counsel Wood spoke with the seminar about her role representing HHS and the rewarding experience she’s had working in the public sector. She also discussed key issues her office faces and the characteristics of individuals who become FDA lawyers.

“Our trip to the FDA was a huge success,” said Professor Eric Feldman. “[Zeller] was an inspiring mentor to the students, and his talk was deeply personal and richly substantive.”

In addition, throughout the semester the students visited with other policy experts and learned about issues such as the Affordable Care Act, guns violence, and the history behind the opioid crisis.  For example, they spent time discussing the opioid crisis with Dr. Jeffrey Hom of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, and they learned about the city’s sweetened drink tax from Joshua Roper, also with the Philadelphia Department of Health.


Conviction Integrity, with John Hollway

Students in John Hollway’s Conviction Integrity seminar examined the causes and consequences of wrongful convictions in the United States. The seminar focused on a systems approach to criminal justice reform for discovering and correcting errors that lead to wrongful conviction.

Students met with Marilyn Mosby, the Baltimore City States’ Attorney, and Lauren Lipscomb, the Chief of the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in Baltimore. The CIU evaluates plausible claims of innocence submitted by currently incarcerated inmates after their conviction. Recently, the Unit exonerated two men and participated in the evaluation and prosecution of police misconduct.

“The students had the opportunity to have a lengthy Q&A both with Mosby, who has been a pioneer of criminal justice reform in Baltimore since her election in 2015, and Lipscomb, who rebooted the Baltimore CIU under Mosby’s guidance,” noted Hollway, Associate Dean and the Executive Director of Penn Law’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice. 

Seminar students also traveled to the Philadelphia Office of Forensic Science (OFS) and met with its Director, Michael Garvey. OFS is nationally recognized for criminal forensic services, including crime scene investigation, fingerprints, ballistics identification, and DNA analysis. Among the many criminal justice policy issues explored in this seminar, students also focused on analyzing ways to design crime labs that can minimize the potential of human and technical errors.


Black Lives Matter in Historical Perspective, with Sophia Lee

In Sophia Lee’s seminar, students studied the history of state-sanctioned violence against African Americans in the United States, including how Black Americans organized and formed alliances against this systemic violence, with a particular focus on the role of legal advocacy in this struggle.  The students dissected how history has impacted, and continues to impact, racial justice and the law today.

The students took a trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, where they learned about contemporary issues of race and policing.  As part of Professor Sophia Lee's Policy Research Seminar, Black Lives Matter in Historical Perspective, the students visited the Smithso... As part of Professor Sophia Lee's Policy Research Seminar, Black Lives Matter in Historical Perspective, the students visited the Smithsonian Museum of African American History.

The seminar builds on the premise that lawyers and law students “cannot understand issues of race and mass incarceration or police violence today without knowing the history that produced them,” Professor Sophia Lee said. “Our D.C. trip gave students an invaluable opportunity to bring that knowledge into conversations with lawyers who are working on these issues today,” she added.  

While in D.C., students also visited with staff from the Advancement Project, a multi-racial civil rights foundation founded by experienced civil rights lawyers to help strengthen social movements. The trip concluded with a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.


National Security Law, with Claire Finkelstein

Examining the perceived tension between rule-of-law values and national security priorities, students in Claire Finkelstein’s seminar focused on core legal and policy issues related to national security. Topics included: the nature of presidential power to protect the homeland; the role of Congress in developing and implementing national security imperatives; the role of the courts in protecting individual constitutional rights; international law and the law of armed conflict; the war on terror and its impact on national security practices; the development of new technologies and the changing nature of warfare; developments in intelligence law and the impact on civil liberty and privacy; and recent developments relating to the militarization of outer space.

Students in National Security Law, along with several students from Professor Finkelstein’s seminar in Law and Morality of War, traveled to Arlington, Virginia, spending a full day at the Pentagon where they met with high-level Department of Defense legal and operational officials to discuss the existing authorization for the use of military force in Iraq and Syra (the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs).  Their visit coincidentally took place on the same day the United States, France, and the United Kingdom launched an air strike against the Syrian government in response to Syria’s use of Chemical weapons.

As members of the seminar and representatives of Penn Law’s Center for Ethics and Rule of Law (CERL), the students assisted Professor Finkelstein in presenting a briefing to the Army JAG Corp’s Operational and International Law Division on the need for a new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) in consideration of the current engagements in Syria and elsewhere.  They were in turn briefed by a representative from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Students also participated in a roundtable discussion with LTG Charles Pede, Judge Advocate General of the United States Army. Students also met with The Honorable Thomas Ayres, L’91, General Counsel of the United States Air Force and former Deputy Judge Advocate General of the Army.

Professor Finkelstein said that “the briefing the student’s conducted for the Operational Law division of the Army JAG Corps engaged at a highly professional level with operational issues that could not have been more relevant to what the Army is grappling with at the moment.”

“Students experienced firsthand how legal and ethical reflection about military engagement can clarify public policy, and how critical such thinking is to many of our public leaders,” she said. “They were also impressed by how open to dialogue our senior military leaders were, and how warmly the students were welcomed. It was a wonderful experience for Penn law students, and it provided a useful perspective for Pentagon officials in reflecting on the legal status of our current military operations in Syria.”