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US legal culture from a European perspective

tour through the history of US law based on the book by Prof. Alan M. Dershowitz, America on Trial, Inside the legal battles that transformed our nation – Summer Term 2006

This is a discussion as part of the context studies for advanced students. Masters students in micro- and macroeconomics and law at the University of St. Gallen are able to take part. The module carries three Credits.

One important reason for holding this teaching module is the fact that in Switzerland we generally have no detailed knowledge of the way in which US law operates or of its significance that does justice to the importance of US law to globalization. In particular we do not know enough about the complex effects of this legal culture. Nor do we have sufficiently developed instruments and institutions in Switzerland for our dealings with it. This leaves us with too little autonomy in our thoughts and actions when developing, expressing and communicating a specifically Swiss or European perspective on US legal culture. This trend has become all the more acute given the growing trend for US legal hegemony in recent years. The most pressing need is to know more about this system of law and its culture.

Against this background, the teaching module tries to evoke interest by representing US legal culture through one of its characteristic phenomena – criminal law. The intention is to encourage students to adopt a comparative perspective to facilitate an analysis of the effect of various possible ways of dealing with US legal culture. The teaching module is intended to take advantage of the interdisciplinarity of its participants. The term culture is understood here in its wider sense. It has a very contemporary slant in that the issue under discussion is how to deal with current US legal culture in the present. A better understanding of the significance of this legal culture is now also professionally relevant for graduates of micro- and macroeconomics.

The vehicle we have selected for this “journey” is the inspiring book by Prof. Alan M. Dershowitz “America on Trial, Inside the legal battles that transformed our nation”. Alan Dershowitz is a one of the most significant criminal law teachers, practicing criminal lawyers and legal theorists in the USA and is well known outside the USA as a Jewish intellectual and writer. He teaches at Harvard Law School.

In this book he succeeds in representing important characteristics of US law across the history of the country and using numerous examples of court cases. The case histories are always presented in their historical context, summarized briefly and commented on by Alan Dershowitz. They are represented chronologically and run from the founding of the USA to the present.

In teaching terms, the module consists of a prepared classroom discussion about the cases described in the book by Alan Dershowitz. The 600-page book will be read in English. The classroom discussion will be held in roles assigned in advance in order to foster increased skills in reflection and cultural understanding in Masters students in a lively and attractive way. The unifying thread throughout is the history of the United States, with windows on some of the leading cases reflecting its life and culture that have led to controversial public debate.

The students will in various roles be writing a summary of the whole book according to a scheme assigned to them.

There will be a video conference in which Prof. Alan Dershowitz is systematically questioned on his book by the lecturer responsible for the module.

That lecturer will also organize the students in an electronic virtual community and undertake a central steering role for the teaching and learning process.

To enhance the enjoyment of the course, there will be an option to see films of two prominent cases that are described in the book by Alan Dershowitz. These will be shown in the lecturer’s seminar room in Zurich. It is anticipated that these will be The Nuremberg-Trial”, with Dr. Dr. h.c. Peter Studer, former editor of the Tages Anzeiger und of the Swiss TV channel DRS as a guest and “To Kill a Mocking Bird”, with film director Fredi Murer as a guest.

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