On a recent Friday morning at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Assistant Professor of Law Jessica Roth asked her class to consider these questions: Is it moral to imprison an elderly or ill criminal? Does punishing the insane serve a purpose? Is it ever justifiable to kill an innocent person to save your own life?
“I’m trying to test your intuitions about possible defenses,” said Roth.
Those intuitions proved uncanny as the group of 18 students—all undergraduates in YU’s Yeshiva College orStern College for Women—engaged in a complex moral and legal debate about the evolution of criminal law, citing case studies that included a murder trial in 19th-century England and the 2009 sentencing of Bernard Madoff. During the fall semester of the yearlong course, titled “Dispute Resolution and Justice,” the class has grown familiar with a medley of legal terms and concepts that most students don’t encounter until their first year of law school. A rotating cast of Cardozo faculty shares their expertise with the class each week, delving into topics that range from contracts and torts to constitutional law and civil procedure.
“The idea is to give the students a sample menu or tasting of all kinds of different ideas that students in law school grapple with,” said Dr. Edward Stein, vice dean and professor of law at Cardozo. The course was modeled off a highly successful program for medically-minded undergraduates offered at YU’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine last year. The first semester of the Cardozo program mimics the first year of law school, featuring key sessions from a host of foundational classes taught by the same faculty who teach those courses to law school students. In the spring, undergraduates will explore more advanced topics utilizing the vocabulary and analytical skills they have built this semester.
“This program is a wonderful example of the intellectual interaction between our graduate and professional schools and our undergraduate students,” said Dr. Karen Bacon, the Monique C. Katz Dean of Stern College, who approached Stein about a collaboration with the law school last year. “At YU, high-achieving students can expect to have remarkable enrichment opportunities and the program at Cardozo ranks up there with the very best we have to offer.”
“It shows how the administration is looking for different, out-of-the-box and creative ways to enhance our education by making full use of the University,” said Joseph Jarachow, a junior majoring in history at Yeshiva College who commutes each week from the Wilf Campus for the course. “You can tell there’s a lot of thought being put into how our education is structured.”
For Miriam Hier, a senior at Stern College who is in the process of applying to law schools, the class has been a revelatory experience. “You think of law school as being so difficult and so intimidating, and these are topics that are just not taught at the undergraduate level, so I never would have known if I could do it or not,” she said. Though the classes are tailored for an undergraduate audience, exposure to legal thinking and real case studies has provided Hier with the confidence to tackle them on the graduate level. “I realized, ‘Wow, I am capable of this.’ It was a determinative moment in my decision to pursue a career in law.”
At Cardozo, Roth typically teaches upper-level courses on evidence and white-collar crime in addition to the first-year course on criminal. Her class for the “Dispute Resolution and Justice” series explored first principles of criminal law and problems that arise in the interpretation of contemporary criminal statutes. “This program forms a bridge between the undergraduate colleges and the law school to give students a taste of what it’s like,” said Roth. “It was a pleasure to teach a class that was so engaged, prepared and thoughtful.”
“Our faculty loves the energy and excitement that undergraduates bring to the class,” added Stein. “And for students, it’s a great opportunity to experience a part of the institution they don’t normally see. Lawyers are engaged in a very distinct kind of thinking about our society—it’s a very different kind of education than the normal undergraduate experience.”
Jarachow agreed. Like Hier, he is hoping to attend law school but added that he would have enrolled in the course regardless. “The American legal system is something you’re exposed to every day of your life,” he said. “Even if you’re not going to law school, it’s important to be familiar with it.”