I have a confession to make. I am the child of two political science Ph.Ds, both of whom have, in the past, taught courses on political science and bureaucracy. I went to high school in a state that at the time emphasized civics. I aced the American Government AP (no class) by reading a textbook (for fun), cover to cover. And then I majored in Politics where I took government again. So…the civics portion of law school was easy for me. Not just easy—it fell into the part of my knowledge spectrum that I tend to consider ‘common sense’ or ‘everybody knows that’ communal knowledge.
So when a colleague and I were asked to take over teaching an Advanced Legal Research course mid-semester with minimal prep time, I figured that we’d be able to largely focus on how to do research rather than civics. After all, these were second semester 3Ls, about to graduate.
One of the first sessions that we taught was about Florida Legislative Research. Legislative history isn’t a particularly easy topic and in Florida there are some additional complications concerning how to get records because most of the records have yet to be digitized. I didn’t expect that this would be an easy subject to teach—but I didn’t think that one of the hardest areas to cover would be what is, in essence, a civics lesson: how a bill becomes a law.
I first realized that this might be a problem area when I got into an almost comical argument, in retrospect, with my colleague (Florida educated from an early age) about whether there was such a thing as a codified statute. He was absolutely adamant that such a thing was a tautology. I was mystified because it was terminology that I was used to using—statutes were laws; codified statutes were laws that had been incorporated into the code. Of course, in Florida, the state code is titled Florida Statutes, further complicating the question. I don’t know that we ever agreed on the correct terminology (we did agree not to use the word statute outside of Florida Statutes), but it revealed that the precision of the terminology can make a huge difference to clarity of understanding.
If the two of us were confused about what terminology to use, our students were even more confused. Homework answers revealed that a substantial portion of the class was confused about how to cite to a bill, the difference between a bill and a law, what a session law was, and the difference between a session law and a codified law (or possibly statute). Why does this matter? If you don’t know what they’re called and how to recognize one by citation, you won’t know where to look to find the legislative history or where the most authoritative version of a law is.
We ended up reteaching the Florida Legislative history session that failed so spectacularly the first time and we’ve paid more attention to including the civics lessons while we teach the research lessons going forward. The next lesson for our students: while Google is wonderful, Google is not always the most efficient or effective place to find information. Suggestions?