Analyzing the Argument of Court Cases

Teenagers are so used to arguing with people; they’d make great lawyers…if only they could better identify the nature of arguments.  To make them better at convincing their parents to stay out past curfew, students need a lot of help getting to the implicit argument.  However, if you are looking for a new way to inspire students to analyze an argument, consider asking them to study court cases.

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One strategy is to provide a series of legal scenarios often provided to first-year law students.  In law school, students are required to examine the legal implications.  However, teachers could adapt these scenarios to make them more applicable in a high school classroom. Have the students read the scenario and consider what the topic is really arguing.  Then, push the students to consider why it is such a significant case and what is truly being determined through the case.  This will help students see the immediate and long-term effects of a topic, while providing some real world applicability.  The murder trial of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, is an excellent case for students to use because the argument is so complex.  It represents a context that is cultural, racial, and socioeconomic.  Encourage students to think about why the defense and prosecutors have such a difficult task in preparing for this case.

Similarly, after studying the fundamentals of a case, ask students to read op-eds and other articles about the case.  The New York Times Topics has a page focused on the Trayvon Martin killing.  Peruse this page selecting sources that you feel best match the grade level that you teach.  Encourage the students to identify what each source is arguing and how each interprets the case. In some cases, the difference might be based on the type of evidence explored or what the article deems as especially important in the trial. This could also be a lesson in audience by providing an op-ed from a different publication and asking students to consider the differences that exist in the way the event is depicted and what can be assumed about each publication because of the argument presented in the articles.

Many times, a case is controversial because of the judge or jury needs to determine a violation that is so objective it is difficult to come to a clear, definitive answer.  Many times, lawyers are forced to rely more on logically developing an argument than actually providing proof.  For example, the current trial that John Edwards is facing accuses him of knowingly using campaign money to silence an unwanted pregnancy.  However, how do you prove he intentionally and consciously made this choice?  This is the ethical gray area to ask students to evaluate.  Encourage them to think of the significance of issue and identify what a lawyer must consider to help prove his/her side.

Finally, any of the above mentioned court cases could be used to examine the consequences of a conviction.  After studying a trial in any of the previously stated suggestions, ask students to then think about what precedent is being set by the court decision.  This, too, will get them to think more about long-term effects and what is really at stake within the trial.

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