I would describe myself as one of those rare law school nerds who enjoys every class, but this semester I am particularly captivated by Constitutional Law taught by Professor Derrick Bell. Professor Bell is widely known as a scholar, activist, and teacher. His unique approach to teaching, the participatory learning method, aims to have students master constitutional law by grappling first-hand with current, controversial issues.
As “Justices” in the “Court of Bell,” we engage in simulated oral arguments based on pending constitutional cases or interesting hypothetical scenarios.
Recently, I had the opportunity to argue for Petitioner in Graham v. Florida, an actual dispute before the U.S. Supreme Court. In preparing my argument I researched how Professor Bryan Stevenson developed similar arguments for Petitioner in Sullivan v. Florida.
At issue in both cases is the constitutionality of a life without parole sentence imposed on a juvenile, non-homicide offender. I specifically volunteered to argue Graham in the Court of Bell because as a former middle school teacher, I was outraged to discover that states may issue life sentences to children as young as 13. I believe that juveniles should be treated differently than adults in criminal sentencing.
The Court of Bell was not going to be convinced by an appeal to emotion, however. So, I argued that Terrance Graham’s sentence is unconstitutional because it violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. During my oral argument I incurred the diligent questioning of 72 Justices. One asked, “Why should we expand the gross proportionality standard and apply it to non-death penalty cases?” Another inquired, “Should the fact that the United States is one of the only countries left in the world to impose juvenile life sentence be persuasive on this Court?”
Unfortunately, the Court of Bell was not convinced by the legal arguments I advanced. The next day, many Justices expressed in their written opinions a fear that a categorical ban against such a sentence would take too much power away from the states. The U.S. Supreme Court will actually decide the question this spring. In the meantime, I look forward to the other constitutional issues the Court of Bell will hear.