The Law School Magazine The New York University School of Law

A View from the Aisle

It is 2004 in a packed classroom on Washington Square, but the students inside are back on the streets of 1930’s Brooklyn.

“Violence, greed, and sex,” Professor Stephen Schulhofer announces to the first-year law students about to embark on a semester in crime, listing the three reasons for illicit behavior.

The class proceeds to dissect the first reading assignment of the course, the 1930 case of People v. Zachowitz. The facts are suffused with two of the three reasons: the defendant shot a man who had insulted his wife. But Schulhofer quickly dispatches any misapprehension among his 120 would-be Ellenor Frutts or Jack McCoys that studying criminal law will resemble a season of The Practice or Law & Order.

“The purpose of criminal law,” he says, “is to take highly charged, volatile social dynamics and impose systematic rules so that society’s responses to its worst impulses, to violence, greed, and sex, are predictable, consistent, and fair.” Criminal law, explains Professor Schulhofer, is the study of the relatively detailed, technical rules society has developed to control crime, to satisfy social demand for punishment, and to control the government’s response to crime. Criminal law may start off sounding intrinsically interesting because of the powerful emotions involved, but its purpose is to reduce those emotions to abstractions in the pursuit of justice.

So, rather than discussing how angry, indignant, or outraged Zachowitz was when he pulled the trigger, the class debates whether the trial court should have admitted evidence of the defendant’s gun collection to show his propensity to commit the crime. They also analyze Judge Cardozo’s decision overturning the conviction and delineating the rules for admissibility of evidence showing dangerous disposition. Passion nonetheless finds its way into Schulhofer’s classroom in the voices of students hashing out the precepts of the basic rule of evidence that determines admissibility by weighing probative value against unfair prejudice. Along the way they discuss the types of evidence relevant to a defendant’s mental state, why a defendant is allowed to introduce character evidence when the prosecution is not, and why criminal law focuses on acts and not character.

As much as Schulhofer emphasizes the need to divorce criminal law from the passions that underlie criminal conduct, his students’ enthusiasm is undiminished as they swarm the lectern after class to continue the debate. Criminal law’s roots in our primal emotions and its centrality to the purpose of government is plainly sufficient to sustain law student fascination with the course, and to beckon a good number of NYU law graduates into the field.