Law School for Everyone: Legislation and Regulation

Course No. 2016
Professor Peter J. Smith, J.D.
The George Washington University Law School
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Course No. 2016
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What Will You Learn?

  • Examine when legislatures should displace common-law tort systems in pursuit of regulatory goals.
  • Understand how courst interpret statutes based on the letter versus the spirit of the law.
  • Explore constitutional questions about how much authority is given to federal agencies like the FTC.
  • Investigate how courts use the "intelligible principle" to judge delegations of authority to federal agencies.
  • Look at how the US legal system uses judicial control as the principle way to keep agencies in check.

Course Overview

When many of us think about the law, we think of a judge wielding a gavel with authority. The truth, however, is that in the United States, laws are more likely to be enacted by a legislature or a regulatory agency than simply announced by a court.

The subjects of legislation and regulation are at the heart of how laws are understood and applied every day. A relatively recent addition to more traditional law school topics like torts and contracts, these subjects are becoming more and more of a mainstay in some of the country’s top law schools. Given the increasingly prominent role of legislation and regulation in today’s national discourse, it’s critical for law students and everyday learners alike to understand how these forms of law govern countless aspects of our lives--including everything from workplace safety to the vehicles you drive to the speed of your internet connection.

With Law School for Everyone: Legislation and Regulation, award-winning law professor Peter J. Smith of The George Washington University Law School makes these vital areas of American law accessible to anyone who wants to know how lawmakers and lawyers navigate their many complexities. Over the course of 12 nuanced and balanced lectures, you’ll get the opportunity to examine a host of topics, including:

  • The nature of regulation;
  • The merits of lawmaking by legislation;
  • The challenge of interpreting statutes; and
  • The role of federal agencies in our legal system.

Along the way, you’ll confront intriguing—and controversial—questions about the letter versus the spirit of the law, how much authority independent federal agencies should have, and when a court or the president should step in to impose their own interpretations. Taken together, these lectures are a guide to how we, as citizens, can make sense of the law so we can comply with it—or challenge it when necessary.

Learn How Legislation is Enacted and Understood

Continual disagreements over the efficacy of legislation and regulation, as well as how they should be applied, can bring out the inner cynic in many of us. In Law School for Everyone: Legislation and Regulation, Professor Smith reveals how a thorough understanding of the legislative process and regulatory system is crucial to resolving disputes over the meaning of the law and the scope of government regulation.

His lectures will introduce you to the skills and concepts that lawyers use every day to operate on this crucial battleground of the American legal system, including:

  • Statutory Interpretation: In a perfect world, the law would give us clear notice of what conduct is permissible and what conduct is prohibited. But quite often, opposing parties come to very different conclusions about what the law says. An 1892 Supreme Court case offers you a fascinating window into how statutes are interpreted.
  • The Letter of the Law: Some scholars believe confining a legal inquiry to a statute’s plain meaning is the only way to ensure judges don’t cross the line between interpretation and policy-making. Relying on the letter of the law requires one to focus on the literal meaning of a law’s text.
  • The Spirit of the Law: Is the best way to implement the legislature’s wishes to have courts read the statute in light of the legislature’s purpose? Judges who focus on the spirit of the law look first and foremost at the intent behind the author or authors of a law’s text.
  • Canons of Construction: Courts have devised semantic and substantive canons for reading statutes. Among the many you’ll explore in these lectures are noscitur a sociis, which refers to how words in a statute derive meaning from the words they’re grouped with, and expressio unius, often used when interpreting statutes that contain lists.

Examine the Nation’s Regulatory Bodies

In order for legislation to control the behavior of the body politic, there needs to be someone to enforce the rules. That’s where regulatory bodies—such as the Federal Communications Commission and the Food and Drug Administration—enter the picture.

Law School for Everyone: Legislation and Regulation covers the authority given to these and other federal agencies. You’ll learn how they work and how courts can balance their authority. Along the way, you’ll get introductions to concepts like the intelligible principle—the standard, set by Congress, designed to guide and limit an agency’s authority—and hard-look reviews—court-conducted reviews designed to focus on the substance of agency decision making.

Throughout these lectures, Professor Smith also tackles questions of constitutional dimension, including:

  • Who should get to decide the meaning of a particular regulatory statute?
  • Do judicial controls on agency policy-making promote reasoned decisions?
  • How do we keep agencies from becoming a veritable fourth branch of government?
  • Is the enterprise of statutory interpretation hopelessly incoherent and unpredictable?

Confront Intricate Legal Issues

Professor Smith is no stranger to teaching concepts of law to our lifelong learners. A previous Great Courses professor, he brings the same real-world experience and award-winning teaching style to this course as he did to his previous lectures.

As a former attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, Professor Smith worked to defend a number of federal statutes in cases that went to the Supreme Court. This vital experience means he delivers these lectures from the position of a practicing lawyer as well as a scholar and teacher.

Who establishes the laws of our country, and how should they be interpreted? These are questions that continue to power today’s news headlines. And with Law School for Everyone: Legislation and Regulation, you’ll find yourself better prepared to answer them.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Making Sense of Legislation and Regulation
    Statutes, unlike judicial opinions, tend to be brief—yet they're packed with meaning. Using a deceptively straightforward law about the use of vehicles in a public park, get an introduction to interpreting legislation and regulation. Should a statute’s plain meaning govern? Should we rely on what can be discerned about the statute’s intent? Or should we give effect instead to what seems to be the spirit of the law? x
  • 2
    Regulation by Statute and by Common Law
    What’s distinctive about legislation as a form of regulation? In this lecture, examine how courts have applied common-law tort and contract principles in order to regulate private behavior and choices. As you’ll discover through an in-depth look at environmental regulation and incentives for car manufacturers, things are rarely—if ever—simple. x
  • 3
    Legislation and the Administrative State
    Compared to most other Western democracies, it's much more difficult to pass legislation in the United States at the federal level. Here, Professor Smith uses the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to unpack how the unique features of the U.S. legislative process affect judicial interpretation of statutes. x
  • 4
    Touchstones of Statutory Interpretation
    At the heart of statutory interpretation: the ability to read a legal text. Learn to do just that by thinking about how less formal kinds of interpretation in everyday life can help you interpret legal texts, and discover how 1892's Holy Trinity Church v. United States highlights the differences and similarities between interpreting legal and non-legal texts. x
  • 5
    The Letter versus the Spirit of the Law
    A central problem related to legislation and regulation is the famous conflict between the letter and the spirit of the law. How do we reconcile the words of a statute with the legislature's apparent purpose? Study the famous 1889 case Riggs v. Palmer and 1967's Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and join the debate for yourself. x
  • 6
    When Is Statutory Meaning Plain?
    Consider just how robust our commitment to the plain meaning of statutes should be. Cases like Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill and West Virginia University Hospitals v. Casey illuminate whether departures from the letter of the law in order to enforce the law's spirit should be exceptions or the rule. x
  • 7
    Semantic and Substantive Interpretive Rules
    Focus on the “canons of construction”: the additional set of background understandings that courts rely on to interpret statutes. McBoyle v. United States, from 1931, helps you grasp the difference between “semantic” canons (generalizations about conventional English language usage) and “substantive” ones (presumptions in favor of a particular set of outcomes). x
  • 8
    How Do Courts Really Interpret Statutes?
    Using the famous case of man charged with distributing LSD, probe whether the enterprise of statutory interpretation is hopelessly incoherent and unpredictable. Also, ponder whether it's possible to articulate a theory of statutory interpretation that explains what courts actually do to resolve disputes over the meaning of statutes. x
  • 9
    Federal Agencies as Regulatory Bodies
    Investigate how the U.S. federal government regulates, and the relationship between this regulation and legislation. You’ll focus on how agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission “enforce” federal law—and whether we should permit Congress to give agencies in the executive branch the power to decide important questions of policy. x
  • 10
    Political Control of Agency Decision Making
    What can Congress do when it doesn’t approve of how a federal agency exercises the power Congress gave it? With this lecture, start thinking about how regulation by federal agencies—in hot-button matters such as immigration law and trade—raises critical questions about political control and constitutionality. x
  • 11
    Judicial Review of Agency Rulings
    In the United States, judicial review by the courts is the principal way federal agencies are kept in check. Professor Smith explains two basic forms of review the courts exercise over agency decisions: ensuring that they're procedurally sound, and ensuring they're well-reasoned and based on appropriate considerations. x
  • 12
    Weighing Agency Interpretations of Statutes
    Examine Chevron v. NRDC, the seminal case on the weight courts should give to a federal agency’s interpretation of a federal statute. Then, take a closer look at two other cases that offer a sense of how courts approach statutory ambiguity—MCI Telecommunications v. AT&T and FDA v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco. Conclude by considering the complicated interaction among legislatures, courts, and government agencies by which U.S. law and policy are implemented. x

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  • 128-page printed course guidebook
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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 128-page printed course guidebook
  • Portraits & illustrations
  • Charts & photos
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Your professor

Peter J. Smith

About Your Professor

Peter J. Smith, J.D.
The George Washington University Law School
Peter J. Smith is the Arthur Selwyn Miller Research Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C. He received his B.A. (magna cum laude) from Yale University and his J.D. (magna cum laude) from Harvard Law School, where he received the Sears Prize for highest academic performance. Before joining the faculty at GW Law, Professor Smith was an attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice,...
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Reviews

Law School for Everyone: Legislation and Regulation is rated 5.0 out of 5 by 3.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Perfect for non-lawyers and lawyers alike Watched this streaming and really enjoyed it. From the title the topic seemed dry, but the course was very interesting. I learned tons!
Date published: 2019-06-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course! I wasn't sure that I'd be interested in this particular topic, but I am interested in the law more generally, and this course turned out to be great. Professor Smith really held my interest with thought-provoking lectures about language and how to figure out what the law means. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2019-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating! I enjoyed the first Law School for Everyone (and Professor Smith's Civil Procedure course), so I thought I'd try this one. Professor Smith did not disappoint. The course is a fascinating look at how courts interpret statutes and a helpful introduction to the administrative state. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2019-06-07
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