Law professors utilize the Russia probe in class

March 23, 2019

The nearly two-year investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller III, resulting in Friday night news-dump criminal indictments, contradictory statements on live television and flipped witnesses, is an apparent nightmare for the president and his legal team.


To legal ethics and constitutional law scholars at the University of Toledo, it is a “gift that keeps on giving:” An investigation that fuels lesson plans, pulls the do’s and don’ts of lawyering straight from the headlines and acts as one of the best in-class case studies since Richard Nixon and Watergate. 


Professor Llewellyn Gibbons sat at a conference table with an array of news articles in front of him, outlining some of the examples stemming from the investigation that he has used in class. The strewn out line of papers was a testament to just how often the president’s counsel and allies engage in a legal gaffe or ethical violation.


He pointed to an incident in which Trump’s former lawyers, John Dowd and Ty Cobb, had lunch at a Washington, D.C., restaurant and openly discussed sensitive case-related information.  A New York Times reporter happened to be nearby, overheard the conversation and reported on its details. 


Gibbons turned the occurrence into a lesson on upholding and respecting attorney-client privilege and the importance of dark, backroom booths. 


“You have all these practical day-to-day [examples]  just popping up in the newspapers that are relevant to the practice of law” and relevant to legal ethics, Gibbons said. “It just keeps going.” 


Just weeks ago, Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida sent out a tweet threatening Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, the day before he was set to testify on Capitol Hill in part about his cooperation with the special counsel.  


Some experts called Gaetz’ action witness tampering or possible obstruction of justice. Gibbons called it the perfect example of what not to do; He advised members of his class—aspirant members of the legal world—never to engage in that sort of behavior. 


Although he explained he’s pouring out a stream of hot-button issues in front of the class, ones that have already fueled countless books and investigative bombshells, students are not always perking up and taking an interest during lectures. Instead, some are pulling Gibbons aside after his course. 


Students “will grab me in the hallways and say, ‘on the news last night, X did this and it’s unethical. You told us last week you can’t do this, but so and so [close to the president] did this, so what’s going on here?’” 


He added, ever since the election of a former reality television star, he has used examples from the real world, whereas he used to pull ethics scenarios from once-popular shows like L.A. Law, The Practice or Boston Legal. 


Now Gibbons said the antics of the attorneys surrounding Trump serve as the example.


Those “antics” inspired professor Susan Martyn to add an entire new section, “Legal Ethics in the News,” to her Professional Responsibility course.  


“I focus on the conduct of some of the lawyers involved,” Martyn wrote in an email to the Independent Collegian prefacing a list of questions she discusses with her class:


Was Rudy Giuliani, the once seemingly ubiquitous cable news show guest, “acting as a lawyer or a publicist for the president? Why does it matter?”


“What did Michael Cohen mean when he spoke of his ‘blind loyalty’ to the president?”


Professor Rebecca Zietlow references the Mueller investigation in her constitutional law course, but takes a different route than her colleagues. 


“I am currently teaching the students about presidential power,” Zeitlow wote in an email to the Independent Collegian. “We are discussing issues of separation of power related to the special counsel and the extent to which the president must cooperate with court proceedings.”   


Akin to the ethics of seeing it from both sides, Gibbons mentioned possible misconduct on the side of Mueller and his prosecutors (charges some Republicans make). He is waiting for a final report to start making those judgments, but it’s a conversation he plans to have.   


Aside from the lesson plans and contributions to the law school’s marketplace of ideas, Gibbons pointed to a larger implication of the probe and the animus directed toward its findings by some of the most powerful people in the nation: the degradation of the American legal system.  


“We are supposed to support the administration of justice,” Gibbons said. “Throughout this case, we have been tearing down the pillars of justice: the judicial system, the jury system...and the legitimacy of the special counsel and other attorneys.” 


The apparent gravity of the probe, its inner-workings and consequences suggest future students will flip open their law books and names including Trump, Cohen and Mueller will share the pages of prolific supreme court justices, long-held philosophical groundwork and basic constitutional principles. 


“Lessons will be drawn from this period of time probably for the next 25 to 30 years in terms of what people did or should not have done,” Gibbons said. “Litigation from this will be in the case books and students will be studying it.”

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