Laying Down the Law

Peter Bower’s course offers legal lessons in an environmental context

By Sherry Karabin

For the past 20 years, Barnard’s Environmental Law, Policy and Decision Making course has enabled students to sample the profession of law, teaching them everything from legal research to understanding the litigation process. Created by Environmental Science Senior Lecturer Peter Bower, the course teaches basic civics, legal writing, and legal process—all within the context of the environment. “Students are taught to read and brief a case, which is something that is not taught in the first year of law school, yet students are expected to know how to do it,” explains Bower.

Bower received his PhD in geochemistry from Columbia University and holds an MA in geology from Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY), as well as a BA in geology from Yale. He has been teaching since 1981, and lectured during summer sessions at Columbia as an assistant professor in geology from 1981 to 1994. He started teaching at Barnard in 1986 in the department of environmental science; he served as its chair from 1990 to 1993.

From 1988 to 1996, he held a variety of positions in the township of Teaneck in Bergen County, N.J.—environmental commission member, planning-board chairman, councilman, deputy mayor, and mayor. Bower says his years in municipal government taught him an important lesson. “Whether we were negotiating contracts or starting a recycling program, it involved the law,” he declares. “I learned a lot about law, and out of that experience, I decided to teach an undergraduate law class.”

The course was an immediate hit, gaining and maintaining popularity shortly after it began in 1993. Today the average class size is between 30 and 40 students. It’s offered in the spring and open to both Barnard and Columbia students. (A substantial number of Columbia students attend, but the majority who enroll are from Barnard.)

Since environmental law got underway prior to the digital age, everything was initially done with paper and books, he explains. Although technology has made the research aspect much faster, the class is still designed to cover the same nuts and bolts. First up, a lecture explaining why undergraduates should study law, followed by exercise #1, “Legal Research and the Use of the Columbia Law Library” taught by attorney Dana Neacsu, who is also a reference librarian at the Arthur W. Diamond Law Library at Columbia Law School. In addition to teaching the first class exercise, she also instructs the class for about a third of the semester, and is author of one of its required textbooks, Introduction to U.S. Law and Legal Research.

“I teach the more technical aspects of the law and Peter, who’s not a lawyer, teaches more of the policy aspects,” says Neacsu. “I give the students research exercises that show them where to find answers. They used to go to Columbia’s law library to do the work but now it is a combination tour of physical and digital resources,” she adds. “Today students must be digitally literate to work in the field.”

The research component covers a wide array of topics such as legal citations, differences between statutory, case, and administrative law, the use of indexes to locate secondary sources, and how to identify the correct primary sources.

“Most importantly students learn how to write briefs of cases, research precedent for cases, and research statutes, the Code of Federal Regulations, and the cases that help define the statutes and Code of Federal Regulations,” says Bower. “One of their first assignments is to pick an environmental case not discussed in class, write a brief and research its precedent, and find another case that is cited in the first one and describe how it was used and brief that case as well. So they learn legal writing, briefing, and precedent.”

Throughout the course, the students focus extensively on the Endangered Species Act, which is “dissected,” Bower says, as the class is taught how to read a statute and discover its meaning. “For example, the Constitution says you have the ‘right to keep and bear Arms,’ but you really don’t because those rights have been modified by case law. To really know what it says you have to look at the case law around the specific right, and it is the same with a statute.”

In keeping with his municipal roots, Bower asks students to read A Civil Action, by Jonathan Harr, which details the lawsuit filed by Woburn, Mass., residents who sued W.R. Grace & Co. and Beatrice Foods Co. alleging they had been poisoned by toxic well water. “We ask them to play the role of the attorney for Woburn and write a memorandum of law for the city council to review that answers the question, ‘What is the feasibility of filing a public nuisance intentional tort against the companies asking for an injunction and damages?’ They have to be thorough in their research to help the council decide whether [the plaintiffs] can show harm and causation.”

A key part of the course is learning and becoming adept in the use of legal language, such as what is relief and what are the differences between compensatory and punitive damages? At the start of the course, students are instructed to read cases three and four times, at first identifying and looking up new terms and later being able to synthesize the meaning of the whole opinion in one reading, since as Bower points out, there are always new terms, and you can’t assume you know what something means. Quizzes are frequent. Other discussions range from the legal ramifications of current events to those designed to flesh out the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution.

About one third of Bower’s students envision a future career in law when they begin. “I have created a few lawyers over the years. Some of my students have gone on to work for the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Justice’s environmental crimes section.”

Kedari Reddy ’94 is one such success story. Prior to taking Bower’s class in 1993, she says she was planning to get a graduate degree in environmental science or public health. “The class showed me that I could integrate policy, law, and science, which seemed much more holistic and it made me stop and say this could be an intriguing career path,” says Reddy. Instead of heading to graduate school, she took a job as a legal assistant at Bivona & Cohen in New York City to test the waters further. “I worked in the environmental law group. The firm had environmental lawyers, scientists, and geologists on staff which clinched my decision to enroll in law school at Rutgers.” Today she serves as director of the office of environmental compliance assessment at the New York City Department of Transportation, a job she secured after more than eight years as assistant regional counsel at the EPA. “Thinking about it, I would have to say that without the class I probably never would have gone to law school.”

Kelly Ann Taddonio ’10 was a political-science major when she walked into the classroom in 2009. “I had been thinking about law school and it was a great way for me to see if it was something I could be more serious about.” The work not only convinced her to apply but also helped prepare her for what was ahead. “On the first day of law school, I was one of the few people that had seen an actual published case,” Taddonio says. “It is really hard to get an internship in the legal field (before law school). For me, the class served the same purpose.” Now 25 and a graduate of Seton Hall University’s law school, she is a law clerk at Hantman & Associates in New York.

Samantha Roberts ’10 made a different choice. While she was contemplating law school when she took the course in 2010, she opted to forego a legal career and is now working on her PhD in atmospheric sciences at Stony Brook University on Long Island. “The course was very helpful in terms of developing critical thinking skills and I think it was a good glimpse of what it would have been like in law school,” says Roberts. But after working as a legal assistant, she says she realized the law was not for her. In school she had been pursing a major in environmental science with an emphasis in environmental policy. “Meteorology was something that I always wanted, that is why I chose to go the environmental science route, and decided to stay on the research path versus having an office career.”

Although the class does not always produce future attorneys, Bower does promise students will leave with tools they can use throughout their academic careers and beyond. “We try to encourage first- and second-year students to sign up because it completely changes their ability to do research,” which he says improves all their coursework. “It can also help them buy a house or go through a divorce,” says Bower. “The law is everywhere.”

Latest IssueSpring 2021