By Karin Mika
On a cold, weekend February day, I was doing my usual weekend thing of running errands and listening to the Moth Radio Hour on NPR. The final story that day was “Love Wins,” told by Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in Obergefell v. Hodges.
Although I was familiar with the case, I knew little about the factual backdrop: that Obergefell was from my home state of Ohio, that the case came about when Obergefell’s partner was dying of ALS, and that even when Obergefell achieved a partial victory by being able to legally marry in one state, Ohio intended to invalidate his marriage, such that Obergefell would not be designated the surviving spouse on his partner’s death certificate. By the time I finished listening to the 15-minute podcast, I was not only crying in my car, but I knew that I had to assign this podcast to my students.
Too often, the study of law disassociates itself from the realities of real life. Law school is an academic endeavor focused mainly on the errors of law in appellate cases. The abridged versions of cases we often see in textbooks give no life to the parties or issues that brought the matter to a court in the first place. The decisions are often quite distant in time and place from the original conflict. Students then become dispassionate about the real people involved and actually become disassociated from the reasons that they came to law school in the first place. Law school becomes about textbooks and studying.
Exposing students to the real stories behind the litigation has the result of re-invigorating student passions and reminding them about how the law can be a tool for social justice and change. The stories are also a reminder that cases are not merely pieces of written analysis that are to be parsed and debated for purposes of ultimately taking a test, but the representation of issues that are part of the day-to-day lives of both ordinary people, and those that find themselves (perhaps reluctantly) part of the legal system. They are about real issues involving real people.
The podcast that so eloquently personalized Obergefell’s situation proved to be an extraordinary teaching tool. Many students commented on how the podcast made them able to personalize various struggles for justice in their own lives, or the lives of friends and family members. They were struck with a fire of passion that I would never have been able to create in a classroom merely by lecture. I believe that this one, 15-minute, podcast might have been the key for many of my students to finally start understanding the big picture of what law is intended to be and how they will fit into that picture. I hope to find many more podcasts of this nature that evoke such passion and inspiration and remind my students that law is all about the people it serves.
Karin Mika is a Professor of Legal Writing at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.