Agricultural law course makes students firsthand witnesses to the law in action

Date posted: August 12, 2010

Ron Campbell, a lecturer in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, believes that exposing students to the law is one of the best ways to teach it.

Photo by Marc Hall

Ron Campbell (left) and his students recreate a famous trial at the N.C. Supreme Court.

That’s why his new course, Advanced Agricultural Law (ARE 495), doesn’t take place in a classroom. Instead, the 21 students enrolled in the spring seminar experienced law firsthand at places like the North Carolina Supreme Court and Central Prison in Raleigh.

This is the first year of a three-year trial for the new course, and at the end, Campbell said he hopes to have demonstrated the value of real-life, hands-on learning.

“We’ve had extraordinarily strong experiences in which students are not only learning procedure but also learning about life,” Campbell said.

A former attorney, Campbell stresses the value of witnessing the law “in action” in order for his students to fully understand it. They’ve watched a trial at the Federal Court in Raleigh, walked down death row at Central Prison and toured the Campbell School of Law. Campbell also took a van full to Washington, D.C.
But it wasn’t all field trips.

After each outing, the students were required to write a three-page paper detailing its significance. They also wrote research papers throughout the term using a thick volume of general statues and delivered presentations on their findings.

“It’s critical that they fully understand what they’re experiencing and know how to use their resources,” Campbell said.
Just days before a scheduled May visit to the state Supreme Court, Campbell received word that the court had canceled that particular session. But rather than drop the trip, Campbell got on the phone with clerk of court Kristy Cameron to develop an alternative learning experience for his students.

In the state Supreme Court chambers, Cameron walked the students through the historic Blanche Taylor Moore death penalty trial, assigning roles and quizzing them on procedure. The students were allowed to sit in the justices’ seats on the bench, as well as act as attorneys for the case.

Cameron gave extensive background on each person involved in the trial, as well as a brief history of the N.C. Supreme Court. She also offered a word of warning to the students investigating their surroundings up on the bench:
“Be careful,” she said. “One of those buttons will have the capitol city police blazing over here before you know it!”
To say that the students love this course is an understatement.

“This is one of the best courses I’ve ever had,” said Ryan Smith, a senior from Warsaw. “It’s helped with my research skills and my presentation skills. … Those things are all part of being a lawyer.”

Adam Speaks, who plans to work for his family farm in Traphill after graduating in December, said, “I learned a lot about farm law and business law from this class. It’s not just for students who want to be lawyers.”

In fact, the course is open to any N.C. State student, because as Campbell says, “cross-pollination among disciplines makes for richer experiences.”

Campbell said that the format of the research writing course keeps his students on their toes.

“Even if I had 60 students, I’d call on 45 of them,” he said. “In a seminar class, they know to be prepared.”
Their meetings on campus take place in the student senate chambers, and Campbell receives no compensation for teaching the experimental course.

But fueled by the early success of the course, Campbell is steadfast in his goal to make it permanent.

“It’s not textbook,” Campbell said. “Everything is practical, hands-on, so then the law has meaning.”

— Suzanne Stanard

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