Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Rabbit Trails and Exam Writing - A Concrete Tip to Improve Exam Analysis

My dog loves rabbit trails.  Luckily for the rabbits, at least thus far, the trails have never led to rabbits.  

That got me thinking about exam writing and rabbit trails.  

But first, a bit of background...

I find that most bar exam takers who do not pass the bar exam write brilliantly well-organized professional essay answers.  The rules are crisp; the IRAC is polished.  But, in most cases, some of the answers are unresponsive to the fact patterns at hand.  In other words, its as though the fact patterns were irrelevant to answering some of the particular essay questions.  Instead of finding the "rabbits" in the essays, they followed "rabbit trails" leading to no where. And, it's often that way on law school exams too.

Take this summer's first essay question on the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), available free-of-charge at https://www.ncbex.org/July2018Essays.  

The fact problem was set in the world of constitutional law.  As specified in the fact problem, the essay expressly indicated that US Supreme Court had recently found that Congress was within its power under the interstate commerce clause (ICC) to punish marijuana use.  On the other hand, the fact problem indicated that a number of states were (and have) legalized marijuana use both for medicinal purposes and recreational purposes. 

Frustrated by state decriminalization of marijuana, the fact pattern specified that Congress enacted a federal drug abuse prevention statute.  Pertinent to the essay problem, one section of the statute required state law enforcement officers to investigate whether anyone within their custody, even on matters unrelated to controlled substance violations, was under the influence of marijuana and then make reports to the federal government.  The other section of the statute, as specified in the fact pattern, provided that Congress would restrict federal law enforcement grants to states which decriminalized marijuana use.  The fact pattern went on to indicate that a State had recently decriminalized marijuana use and would therefore be subject to a loss of approximately $10 million dollars in annual federal grant money out of a state budget of about $600 million total of state law enforcement spending.  Based on this fact pattern, bar exam applicants were told to analyze whether each of these two statutes were constitutional as applied to this particular state's situation.

Let's deal with the first statutory section - the federal requirement ordering state law enforcement officers to conduct investigations and make reports.  The key to figuring out where to go, i.e., to avoid the "rabbit trail," was to write out a good issue statement, perhaps as follows:

"The issue is whether Congress had constitutional authority when it requires state law enforcement officers to conduct investigations and make reports unrelated to state law enforcement purposes."  

In this fact pattern, there's no issue that Congress did not have the commerce clause power because the fact pattern foreclosed that issue, once and for all, with its initial recognition of US Supreme Court precedent specifying that Congress had the power to regulate marijuana use.  And, if Congress has the power to regulate marijuana use, it certainly has powers related to that under the "necessary and proper" clause.  So, the focus must be elsewhere in answering this problem.  As the issue statement makes clear, it's a federalism issue, namely, whether Congress can force states to do the work of the federal government.  That's a 10th Amendment issue.  In brief, Congress is limited in its ability to commandeer the states, which is precisely what this first section tries to do.  It's unconstitutional, at least in my reading of it.

Let's take on the second statutory section - the federal spending restriction of law enforcement grants towards states that decriminalize marijuana.  Once again, the key is to start with a sharp issue to avoid the "rabbit trails."  Here, we might write as follows:  

"The issue is whether Congress had constitutional authority when - as applied to the state at hand in this fact pattern - Congress cut off a federal law enforcement grant in the amount of $10 million out of a state budget of $600 million in state law enforcement spending."  

Do you see the issue?  It's lurking in the facts stated in the issue statement.  Once again, this is a federalism issue.  There's no issue that Congress can't spend money for the public welfare, particularly because the state in this fact pattern wants to receive the federal grant money.  Rather, the issue is whether these "strings" constitute commandeering of the states by Congress in violation of the 10th Amendment.  One could probably come out either way, but I think that the better answer based on Supreme Court precedent is that spending restrictions to encourage states to enact policies and law that comport with federal law are constitutional as long as states have a real choice as to whether to enact new favorable state laws to the federal government or give up the spending grants.  In this fact pattern, the amount of money that the state will lose as a result of decriminalization of marijuana is only a small percentage of the entire amount that the state spends on law enforcement, which means that the state has a real meaningful choice to take the federal grant and comply with federal objectives or to refuse the federal grant and still have significant state law enforcement funding.  It's constitutional, at least in my analysis.

Despite the fact that this essay problem was centered on federalism issues based on the 10th Amendment, a number of people talked about the commerce clause or equal protection concerns, neither of which were raised by the fact pattern.  I can understand why.  Bar takers have memorized so much law that they tend to put all of the law that they can think of without thinking through the problem first of all, especially because of the time pressures.  But, I have a tip that can help preempt that sort of "rule dump."  It's writing out an old-fashioned legal writing issue statement before beginning to write.

Here's what I mean by an old-fashioned issue statement.  As set out by Ruta Stropus and Charlotte Taylor in their book "Bridging the Gap Between College and Law School," a great issue statement can take on the form as follows:

"The issue is whether [legal subject-verb-object] + when + [material facts]."

Take a look back at my issue statements.  Do I start with the legal issue?  Do I have the legal actor as a noun, a verb, and the legal object, here, as to the unconstitutionality of congressional action?  Do I then add in a handful of hand-picked material facts from the fact pattern?  You bet.  In my own case, if I don't take time to work through crafting such an issue statement, I'm lost in most essay problems.  I just start writing in circles, moving around in "rabbit trails" so to speak, without really understanding the fact pattern at hand or the questions presented in the essay scenario.  In short, I ramble.  

So, whether you are a bar taker or a law student preparing for mid-term exams, take a pause before you begin to write out your essays.  Hunt for some "red hot" material facts to put down in paper as an issue statement.  After all, it's what lawyers do best; they spot issues, the precise issues that are needed for solving their clients' problems.  So, as you learn to think like a lawyer, practice like a lawyer too by taking time out to craft, identify, and precisely specify the exact issues posed in your midterms, final exams, or your bar exam essays.  It's worth the time.  Indeed, you'll be mighty glad because you'll find that you'll avoid the "rabbit trails" found on most essay exams and instead you'll be finding the rabbits themselves. (Scott Johns).

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2018/10/rabbit-trails-and-exam-writing.html

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