A Passion for Justice — and the Lighter Side of Criminal Law
Enroll in a criminal law class with Laura I Appleman and you might just learn a thing or two about American cinema.
“My Cousin Vinny is one of the best criminal law movies ever made,” Appleman said of the 1992 slapstick comedy starring Joe Pesci. Marisa Tomei may have won an Oscar for her role in the film, but Appleman isn’t all that interested in the actors’ performances. She gives the movie a “thumbs up” for what it can teach her students about criminal law and procedure.
A professor of criminal law and legal ethics who joined the College of Law faculty in 2006, Appleman likes to hold an occasional movie night for her students — complete with popcorn and soda. “Throughout the year, I show a mix of old and new movies where criminal law is central to the theme,” she explained. “After the movie, we discuss its criminal law elements.”
Movie night is just one of the ways Appleman stays involved with her students. “Part of my job is to guide students, so I like to do things that are not just classroom-based,” she said. “I was mentored by my professors in law school, and my job is to continue that tradition.”
The daughter of two second-career lawyers, Appleman grew up on the East Coast. She attended the University of Pennsylvania, earning both an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in English. “In graduate school, I studied feminist theory, Victorian novels and race theory,” she said. “I originally wanted to be an English professor, but I soon decided that writing about the disenfranchised and the poor via literature was too attenuated for the real world.”
Following graduate school, Appleman wanted to see how legal practice would suit her, so she spent a year working as a legal assistant at a law firm in Philadelphia. During her time at the firm, she also volunteered for a battered women’s association, helping counsel women scheduled for court appearances. She found great fulfillment in helping others. Appleman’s experiences confirmed for her that she should study law.
Appleman attended Yale Law School, where she focused her studies on civil rights, intellectual history and professional responsibility. She also successfully combined her desire to help others with her literary interests. During her last two years of law school, she worked as book review editor of the Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities. “Law school cemented for me that I should work in the world of ideas, in academia,” she said. “I wanted to bring the tools of narratology to the reading and interpretation of the law.”
Following law school, Appleman was offered a clerkship with Judge A. Wallace Tashima of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. “Being a law clerk is the closest most of us will ever get to being a judge,” she said. “I worked on all types of federal cases. The clerkship really confirmed for me what I wanted to do in life — research and writing.”
When her clerkship ended, Appleman accepted a position with a private law firm in New York City, but within a year she turned her attention back to appeals work. In 2000, she accepted an appellate counsel position with the Center for Appellate Litigation in New York. The job tied directly into her interest in the rights of the disenfranchised and the poor. “My clients were convicted offenders in New York and the Bronx,” said Appleman, who worked to overturn their convictions. “Many of my clients were guilty, but many also did not get a fair trial. Justice should be the same for everyone, but it’s not.
“Maybe my clients had committed crimes, but they also didn’t get a fair shake in life,” Appleman continued. “That made me want to change things. If they had a different upbringing, they might have had a different life. Even when we didn’t win, my clients were grateful someone was finally listening to them.”
During the five years that Appleman worked as an appellate public defender, she argued approximately 50 cases before the New York courts, including the New York Court of Appeals. “The judges were loath to overturn convictions, but I continued to argue my cases,” said Appleman, who orally argued almost every case that came across her desk. In five years, she had three convictions overturned. “That’s an excellent record for appeals,” she said. “When you’re a public defense attorney, you have to get rid of your ego.”
Appleman believes that you must have a desire to help others to work as a defense attorney. She admits to being upfront with her students about her personal biases. “I try to integrate policies of justice and ethics into my coursework,” she said. “In criminal law, these issues come up over and over again. You certainly can’t teach criminal law and procedure without having practiced.”
Appleman made the jump to academia in August 2005, when she took a visiting professor position with Hofstra University School of Law in Long Island, N.Y. She joined Willamette’s law faculty this summer. Appleman is scheduled to teach Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure and Sentencing Reform. She plans to integrate discussions of broader-reaching issues into her core course materials, such as theories of punishment. “In the classroom, we talk of broader issues — not just the law,” she said. “Black letter law you can always look up. I want to teach how our system of justice came about, how it works, if it works.
“I am excited to teach the future generation of lawyers — to imbue them with my passion for justice and teach them the normative values we have in society,” she said.
Appleman said that teaching criminal justice feeds her own research and scholarship. “My main interests are currently the substantive values underlying criminal procedure and sentencing, as well as the intersection of legal ethics and criminal law,” said Appleman, adding that she welcomes dissent on these issues in the classroom. “I always assume that my students and I will have spirited discussions on these topics. I love it when people argue with me.”
Academia also serves as a good meeting point of her two great interests, research and writing. In addition to her more scholarly pursuits, Appleman occasionally contributes to the quarterly law journal, The Green Bag, a collection of short articles and light commentaries on the law. “It’s a place for scholars to toss out creative thoughts,” she explained. “It’s for people willing to take up the fight for good legal writing.”
In addition to submitting work to The Green Bag, Appleman serves on the board of advisers for The Green Bag Almanac & Reader, an annual collection of the best legal writing for the year. “It’s a good reminder that law doesn’t always have to be so formal all the time,” she said. No doubt, Joe Pesci will help underscore that point for her students as well.