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Webbing the Law

Markus Dirk Dubber, SUNY Buffalo

Tired of using bulky casebooks that don't do justice to your subject?

Me too. That's why, for the past two years, I've been teaching my lecture courses and seminars on criminal law with a website, the Penal Law Web. Even if you're not a criminal law teacher, read on. The general approach underlying the Penal Law Web can easily be adapted to other legal subjects, especially those revolving around codes or other systematic statements of law, such as restatements. Read on also if you feel woefully underskilled, understaffed, or underpaid to set up a law web. If I can do it, for free with nothing more than the web browser you're using right now to read this, so can you. Don't read on if you think that a course website shouldn't do more than post assignments and manage e-mail chats. The Penal Law Web doesn't do either.

Webs Not Casebooks

For several years, I kept getting increasingly frustrated with the casebook I was using in my criminal law class. It seemed to cover irrelevant topics in excruciating detail, and give short shrift to things I considered of crucial importance. After years of cutting and pasting, I suddenly realized that the problem wasn't the particular casebook, but casebooks in general. What I needed was a teaching tool that was expansive and flexible enough to reflect both the systematic and code-based nature of contemporary criminal law and its daunting and ever-expanding scope. 

What I needed was a web, the Penal Law Web. So I spent the summer of 1998 assembling and interconnecting statutes, cases, and commentary. The only software I needed for this was Netscape, which had just added a simple editing feature (the Composer). I could have used any number of other free or more or less expensive free-standing or built-in html editors, including Microsoft Word, the program I used to create this hyperlinked column.

With some trepidation, I started teaching with the Penal Law Web in the fall of that year. I've never looked back. Ever since then the Web has been the source of all readings in my introductory criminal law course and most of my seminars. In every class meeting since then, I've also used the Web to supplement and focus class discussion by projecting it onto a screen and drawing on its various components and features with a laptop computer as needed. Before then, I had never used materials other than casebooks and supplementary readings; in fact, I had never used as much as an overhead projector in any of my classes. 

The Penal Law Web

The Penal Law Web is designed to harness modern web technology to capture the structure, diversity, and scope of modern penal law. Through hyperlinks and split-screen comparers (more on these below), the Web allows me to explore with my students the connections within a given system of criminal law, as well as across different systems. At the same time, I use the Web to redirect my students' attention from the core of penal law-including serious crimes such as homicide, robbery, and rape-to the "periphery" of regulatory offenses, which has long threatened to become the exception that swallows the rule.

How I Use It

During class, I project the Penal Law Web onto a screen, using a computer with internet access to select from the Web's statutes, cases, commentary, and other features. In preparing for class I can select code sections (from the Web's collection of annotated and unannotated criminal codes) or court opinions (from its case collection) to illustrate certain points during my presentation. During class I'm free to draw on the Web's materials to pursue an unanticipated line of inquiry or to frame and address a student's question. As a student, in her response to a question, hints at a distinction between the Model Penal Code's and the New York Penal Law's approach to criminal attempts, I might use the Penal Code Comparer to pull up the relevant sections of the Proposed New Federal Criminal Code (§ 1001) and the New York Penal Law (art. 110) to explore their differences and similarities in detail, in front of and for the benefit of the entire class. Similarly, I might drive home the historical foundation of the New York Penal Law's definition of insanity by using the code/case comparison function to display, on a split screen, the relevant section in the Penal Law (§ 40.15) and the passage in the 1843 English case of M'Naghten upon which it is based. 

Most of the time, I'm skipping back and forth between Penal Law sections and cases interpreting them, related provisions within and outside the Penal Law, and supplementary material. For an illustration, click on the links in the excerpt below:

Section 15.05 Culpability 
. . . . 3. "Recklessly." A person acts recklessly . . . when he is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk . . . . A person who creates such a risk but is unaware thereof solely by reason of voluntary intoxication also acts recklessly with respect thereto.

Section 120.00 Assault in the third degree

A person is guilty of assault in the third degree when:
. . . .
2. He recklessly causes physical injury to another person . . . .

Last but not least, projecting the material under discussion onto a screen visible to all means that every one in the room is always on the same page. This eliminates communal page flipping as well as responses like "Oh, I thought you were talking about [some other part of the opinion, some other statutory provision, some other whatever]" or the always popular "Sorry, I haven't had a chance to do the reading."

In sum, the Penal Law Web gives me immediate access to an extensive library of penal law materials before, during, and after class, a library that my students can visit and revisit at any time. Moreover, unlike a paper library or even a collection of slides or overheads, materials in the Web are not static and do not require extensive pre-class preparation, thus supporting rather than constraining pedagogic creativity in the classroom. Perhaps most important, the components of the Web are interconnected, thus allowing me to demonstrate my thought processes throughout the class as my students follow along as I pursue links among the various materials in the primary and secondary webs, regardless whether I am lecturing or engaging students in a pedagogic give-and-take. As a result, I can communicate to the students not merely a set of rules, but also demonstrate their interconnectedness in a system. 

How Students Use It

Students have used the Penal Law Web in various-and often unanticipated-ways. Since the site is available at any time, students can use it to prepare for class, as well as to review the materials after class and to prepare for the exam. Some students would print out the reading assignments once before class and mark up their copy with comments, then print out another clean version for detailed notetaking in class. Students also take advantage of the dynamic features of the site, including the comparers and the hyperlinks interconnecting the codes, cases, and commentary throughout the Penal Law Web. In this way they can, on own their time and at their own pace, appreciate and explore conceptual connections within a given body of law or across jurisdictional lines. This out-of-class work has deepened students' understanding of the subject and made for more rewarding class discussions.

Beyond Criminal Law

The Penal Law Web currently encompasses only one aspect of the system of penal law, substantive criminal law. I hope that eventually it will integrate penal law in its entirety, reaching from the definition of penal norms (the province of substantive criminal law) to their imposition (the law of criminal procedure) and, finally, the actual infliction of punishment for their violation (prison or correction law). 

The webbing of law needn't stop at the boundaries of penal law. The most obvious candidates for other law webs would be areas of the law that are also code-based, including, among others, commercial law (UCC), tax, bankruptcy, employee benefits, corporations, evidence, and criminal and civil procedure. Imagine, for instance, a Tax Law Web constructed around the node of central provisions in the tax code, or even more simply, a 1040. In the case of subjects that continue to be taught as judge-made common law, e.g., contracts and torts, a law web could be constructed not around codes, but around general principles, which may be found in treatises, restatements, model codes, or leading court opinions.

A Web of Webs

Once such a series of law webs has been created, it would take little to connect its threads in the same way that the components of the Penal Law Web are now internally connected-i.e., through hyperlinks and comparers. For instance, the definitions of "act," "negligence," or "cause" in the Penal Law Web could be linked to their counterparts in the Tort Law Web, "consent" in criminal law could be connected to "consent" in criminal procedure, torts, contracts, and wherever else it may play a role, and so on and so on. 

By digesting the vast and complex body of modern law in a widely accessible medium, law webs can play a role not only in law teaching, but also in legal scholarship and in the making and application of law, as well as in educating the general public. This isn't the place to explore this question; if you're curious, check out "Reforming American Penal Law," 90 Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 49 (1999). 

So give webbing the law a try. Odds are you'll get as much out of setting up your very own law web as you'll get out of using it year after year, in class after class.
© 2000 by Markus Dubber. All rights reserved.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of its author, and do not reflect those of JURIST, its Advisory Board, its staff or its host institutions.

Where you have the last word...

  • Professor Dubber --

    Sounds great! I don't teach criminal law, but I do teach a statutory-based course, Environmental Law. I have already been experimenting with using the web in connection with teaching but so far have limited myself to putting problems on the web and usuing the web to supply answers to questions I ask or hand out in class. Your system looks much more dynamic, and I will explore using it!

    I will second your assertion, moreover, that it is easy to use the web. I knew NOTHING about web programming at the beginning of this year and now have three functioning and expanding course sites -- http://www.law.wnec.edu/faculty/facultypages/craig/default.html.

    Robin K. Craig
    Assistant Professor
    Western New England College School of Law
    Springfield, MA


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