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Studying law through New Orleans’ flamboyant history

December 11, 2013

Vernon Palmer

Professor Vernon Palmer makes a point during a French Quarter “Corruption Tour” history lesson sponsored by Tulane Law School’s Civil Law Society.
Photo by Garreth DeVoe, 2L

Professor Sally Brown Richardson, Civil Law Society faculty sponsor

Professor Sally Brown Richardson, Civil Law Society faculty sponsor

You won’t get Professor Vernon Palmer’s French Quarter tour from any other guide in New Orleans.

Infused with history and punctuated by the scandalous tidbits that make the city fascinating, the “Corruption Tour” he conducted for Tulane Law students this fall included the Roosevelt Hotel lobby, where according to lore a box sat to collect bribes for Gov. Huey P. Long. There was Napoleon House, where a plan supposedly was hatched to rescue the French emperor.

At Canal and Bourbon streets, the focus wasn’t the bacchanalia for which New Orleans’ most famous party street is known but the corrupt Louisiana Lottery of the 19th Century and the red light district known as Storyville. Palmer discussed French architecture, privateers and the slave trade’s impact on New Orleans culture.

The tour incorporated the kind of colorful detail about Louisiana’s unique brand of civil law that only someone who wrote the book would know — because Palmer did write about it, in Through the Codes Darkly: Slave Law and Civil Law in Louisiana, published in 2012.

It’s little wonder that some 75 students turned out for the tour, the inaugural event of Tulane’s rejuvenated Civil Law Society. The society’s relaunch reflects a broader revitalization of student interest in the civil law and a significant strengthening of Tulane Law School’s historic commitment to the field. Since 2010, enrollment in Tulane’s civil law curriculum has more than doubled, from 18 percent to about 40 percent for the past two years. The enrollment now roughly matches the percentage of the graduating class placed in Louisiana each year.

Second-year students have re-energized the Civil Law Society with events including a program exploring the differences in practicing under the civil and common law, a meeting with 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Higginson and plans for a spring visit to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

“Aside from maybe the Environmental Law Society, there was no other student organization that I wanted to join besides the Civil Law Society when I came to Tulane,” said 2L Matt Landry, who helped revive the group and is its current president.  “As a native New Orleanian who had experienced living away in other parts of the country for a few years, I knew that I was going to practice in Louisiana after law school. And I had made plenty of friends — from throughout the United States and other countries — who had similar plans and were equally enthusiastic about Louisiana’s history and culture, particularly as it pertained to our unique legal history.”

Civil Law Society members say their goal is to educate the Tulane community about Louisiana’s legal tradition, future and place within the larger civil law system. They want to support students who plan to practice in Louisiana but also are “dedicated to advancing the position of Louisiana’s civil law roots in both academic and professional circles.”

The students’ efforts reflect another special aspect of Tulane Law School: its tradition of outstanding comparative legal study, which provides students with firm grounding whether they plan to practice locally, elsewhere in the United States or abroad.

As Professor Sally Brown Richardson, the group’s faculty sponsor, pointed out, “For our students planning to stay in Louisiana, studying the civil law is obviously crucial. But even those headed to California and Texas and New York recognize that in the age of globalization, being able to speak the legal language of South America, Europe, Asia, is a major asset, and one that Tulane is particularly well-suited to provide.”


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