Naval Academy professor sees exposure to constitutional cases as key preparation for midshipmen's future duties

In class, law comes to life


For Priscilla Zotti and her students at the U.S. Naval Academy, the Constitution is alive.

Buzzwords such as "constructionism" and "judicial activism" give way to the history of American ideas, the eclectic personalities of Supreme Court justices and historic cases that changed the American experience.

This has been quite a semester for Zotti and the midshipmen taking her constitutional law class. One of two vacancies on the Supreme Court has been filled, and the justices heard arguments in a Fourth Amendment case about a crime that took place only a few blocks from the military college's Annapolis campus. Zotti also published a book about Mapp v. Ohio, a landmark 1961 case that led to tighter enforcement of search and seizure laws.

"It's been my semester," said Zotti, 48.

Most of the midshipmen she teaches hadn't explored the Constitution before beginning Zotti's course. She says teaching them is an especially rich experience.

"My students swear an oath to defend and uphold the Constitution, and I get to teach them what's in it," she said. "What I do is part of what they need to do."

In a lecture last month to her constitutional law students, Zotti discussed how several 14th Amendment cases eventually set up Roe v. Wade, the controversial decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

"This is the highest talk of the nation," she said to her students. "I think this is the litmus test for getting onto the Supreme Court."

Referring to Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr., Zotti asked, "Have you heard too many other issues for Alito?"

The bulk of a recent lecture was devoted to Lochner v. New York, a 1905 case about a baker who was fined by the state of New York for overworking an employee. The court eventually declared unconstitutional a law passed unanimously by the New York legislature that prohibited bakery employees from working for more than 60 hours a week. During a 50-minute lecture, Zotti posted photos of justices and lawyers, as well as litigants in the case, often giving brief biographies or short stories about each person.

The most colorful included Stephen J. Field, a Supreme Court justice appointed by President Abraham Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War. He avoided retirement only because he wanted to be the longest-serving justice. Another was Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Civil War veteran and poet who wrote the dissenting opinion in the Lochner case. Some legal scholars have described it as the "best written opinion in the history of constitutional law," Zotti told the Mids.

She also delved into how social Darwinism - a Gilded Age theory that posited that life was a "survival of the fittest" - influenced the justices who overturned the New York law.

Zotti's use of detail to bring the Constitution to life - the personalities, the prevailing ideas of the time and the consequences - is what led her to write about Mapp v. Ohio. The book, Injustice for All: Mapp vs. Ohio and the Fourth Amendment, was her first full-length exploration of one case.

"I wanted to clear away all the dust of people analyzing the case over time," she said. "I wanted to write a book with original documents, so I went back to the original case transcripts, interviewed a police officer who took part in the search and I wrote it from that position."

Zotti, a Dallas native who has three daughters and is married to a Marine Corps colonel, has taught at the Naval Academy for 15 years. She earned her doctorate in political science from the University of Texas at Austin in 1987. She has served on the academy's faculty senate, has been a representative for several varsity sports, including crew and track, and directs the school's political science internship program. She is popular with her students.

Danielle Darby, a senior from Tampa, Fla., said Zotti's class has forced her to look at how the Constitution has evolved historically. Darby was one of several Mids Zotti took to hear arguments in Kelo v. New London in February, an eminent domain case in which the court ruled that New London, Conn., was justified in seizing private property for economic development.

"It was a totally awesome experience," Darby said. "We talk about how much the Supreme Court affects the Constitution, so it was amazing to get to go to court and see it in action."

Tim Henderson, a junior from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, said he didn't remember the specifics of the case but felt like a part of history, even as an observer.

"Sandra Day O'Connor was tough," he said, referring to the retiring justice. "I would have been nervous if I was the counsel in that case."

Zotti said that while she is proud of her book, her primary focus at the academy is teaching future military leaders.

"The academy is not a research institution - it's a teaching institution," she said. "So first and foremost, my job is to teach midshipmen. And they're the best part of the job. They're really amazing."

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