High School Legal Research

By , January 2, 2014 12:18 pm

by Tal Noznisky

On Tuesdays, I work with young people at Seattle 826, a non-profit tutoring center. Recently, a high school student needed help drafting a position paper on capital punishment. The student already planned to argue for capital punishment and against its most common renunciations. He wanted to play the contrarian and discover both sides of the capital punishment debate. I was game to assist, and delighted to facilitate legal research using free and accessible Internet resources. But where to begin?

The student came in with a focused set of ideas, but was two large steps shy of stable outline. He needed factual support for his argument and he needed to organize a persuasive flow. Fortunately he had a powerful secret weapon to get things rolling: a list of sources recommended by none other than the teacher who would grade the paper. I suggested, “Let’s look some of these up.”

The list had some favorable “greatest hits” on the subject, including Justice Antonin Scalia’s 2008 statement denying a rehearing in Kennedy v. Louisiana and a link to Pew Research Center’s Death Penalty topic page. Starting there, the student branched out through embedded or cited links and Google. A big picture view of the essay appeared. We talked it out and discovered what exactly he wanted to say. The details started coming together as well.

Through some rapid structured Googling, the student found that similar statistics about public opinion and cost of capital punishment were used for opposing opinions. He weaved the data from those arguments into his own, founded on Scalia’s, and addressed counter-arguments based on the same info. He was in the advantageous position of recognizing both sides and knowing which persuasion to take as his thesis statement.

I really hope that, besides an A+ paper outline, the student took away a process for researching hot-button and legally-oriented opinions. Those can easily drift toward fringe or inflammatory ideas that, while intriguing, do not make strong persuasive essays. Google is full of crazy ideas, but with a reliable base camp of, say, sources your teacher wants to see mentioned in your paper, good research just got easier.

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