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Power Play

Note: This story is a web exclusive to the print edition of Dartmouth Life.

In the midst of the U.S. Civil War in 1864, United States army officials arrested antiwar democrats in Indiana and charged them with conspiracy. A military commission, authorized by President Abraham Lincoln, found the defendants guilty, and they were sentenced to hang. But the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that the three antiwar protesters had to be released, in the 1866 landmark case Ex parte Milligan. "What does this say about the limits of executive power?" asked Linda Fowler, professor of government and the Frank J. Reagan '09 Chair in Policy Studies during the recent class, "Invitation to Struggle: Presidents, Congress, and U.S. Foreign Policy."

Professor Linda Fowler's classroom
Students learn about the balance of power between the President and Congress in Professor Linda Fowler's first year seminar, "Invitation to Struggle: Presidents, Congress, and U.S. Foreign Policy." (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Answering Fowler's question, Ben Hemani '10, one of 13 students in the first year seminar said, "The president has a certain amount of power to work with, particularly in war time. But Indiana wasn't in the defined war zone, and the civil courts were open. The Supreme Court had to rule against him." Andrew Peisch '10 added, "It has to be something major to suspend habeas corpus, and in this case the threat to national security just wasn't strong enough." In summarizing the case, one of four reviewed during the class, Fowler said, "Lincoln is often referenced in the media for his broad use of executive powers, and for suspending habeas corpus during war time. But in this case, he got his hand slapped for restricting civil liberties."

Fowler, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005, said she began thinking about the syllabus for this class while she was writing a book on U.S. foreign policy. "The primary purpose of the class is to teach students to read and write critically," she says. "When they're interested in a topic, they engage their brain cells even more. Given the growing discussion about the Iraq War, it seemed like a particularly suitable subject." William Wohlforth, chair of the Department of Government agrees. "This is a timely topic of vital public policy," he says. "It allows students to study fundamental theoretical and empirical literatures in political science."

Indeed, with the President of the United States set for a likely battle with Congress over sending additional troops to Iraq, many of the students in Fowler's class compared the historical scenarios brought up to current events. When discussing the Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. v. U.S. case, about whether President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had the power to embargo arms shipments to South America, Maura Cass '10 said, "It's similar to what is happening today. The president is trying to extend executive powers in foreign affairs." Cass said she took the class because she's interested in international relations, and she was disillusioned with the current state of government. "I wanted to learn more about precedents, and how historic decisions have an impact on present policies," she said.  

Other than dissecting Supreme Court cases, students in Invitation to Struggle discuss constitutional theory and the historical evolution of the president's prerogative in war and diplomacy. They read classic biographies of presidents and analyses of congressional efforts to redefine a role for the legislative branch. In addition to reading a wide range of texts, students write essays, and complete a 15-page research paper (worth 55 percent of the grade) on a subject of interest. At the end of the term, they present their research findings during oral presentations held at Fowler's home.

Daniel P. Killeen '09 is writing his research paper on the role of executive powers in the context of Hamden v. Rumsfeld, a 2006 Supreme Court case about the conduct of military trials at Guantanamo Bay. "The case concerns the fair trying of detainees, a fundamental human right, so its importance cannot be understated," he says. (The case was argued by attorney and Dartmouth graduate Neal Katyal '91. Killeen met Katyal for lunch in February to discuss the case.) "It is pretty amazing to be in Professor Fowler's class," adds Killeen. "She's a national source on these issues, and to have her expertise available in this small setting is incredible."

By STEVEN J. SMITH

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Last Updated: 5/30/08