PSC 332 Syllabus: Summer 2020

PSC 332: The Judicial Process

Summer II 2020 online

Instructor: Dr. Rebecca Gill

Course Description

As Americans, much of what we know about our legal system comes from the television. We learn about criminal justice from shows like “Law and Order” and we learn about trials on shows like “Perry Mason” or “Boston Legal.” Indeed, one of the first reality shows on television was “The People’s Court,” and the real-life legal drama surrounding our most famous people (OJ, Lori Loughlin, Harvey Weinstein, etc.) continues to captivate the American public. In fact, some people have become famous just because of their involvement with the court system (Casey Anthony, George Zimmerman, Adnan Masud Syed, Steven Avery, etc.).

While some of the information we get from popular culture is grounded in fact, much of it is not. In order to gain a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of the role of courts in America, we will augment our popular perceptions with evidence from theoretical and empirical research. We will also be investigating the social and political impact of our justice system on different segments of society.

The main aim of this course is to systematically answer questions and dispel the myths surrounding the American legal system. We will begin with a basic introduction to the structure and function of our court system and judicial selection. We will discuss the role of judges and other court actors, both in terms of what they should do and what they actually do. We will examine the function of courts as they address matters of criminal law and civil law, focusing specifically on the consequences of various attributes of criminal and civil procedure. Next, we will study the appellate process. We will conclude the term with a look at how the courts t in to the larger political landscape, and how they work to shape life and law in America.

Required Materials

Course Objectives

After completing this course, the successful student will:

  1. Have a working knowledge of American court system structure, function, and procedures;
  2. Understand the way that procedures and institutions impact the nature of justice that results;
  3. Be able to analyze the merit of particular legal arguments and approaches, both from a socio-political and legal perspective;
  4. Interpret the various outcomes of the court system in terms of the political, institutional and social characteristics of the American legal system; and
  5. Be able to contribute meaningfully to the current debate about judicial selection in the American states.

Requirements & Evaluation

This course is taken completely online. All assignments must be completed online through the course WebCampus page by the time and date indicated. Please be sure to check your WebCampus and RebelMail accounts regularly throughout the term. Your grade will be assigned on the basis of my assessment of your work according to the scheme laid out below. There are no in person office hours, but I will be available via e-mail at during regular business hours for the duration of the semester.

Quizzes: 40% of Final Grade

Each module has specic has a specific set of readings. You should complete the readings before beginning the module. Each module consists of multimedia materials to help you make sense of the readings and they presuppose your familiarity with the facts and concepts from the readings.

Practice Quizzes. There will be a number of practice quizzes sprinkled throughout the modules. This quiz will elements from the module, but it will also include questions about information from the readings that weren’t presented in the module. You can take these quizzes multiple times and your highest grade will count. The practice quizzes will count for half of your quiz grade (or 20% of your final grade).

Mastery Quizzes. At the end of each module, there will be a mastery quiz. Your mastery quiz grades make up half of your quiz grade (which is 20% of the overall grade). They are not timed, but all of the quizzes must be completed by Friday at 10 pm of the week for which they have been assigned. Missed quizzes cannot be made up, so make sure you take these on time!

Participation: 20% of Final Grade

Because of the online format of the course, all of the participation will take place through WebCampus. The discussions will happen in groups, which will be assigned randomly in WebCampus on the first day of class. Each of the groups will consider the same weekly question; the group setting is intended to make the conversations more manageable and meaningful for students. On Monday of each week, a new conversation thread will open up in your group. The conversation starter will be a general topic, and it will be followed by several specific questions. By Wednesday at 6pm, each student in the group must answer a question that nobody else in the group has answered yet. By Sunday at 6pm, each student must respond to the posts of the other students in the group. Participation counts for 20% of the overall grade.

Final Exam: 40% of Final Grade

The final exam must be taken sometime on the last Friday of the course. You may begin the exam anytime that day before 10:00 pm, and you will be allotted two hours to complete the exam. The exam will cover information from the quizzes, but it will also include additional questions from the readings, the modules, and the discussion boards. It is a cumulative exam, and it is intended to confirm that students have mastered the material. The course is open book, but rules against plagiarism and academic dishonesty apply. Collaboration is not allowed. General use of internet sources and searches are not allowed for the test. You may consult the material from the course, but you should not be Googling the questions in an attempt to find the answers.

Schedule of Topics

Week 1 : Courts and Lawyers

  • Read American Judicial Process chapters 1-3.
  • Complete the Module 1.
  • Respond to Discussion 1 by Wednesday at 6 pm.
  • Take Mastery Quiz 1 before 6 pm on Friday.
  • Engage in dialogue with colleagues about Discussion 1 by Sunday at 6 pm.

Week 2: Court Organization and Staffing

  • Read American Judicial Process chapters 4-5.
  • Complete Module 2.
  • Respond to Discussion 2 by Wednesday at 6 pm.
  • Take Mastery Quiz 2 before 6 pm on Friday.
  • Engage in dialogue with colleagues about Discussion 2 by Sunday at 6 pm.

Week 3: Criminal and Civil Law

  • Read American Judicial Process chapters 6-7.
  • Complete the Module 3. 
  • Respond to Discussion 3 by Wednesday at 6 pm.
  • Take Mastery Quiz 3 before 6 pm on Friday.
  • Engage in dialogue with colleagues about Discussion 3 by Sunday at 6 pm.

Week 4 (June 25-29) – Trials and Appeals

  • Read American Judicial Process chapters 8-9.
  • Complete Module 4
  • Respond to Discussion 4 by Wednesday at 6 pm.
  • Take Mastery Quiz 4 before 6 pm on Friday.
  • Engage in dialogue with colleagues about Discussion 4 by Sunday at 6 pm.

Week 5: Courts as Policymaking Institutions

  • Read American Judicial Process chapters 10-11.
  • Complete Module 5.
  • Respond to Discussion 5 by Wednesday at 6 pm.
  • Take Mastery Quiz 5 before 6 pm on Friday.
  • Take the Final Exam on Friday starting sometime before 10:00 pm.
  • Engage in dialogue with colleagues about Discussion 5 by Sunday at 6 pm.

UNLV Policies

Please see the Syllabi Content Memo (Links to an external site.) for select, useful information for students. This document can be found at: (Links to an external site.) 

The Plea

I know that our video from today was a bit of a downer, but I hope that it helped to illustrate some of the problems we have with our plea bargaining system. Want to see the rest, watch it again, or get more information? The video is available online here.

Many of you may be wondering, “Dr. Gill, what ended up happening?” Here you go.



In November 2010, Nevadans voted on whether or not to pass Senate Joint Resolution 2 (74th Session), or “SJR-2.” This would have amended the section of Nevada’s constitution that deals with the selection of our state court judges. 

There were some vocal critics of the measure. Read this article by Todd Bailey. How does Bailey see the appropriate balance between accountability and independence? Compare that perspective with the arguments of Bill Raggio inthis article. What do you make of these differences? 

Finally, check out the details of the SJR-2 on Ballotpedia. Pay special attention to the results of the Mason-Dixon poll. Why do you think Nevadans feel the way they do about this measure? Why do you think it failed?


Welcome to 332

It’s my pleasure to welcome you to PSC 332. We’ll be learning about the structure, staffing and function of the American court system. It’s a fascinating topic. There are all sorts of representations of our legal system in the media, but how accurate is the picture we’re being presented? Why do Americans sue each other so much? Is it such a bad thing to elect our state judges? If judges always want to be tough on crime, why are there so many plea bargains?

This semester, I’ve assigned a very short judicial process textbook, along with a collection of writings from actual judges. To supplement this, I’ll be posting commentary here in the form of annotated newspaper articles, posts from around the blogosphere and other items to help supplement the basic information from the textbook. The content of this blog will be important both to your understanding of government in practice AND to your ability to do will on the two exams in this course.

You’ll also want to keep up with current political events. A good place to start is on the law and politics pages of some of the major news organizations. For reasons we will discuss as we get farther along in the course, you’ll want to choose a variety of sources for your information. Some to try are:

You don’t see The Daily Show or The Colbert Report here. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t watch these shows. I do! It just means that you should supplement what you see on these shows with a close reading of the stories behind what’s presented here.

For today, think about the sources from which you get your news. Are you a daily newspaper reader? Do you get the LVRJ on your Kindle? Do you check in with CNN or Fox News as you’re getting ready for school in the morning? Do scope out Google News? Do you just wait for news to sort of permeate your skull through osmosis? Now is the time to start devising a workable way for you to get some solid news exposure. Investigate the resources above, and settle on a plan of action.

Questions? E-mail me at or visit my office hours from 9-10:30 am on Mondays and Wednesdays.