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UW Students Pack New Presidential Power Course in Trump Era

President Trump's executive orders sparked a wildly popular University of Washington class.

By Ambreen Ali May 3, 2017

UW-profs-exec-order-CROP

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Seattle magazine.

It’s not every day that the obscure areas of law that a law professor studies become headline news, but that’s what has happened to Kathryn A. Watts. She has spent a decade at the University of Washington School of Law focusing on presidential power and executive action—topics that, until recently, were of interest primarily to Beltway insiders and regulators. 

But the head-spinning number of executive orders issued by President Donald Trump in his early weeks in office elevated those subjects to the stuff of nightly dinner conversation and left many Seattleites—and students—searching for information on exactly what the president has the authority to do. 

After the November election, students approached law school associate dean Sanne H. Knudsen (who has been at the UW since 2011, focusing on environmental and administrative law), about developing a class that would study Trump’s actions during his first months in office. She brought Watts into the conversation.

The course, Executive Power and Its Limits, filled up within a day, drawing unprecedented demand from nonstudents, journalists and even other faculty members. “The quick and widespread reaction to this course was a big indicator that this was going to be an area where the law school has a role to play in terms of broader public education,” Knudsen notes. 

While ultimately the class was limited to students, the law school has reached out in other ways. Watts—and several of her law school colleagues—packed the house at Town Hall in February when she spoke on the topic, and she is cowriting a book on executive power for ordinary citizens. 

Class began a few weeks before Trump’s inauguration, with students studying historical use of presidential power and how it fits into larger government.

Guest lecturers explained how Trump’s actions have wide-reaching consequences for health care, the Supreme Court and climate change. The State of Washington v. Donald J. Trump et al. case on the travel ban aligned fortuitously with a planned lecture on immigration. With so much ground to cover, “We definitely had to pick and choose,” Watts says. “One of the surprising things was how much we had to talk about,” Knudsen adds. 

Students were most interested in the legal boundaries of Trump’s executive power. “The election helped them recognize that, as part of their education, they’re going to become leaders in the community, and it’s really important to understand the different tools of engagement,” Watts says.

The professors plan to offer the course again the next time there is a presidential transition. Watts notes that executive orders have become a common tool for recent presidents to sidestep congressional gridlock as they try to implement their agendas.

What’s different with this president is tone: He’s directing agencies to act, rather than suggesting that they do—a lack of subtlety that has great legal consequence and will likely face more than one legal challenge.

“Agencies have to justify their decisions in science, in facts, in the regulatory scheme or in the law,” Watts explains. “They don’t just get to say, ‘We’re doing this because the president told us to.’”

Need To Know: 

1. The class has had a reach far beyond the UW: Professors at other law schools have borrowed the class curriculum, and at least one has launched a class based on the UW course.

2. Law schools may see more applicants, and more of the current students are considering a career in public policy as a result of the political environment, Watts and Knudsen say.

3. The UW School of Law offers an online resource on presidential power, including the readings from Watts and Knudsen’s course at http://guides.lib.uw.edu/law/prespower. You can also watch a video of the Town Hall event at townhallseattle.org

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