Product: Prosecutorial Discretion in Charging and Plea Bargaining: The Aaron Swartz Case
Professor Adriaan Lanni
HLS Professor Adriaan Lanni came to us with a vision for her criminal adjudication class: teach students the ethics and discretion of prosecution. Rather than explain landmark examples of prosecutorial discretion herself, Professor Lanni wanted students to find their own guiding principles, experience the tradeoffs and pressures of decision-making, and form opinions about the prosecutorial system. It was a great opportunity to use a case study.
She chose the case of Aaron Swartz, for which the prosecution faced significant criticism. Aaron Swartz was an Internet prodigy, known for his work as an adolescent on the RSS 1.0 web feed and his early co-ownership of the social new website Reddit. At age 24, Swartz was charged with various counts of computer fraud and abuse after systematically downloading the JSTOR online journal database from the MIT campus. His pre-trial process took years, with multiple plea bargain offers, a superseding indictment, and mounting attorney fees. Swartz declined the plea bargains, preferring to defend himself in court; however, weeks before the trial was slated to begin, Swartz committed suicide.
Professor Lanni shared with us her experiences writing and teaching a case study, particularly such a polemical one, for the first time:
What inspired the case study?
AL: I was teaching criminal adjudication for the first time and wanted to experiment with new teaching methods, including a case study. Studying Supreme Court doctrine does not really get at the policy, practical, and ethical issues that arise in the charging and plea bargaining process. Many textbooks offer a series of very brief fictional problems to cover this material; I thought an in-depth case study might be a good entry-point for a discussion of prosecutorial discretion.
What challenges and opportunities did the case writing process present?
AL: Having a detailed case study made it possible for a much more detailed and nuanced class discussion, and put everyone in the class on an equal footing. If I hadn’t had a dedicated case writer I probably would have assigned a short magazine article, which wouldn’t have provided enough information to really dig into the prosecutor’s options at various points in the case timeline.
One challenge was that many members of the class had strong views on the Swartz case, which made it more difficult to elicit a balanced discussion.
What advice do you have for case writers and teachers in the legal classroom?
AL: A case study involves a significant commitment of class time, and a fair bit of reading for students about a single case. It is important to make sure that the learning goals are well-suited to a case study and that the individual case is rich enough to sustain a 50- to 90-minute class. The Swartz case worked well, but I don’t think I would want to do more than 1 to 2 case studies in any course, like criminal adjudication, that is primarily devoted to studying an area of doctrine.
How did the students react to the case study?
AL: The student feedback was very positive. The students liked the change of pace, and appreciated the opportunity to discuss in detail a case that they had read about in the newspapers.
What, if anything, would you do differently next time?
AL: I would work harder ahead of time to ensure a more balanced discussion. The first time I taught the case, I moved back and forth between inviting student discussion based on their pre-assigned roles (prosecutor or defense attorney) and inviting student comments in propria persona on policy issues. Given how politically charged the Swartz case is, in the future I will probably have the students remain in roles for the entire discussion.