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University of Montana law professor Anthony Johnstone assigned homework even before school started Monday, but he still got applause on the first day of class.

The reading assignment? The U.S. Supreme Court opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller by the late Justice Antonin Scalia in preparation for a discussion about the Second Amendment. It's nine dense pages, and Johnstone believes the case holds for readers "a microcosm of American constitutional law."

"I want to give them what they're paying for," Johnstone said. That's three years and 90 credits. "I hope they expect me to be demanding because they're here to develop these skills and move on and get a job, and I don't want to sell them short in anything we're doing in the classroom."

The applause came for the professor's deft aim. At the white board, Johnstone chucked a spent marker straight into the waste basket in front of the classroom and otherwise held their attention for 80 minutes in an introduction to constitutional law.

On the screen, he posted a snapshot of the preamble with the curved large type, "We the People."

"That's what makes constitutional law different from all of the other law that you will study. It is made by 'We the People,'" Johnstone said.

On the first day of the 2018 fall semester at UM, 70 second-year law students returned to the Alexander Blewett III School of Law, part of more than roughly 10,000 enrolled at the flagship. Before Johnstone's class started, cohort members carrying backpacks and thermoses greeted each other with hugs and compliments.

"How was your summer?"

"Good, yeah."

"I like your hair. Oh, my gosh, it looks so good."

Student Matt Paoli-Asaro made his way around the room chatting with his peers about the break. The second-year students have reached a comfort level with their routine, but Paoli-Asaro ventured an educated guess about the state of mind of the first-year students. The law school counts 80 newbies and 72 third-years.

The first-year law students, called one Ls, "are in a bit of a panic," Paoli-Asaro said.

***

Johnstone, Montana's former solicitor and assistant attorney general, never gives the same lecture on the first day of class in constitutional law, even though he's taught it eight years.

"My favorite part of constitutional law is that it really is driven by the people, whether through judicial appointments and political campaigns or just the sorts of cases that people bring up through the courts," Johnstone said after class. "More than other areas of law, the people set the agenda in constitutional law."

Early on in the lecture, Johnstone reminded the future lawyers they will take an oath to support the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of Montana. It's serious business. But midway through the discussion, he also beams a cartoon image of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wearing a baseball glove onto the screen.

"Yes, I have Supreme Court baseball cards," Johnstone said.

He also shows a picture depicting Yellowstone National Park and asks the students a question: "In what way is the Constitution like Yellowstone Park?" 

The professor who studied geology at Yale University joked that he'll let the students decide which branch of government is "the stinking mud pot," but he's serious about the lesson the park's features offer. Much energy is beneath the surface.

"If you want to do stuff for your clients, and you want it to stick, you need to know what's going on underneath. You need to know the constitutional law under it can support it," Johnstone said.

In the last few minutes of class, after a discussion of the arguments in the Heller case that shaped gun-control debate, Johnstone puts a question on the board with four possible answers. He asks the students to take a minute to discuss it and then yell out their answers all at once: A, B, C or D.

In unison, the students say, "C."

Johnstone jokes, "My work here is done. I'll see you at the exam."

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University of Montana, higher education