Raze and Rebuild the Property Course

James Grimmelmann

“Certainly if we view the common law on the eve of reform, we see the spirit of Heath Robinson at his most extravagant. … It is a real question why nobody before Bentham was provoked, and a part of the answer is that nobody before Blackstone described the system as a whole.”

S.F.C. Milson, Historical Foundations of the Common Law xii (1969)

It is impossible to speak critically about a disorganized mess, except in one of two unsatisfying ways. One can point out a detail here or there that seems exceptionally out of joint, or one can gesture uselessly at the whole awful heap and suggest in vague terms that perhaps it ought to be scrapped and replaced with something better. Real reform requires real understanding.

The traditional organization of the first-year Property course is an affirmative obstacle to comprehension. It starts with an act of misdirection, encouraging students to think that property law is only about houses and land, please pay no attention to the vast amounts of abstract wealth sloshing through the financial system. It continues with a protracted tour of the Museum of Doctrinal Arcana, featuring such exhibits as the distinction between remainders vested subject to open and remainders vested subject to complete defeasance.

It is not that it is hard to find interesting political angles in this tangle. From “first” possession to permanent physical occupations, the use and abuse of power is everywhere in the course. A skilled teacher who wants to bring out progressive themes can do so in every class. So can a skilled teacher who wants to emphasize economic analysis, or the choice among institutions, or the long shadow of history. (Teachers gonna teach, teach, teach, teach, teach, teach.)

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