Timely environmental law topics highlight Berkeley Law’s new fall courses

By Andrew Cohen 

Berkeley Law’s No. 1-ranked environmental law program didn’t reach that perch by resting on its laurels. This semester, three of the nine courses being taught at the school for the first time present new ways to probe enduring environmental challenges. 

Two leaders of the Environmental Law Clinic, Director Claudia Polsky ’96 and Supervising Attorney Sabrina Ashjian, have relished the opportunity to craft and teach this material. 

Environmental Justice and Advocacy in California, a one-credit course taught by Ashijan, looks at disproportionate impacts of climate change and harmful environmental practices on vulnerable communities in California — which are often low income and of color — and discusses advocacy tools that can make social change. Students study state and local legislative processes and hear from experts in these spaces, including elected officials, grassroots activists, and community-based organization outreach and engagement specialists.

Sabrina Ashjian

“Attorneys in this field need to be able to listen to and involve the voices of the community they represent, work with organizations with shared missions, and build a movement around a unified vision in order to make social, legal, or political change,” Ashijan says. “What I really want my students to take away … is that as advocates for environmental justice they have to center the communities they aim to serve.”

2L Scott Pease notes that while the class focuses on California, it has global implications. He appreciates how Ashjian brings in speakers each week from wide-ranging backgrounds, including legislators, movement lawyers, and local organizers.


“She works hard to make sure we’re hearing about environmental justice issues from a variety of perspectives,” Pease says. “All the speakers we’ve heard from have been inspiring in different ways. But no matter what, each week I leave the class more motivated to do work in the environmental justice space … I would highly recommend this course for anyone, no matter what area of law in which they plan to practice.”


Another one-credit course Ashjian teaches, Environmental Justice and Health Equity, begins Oct. 12. It will cover what causes environmental health inequities, metrics for examining health outcomes, and how lawyers can drive solutions to these issues. Students will confront issues such as safe and affordable drinking water in the Central Valley, extreme heat related health complications in underserved communities, and toxic facility pollution in urban centers.


Working in the Central Valley before joining the clinic, Ashjian saw how large, moneyed interests and polluting industries wield significant political and legal power there. She notes that assisting low-income, marginalized communities in such regions requires not only legal acumen, but also coalition building and outreach skills.


“I try to provide not only an education on the topic, but inspirational guidance from leaders in the field who can give concrete, real-world examples of how to move things forward in this space,” she says. “Hearing that the students feel inspired and empowered to go out and do this work after law school gives me a tremendous amount of hope.”


In Environmental Health Law Through Film, Polsky uses feature films and documentaries to address legal structures that under-protect environmental health and magnify health inequity. 

Claudia Polsky
Claudia Polsky ’96

Viewing includes “The China Syndrome” (nuclear reactor accidents), “Erin Brockovich” (toxic air emissions), “Dark Waters” (contaminated drinking water), the HBO Max Series “Not So Pretty” (hazardous cosmetics and personal care products), and various Native American and other Indigenous shorts (pollution impacts on wild rice harvests, among other topics).

Environmental health law, which governs human exposure to toxic chemicals, pollution, and radiation, “is my area of subject matter passion,” Polsky says. “It was also a gap in our curriculum. I wanted to plug this hole, and to get more students excited about work in a scientifically and legally dynamic area that desperately needs more public-spirited lawyers.” 

The class dissects why so many children have asthma, why aggressive brain cancer is becoming more common, why dangerous beauty products preferentially harm BIPOC women, and why human fertility is decreasing by 1% per year. It also enables students to interact with a movie production crew to discuss filmmaking’s role in effecting social change. 

“One of the things I enjoy the most about this class is that I learn something new every week which I can apply to my everyday life,” 3L Elisa Lee says. “I appreciate that I leave every class with practical knowledge that I can share. I also find the class discussions to be very engaging, not only because of Professor Polsky’s personal experiences with working in environmental law, but also because of the interdisciplinary nature of the discussions.”

For Polsky, “Having strong visuals, music, character development, and narrative arcs makes it easy to bring to life what on the page may seem like a difficult or dry subject.” Noting that students are writing “fantastic” papers about the films, emailing astute questions, and taking part in animated class discussions, she says, “It feels great when students really engage, and it’s exciting to contemplate what they might be able to fix in the world if they apply themselves this fully.”

Here are other courses being taught at Berkeley Law for the first time this semester: 

Evolution of Antitrust, Merger Review, and Enforcement: Taught by Latham & Watkins partner Kelly Fayne, this one-credit course tracks the evolution of antitrust law, policy, and economics over its 100-plus year history, and probes how regulators predict which mergers and acquisitions will have anticompetitive effects. Students consider key contemporaneous writings from legislative history, regulator speeches, court decisions, agency guidance, and academic scholarship to understand where antitrust merger enforcement started, and where it’s going.

Love, Lawyering, and Liberation: Taught by East Bay Community Law Center Clinical Director Seema N. Patel, this one-credit course will study visionary abolitionist perspectives on law and lawyering that have emerged in recent decades. Exploring how radical Black and other feminist lawyers of color have effectuated social change, students will analyze what it means to lawyer in service of liberation struggles and to practice law in ways that are affirmative, creative, and hopeful while being rooted in resistance, movement, and structural change.

Civil Procedure Stories: Taught by Professor Jonah Gelbach, this two-unit class peels back the curtain behind seminal cases in the Civil Procedure curriculum. Students delve into the background and scope of these cases’ impacts on the people involved in them, with an emphasis on the interwoven relationship between procedure and substance. The course emphasizes that every procedural case comes from somewhere, and vital ones alter the landscape afterward. Issues related to equality and inequality based on race, class, sex, and sexual orientation abound. 

Life Sciences and Innovation Workshop I: Taught by Professor Peter Menell and Berkeley Center for Law & Technology Life Sciences Fellow Allison Schmitt ’15, this two-credit course explores the roles of patent protection, government research, regulation, and funding, prizes, and philanthropy in driving life sciences innovation. Studying the history of biomedical research, sources of innovation, industry structure, role of the medical profession, and how universities propel change, students gain a broad understanding of these various forces and players.

Youth Justice Law, Practice, and Policy: Taught by Jonathan Laba ’96 (Contra Costa County Public Defender’s Office juvenile unit supervisor) and Laura Ridolfi ’05 (W. Haywood Burns Institute policy director), this two-credit course examines the youth justice system’s philosophy, objectives, and evolution. Issues include weaving adolescent development principles into youth justice policy, juvenile “sentencing” goals and best practices, racial and ethnic disparities, the school to prison pipeline, and whether to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction.

Forced Migration: Taught by immigrant rights lawyer Tilman Jacobs, this two-credit course introduces the key concepts, norms, and narratives of forced migration. Learning how massive movements of forced migrants have often caught the international community unprepared in the past century, students critically examine legal and policy responses to population displacement in the international and domestic spheres. They also assess some important aspects of the problem, including human trafficking, unaccompanied children, and ecomigration.


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