He delivered. Throughout the semester, in discussions of judicial nominations, war powers, congressional authority and more, the focus always returned to people. The climax came in the penultimate class of the semester. The topic was judicial review; the focus was the Violence Against Women Act, which he wrote.
Did Congress have the authority to create the remedies contained in the act? Biden suggested it did. Some students thought not; precedent did not support his reading. They knew the cases. So did he.
By this point, his mastery of the cases was no surprise. Late in the first class, he had asked for help from me, his co-teacher: "Where did Scalia write that? Was it footnote four or footnote six?" "Six, I think." "OK." Biden then went into an exegesis on footnote six to Justice Antonin Scalia's opinion for the court in Michael H. v. Gerald D.
On this day, what followed was a lesson on commerce-clause jurisprudence. It yielded a quibble only lawyers could love: Does gender-driven violence have a "direct" effect on commerce or a "substantial" effect?
"Tell me," Biden said. "Your sister has been badly beaten by her husband. She goes to the hospital. She misses work. She loses pay, maybe her job. Are those 'direct' effects?"
The class was silent. "Kind of hard to tell, isn't it? So tell me, are they 'substantial' effects?"
"For her they are," a student offered.
"Absolutely," he replied. "And when it happens over and over, to hundreds of thousands of women. . . . You get the idea."
He had made a practice of telling students that he welcomed debate and dissent. That's easy to say, but he made it real.
He would challenge them; they challenged back. He could be forceful, but he was not overbearing. And he was never condescending.
He felt passionate about the Violence Against Women Act. He was disappointed, he told the class, when the Supreme Court struck down portions of it.
He had written the law to correct an imbalance of power - to empower the victims of gender-driven violence. Most of the victims were women. Many were victimized physically by their attackers and then again by indifferent state officials.
Ultimately, nearly all the states had formally endorsed the law. And then, in the name of "states' rights," the court rejected it.
"Judicial imperialism," he called it, and he said it was especially distressing to see power abused at the expense of the relatively powerless.
The class ran long. Very long. Nobody minded. It ended - nearly four hours after it started - without a consensus on the merits of the Supreme Court's decision. But there was unanimity on one issue: Everybody cared.
The following week brought the last class, and the students wanted to say thanks. "We want you to know," started their spokeswoman, who had been conspicuously Republican from the very first class, "how much we have appreciated all that you've done." She paused. "You know, when this started, I wasn't sure about you." The class laughed. "But now . . ."
She never finished. She couldn't keep from crying, and she wasn't alone.
It had been an unusual law class - about the law, yes. About power, definitely. But thanks to its teacher, it also had been all about people.
Robert L. Hayman Jr. has co-taught a law seminar with Joseph Biden since 2003.
Robert L. Hayman Jr. is a professor at Widener Law in Wilmington. E-mail him at email@example.com.