Towards a Series of Academic Norms for #LawProf Twitter
Carissa Byrne Hessick
The Scholar's Dilemma
HI was delighted to participate in this law review symposium by the Marquette Law Review on the ethics of legal scholarship in the fall of 2017. I was a co-organizer but most of the hard work was done by the law review editors and by co-organizers Chad Oldfather and Carissa Byrne Hessick. The articles feature varied perspectives and topics. I hope those interested in academic ethics and especially legal academic scholarly ethics will read and enjoy this issue. (My own contribution is here. The SSRN version is here.)
One specific goal we had, in the words of the symposium introduction, was to "arrive at" and publish "some common, generally agreed upon answers and principles." We thus lead off with a set of "Draft Principles of Scholarly Ethics." They should not be taken as having commanded the absolute consensus of all the participants, and we certainly do not claim that all legal scholars will agree on these principles. To quote the introduction again: "Our attempt . . . to put something specific on the table, agree on it, and share it with our colleagues was never meant to be a final and definitive answer to the questions that confront us concerning the ethics of legal scholarship. It was not meant to end the discussion. But we have attempted to provide a useful place from which to begin and continue such a discussion." We hope the draft principles will do this, serving as a jumping-off point for future discussion of this subject, which certainly is not going away and will if anything grow in light of both the rise of law professor participation on social media and the current political situation.
Enjoy. Thanks again to both Chad and Carissa as well as the other participants, and congratulations to the Marquette Law Review editors involved in making this happen and bringing it to print.
Here is the table of contents for the issue:
Towards a Series of Academic Norms for #LawProf Twitter
Carissa Byrne Hessick
The Scholar's Dilemma
A commenter here recently observed that one of the key functions of a legal academic blog like this is to promote one's articles. Right they are. I've been very slowly working, on and off for the past ten years or so, on what I hope will eventually be a book on oaths and the Constitution. Since an oath means little without the underlying values and incentives to undergird it, it is necessarily and maybe primarily a book about the role of honor in American political culture and constitutional law: both a historical examination and an effort at reconstruction and revision of the concept. To shine the spotlight half away from myself for a brief moment, I wrote recently that a growing number of people have concentrated on issues connected to honor, oaths, office, and similar concepts:
General arguments of this sort have been popular at least since Douglass Adair’s famous essay on fame and the founding fathers. The result of such a worldview, then as now, is not neat, but it is important, especially for its focus on ideas—such as duty, honor, virtue, and character—that have faded in public usage and even been described as obsolete. Renewed interest in these ideas in recent (and pre-Trump) years has birthed a number of approaches taken to constitutional thought, such as arguments for an aretaic turn in constitutional law, a fiduciary vision of office-holding, renewed attention to constitutional oaths, and a focus on judicial duty. These authors have varied politics and draw varied conclusions. But they share the belief that in our constitutional ethos, character matters. It is interesting, if unsurprising, that such arguments have recently drawn new advocates.
Here is a new piece that is a small part of that project, titled "The Constitutional Marriage of Personality and Impersonality: Office, Honor, and the Oath." It's a contribution to a wonderful roundtable that was held recently to discuss Randy Kozel's recent book, Settled Versus Right: A Theory of Precedent. The contributions include pieces by Alli Orr Larsen, Jason Mazzone, Stephen Sachs, Larry Solum, and Fred Schauer, among others, with a response by Randy. The roundtable was hosted by the University of Richmond's law school and coordinated by Kurt Lash and Jason Mazzone. The contributions will appear in Constitutional Commentary. They are short, which in my case makes the piece unusual and, I hope, less tedious than usual, although it does mean my piece is largely and merely an introduction to some of the concepts that interest me in this area rather than a full explanation or defense. (I have a longer piece on honor, oaths, and the rule of law that, after much delay on my part and extraordinary patience on the editors' part, should appear in the Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence in time.) Here's the abstract. Enjoy.
This short piece is written for a symposium on Randy J. Kozel’s 2017 book Settled Versus Right: A Theory of Precedent. It is part of a larger project on honor, oaths, and the Constitution. One key element of Kozel’s book is its identification of “impersonality” as a central good served by precedent. Assuming impersonality to be such a good, one can recognize that it is a hard goal to achieve in the face of contrary pressures. A source of motivation, energy, and agency is needed to fuel the judge’s efforts to achieve impersonality.
In our constitutional culture, a troika of three interrelated concepts or institutions provides this motivation: The office, honor, and the oath. Together, they provide a sense of duty and constraint in filling a specific office; a sense of honor that encourages the office-holder to fulfill that duty, by creating both a desire to be well-regarded by one’s peers and an internalized sense that one ought to behave in a way that merits high regard; and, through the oath, a connection between the individual and the office, and between the office-holder and the commitment to act honorably in office. In short, this troika provides a deeply personal wellspring for the commitment to “impersonality” in judicial office.
The argument here should be seen as part of a larger set of recent efforts in public law to focus on the nature and duties of the office-holder him- or herself, and not just on an impersonal system in which the office-holder and his or her duties and character are incidental. Some of this work focuses on the oath; some of it focuses on the fiduciary nature of public office; and some focuses on the character and virtue of public officials. This work is not confined to American scholarship and, although it has been given a push by recent events, substantially predates the current administration. It deserves attention as a stream of public law scholarship with varied approaches but, speaking in broad terms, a common focus.
This is an evergreen issue, but in response to a tweet by the twitter feed of the Feminist Law Professors blog, Mike Dorf has put up some thoughts on the question of diversity on academic panels and conferences, including but not limited to gender and racial diversity. I was involved in planning one conference this year, and am involved each year in planning the list of speakers and attendees for the Annual Law and Religion Roundtable (although the lion's share of this hard work is done by my friend and co-organizer Nelson Tebbe, and most of the rest of the work is done by our other co-organizer and friend, Rick Garnett). I've also helped plan a few other panels and conferences here and there, and have advised the Alabama Law Review on its symposium planning. I'd like to offer some thoughts of my own here.
As a preface, I should add a note by way of confession, since the tweet that sparked Mike's post suggested that men should refuse to appear on a panel if there is not at least one woman on the panel. I'm not sure that plea, if one agrees with it, should stop at gender, and a person interested in gender, race, class, and intersectionality might ask why the suggestion stopped there. Still, I must confess that I just appeared on a conference panel on which there were five men and one woman, who was "only" the moderator. (She happened to be the most impressive person on the panel, for what it's worth.) I found it striking and surprising. I will note, though, that panelists often don't know what the composition of a panel will be until rather late in the process, when they've already made a commitment to appear. I'm not rejecting the suggestion of the tweet, and in such situations one should at least write to the planners and urge them to see whether something can be done about it; better yet, one could ask or insist in the first place, upon accepting, that there be at least one woman (or what have you, including insisting that the panel is not all like-minded on the issue) on one's panel. But the timing and logistics are a complicating factor. I will note, in fairness to the planners of that conference, that the mix of men and women on the overall list of conference speakers was quite strong. I will also note that in past years, I've put up one or two posts (which I couldn't find, alas, but commenters who do are welcome to put up the links) examining the gender composition of panels at the AALS annual conference. Many were reasonably balanced. A number, often associated with particular sections, were composed of only one man or only one woman. A few, to my great surprise, were all men or all women. The AALS usually advises program planners to seek various balances, including gender balances, but the advice apparently doesn't always take, and I don't know whether it does any follow-up or not when it looks at the proposed speaker list and finds serious imbalances.
Here are my thoughts, for whatever they're worth.
Jotwell, of which I am a co-editor of the Constitutional Law section, specializes in calling attention to new articles we "like lots." I liked Sandy Levinson and Mark Graber's recent article, The Constitutional Powers of Anti-Publian Presidents: Constitutional Interpretation in a Broken Constitutional Order, lots. And here is my "jot" discussing that article, titled #Resistance, With Candor.
Liking an article lots is not the same thing as agreeing with it completely or not having serious questions and potential objections to it. In the jot, I set out Levinson and Graber's recommendations for courts dealing with actions of this administration and their reasons for those recommendations (which are virtue-based!--I'm happy to see so many people are now interested in aretaic questions in law), commend them for the candor of those recommendations, and raise broader questions about what their approach means and how it would be applied. An obvious question is how we can distinguish acceptably "Publian" presidents from unacceptably "anti-Publian" presidents. But I am more interested in another question, which I have said and continue to think deserves more attention: What's the goal or end game? Here's an excerpt from the jot:
Another important question, one I have noted here before, is what the precise goal of extraordinary skepticism toward anti-Publian presidents in general, and Trump in particular, should be. Should it be one of total resistance? Or should it be to nudge such a president into a more “Publian” mode—to “normalize” that president—and then return to the standard, deferential approach to routine executive action? . . .
This question deserves more attention than it has received. It matters greatly—both to law and judges, and to politics—whether the goal of resistance to Trump is total resistance, or simply ensuring that his administration is not tyrannical, arbitrary, or chaotic. Levinson and Graber argue that there is an important distinction between “bad” presidents and anti-Publian ones. If our general assumption is that constitutional law and politics make “merely” bad policies a matter for political debate, then our choice of goal matters for both healthy politics and the legitimacy of the legal and judicial #Resistance. . . . [A] resistance needs a clear goal and stopping point. It should be able to distinguish between fighting ordinary bad policies by ordinary means, and using extraordinary measures to counter extraordinary “breakdowns” in political and constitutional norms. Similarly, an argument for extraordinary legal responses to anti-Publian presidents demands a clear goal for courts. Rendering an anti-Publian president more Publian seems like an appropriate goal, and suggests that when judges succeed in doing so, they should revert to more ordinary forms of judicial review. There is room for disagreement about this. But discussion is essential.
There's more, of course, including an application to the travel ban case and some thoughts about so-called constitutional "settlements." It's long for a jot--of course; I wrote it--but short by legal academic standards. Enjoy!
The Chronicle of Higher Education has published an interesting lineup of pieces on end-of-semester student evaluations, a perennial subject of interest for academics. The "con" side is represented both well and more thoughtfully than usual by Michelle Falkoff, a clinical associate professor of law at Northwestern. The title of her piece (which she may or may not have chosen or approved)--Why We Must Stop Relying on Student Ratings of Teaching--is subtly indicative of that thoughtfulness. It is not a plead for abandoning them, but against relying on them solely or heavily. The main argument often brought out against them is made here, and in another piece: student evaluations tend to treat women and people of color differently and worse. Beyond that, however, they may also display "biases that fall outside traditional categories of discrimination," including "student negativity toward classes they perceive as overly challenging or taxing," that "harm an institution’s ability to use student evaluations to gauge instructors’ effectiveness." These trends have been added to by other negative features as universities move toward online evaluations, which have reduced the number of students filling out the forms and tend to adopt the snark of other online writing.
The "pro" side is also represented in the issue, refreshingly, in a "Defense (Sort Of)" of student evaluations by Kevin Gannon. Gannon writes that student evaluations are "a flawed instrument" at best and a "cudgel used against faculty members" at worst. But he argues that whatever students don't know about what they're evaluating, they are still "experts on what they experienced and learned in a course, and they ought to have a voice." And he too cites studies, which suggest that despite their flaws, student evaluations are still some of the best measures of faculty effectiveness.
My desire here is not to take a side between some reductive version of "pro" and "con," although some professors do have a fairly reductive negative view of student evaluations. One reason for that reluctance is my fairly blindered perspective. Like all professors, I have received nasty and unhelpful evaluations. (I have also, to my shame, had bad semesters in which the evaluations reflected the fact that I did not teach as well as I should have. I try to take those moments to heart, weeding out merely hostile rants but looking for common complaints that suggest areas of improvement and trying to implement them in the next class. What I ought to do every semester, but generally don't, is survey my students at least once early or in the middle of the semester, while there is still time for mid-stream improvements.) But students, so far as I can tell, don't judge me for what I wear (and I often dress unconventionally for class), don't apply irrelevant criteria for evaluation, and don't impose other unreal or uneven expectations or stereotypes on me. If I received such evaluations as a matter of course and knew that the data suggested they were likely to be more hostile because of irrelevant factors, I would not be keen on them either. Since I don't face such barrages, I am inclined to accord greater weight to the complaints of those who do. (I am not a fan, however, of those popular videos of professors reading hostile student evaluations, half in pointed humor and half in anger, just as I'm not a fan of the endless stream of "It's in the syllabus" complaints professors favor on Facebook and elsewhere. Students should be treated with respect, given that they are both a main part of our callings and the source of our livings. Everyone vents and jokes about their jobs, but more dismissive professorial treatments of students are all too common in the private and only semi-private spaces of social media.)
As Gannon argues, though, students still deserve a voice in their educations. If they are not simply "consumers," neither are they inconveniences or adversaries. And there is certainly such a thing as more or less effective instructors. What I admire about both his and Falkoff's pieces is their refusal to throw the baby out with the bathwater by, say, suggesting that we get rid of student evaluations while remaining vague and cursory about proposed "alternate methods of evaluating teaching effectiveness." Falkoff, in particular, rather than simply launching arrows at student evaluations, builds on her extensive experience to offer a host of reforms we might consider. Falkoff believes that "holding instructors to high standards is important, and student feedback is relevant." But she believes that we should treat them as only one piece in a "more holistic strategy in which multiple factors contribute to a more accurate, consistent, and well-rounded assessment." Similarly, Gannon argues that the "best faculty-evaluation systems are multilayered and employ a number of different measures," including "faculty narratives, peer observations, reflective dialogue, and sample teaching materials."
Neither writer talks much about how we could improve student evaluations themselves. Doubtless there's a literature out there on that subject, and doubtless there are costs and benefits of moving to a better set of questions, including a drop in response rates (although clearly the approach of using online, "press a number between 1 and 5"-type evaluations has not resulted in a great response rate either). We could certainly aim to write better and more specific questions, and encourage detailed and specific responses rather than either numbers alone or general invitations for comments that allow students to rant at will. And rather than simply hand a set of evaluations (or a website address) and a brief and mechanical set of instructions to a student to read, we could do in the evaluation-distribution process to explain their purpose and prompt students to offer more serious responses. (Maybe the job of distributing student evaluations or links to those evaluations, and explaining them, should be given to higher-level staff.)
On the "holistic" side, I do have one proposal to make. Many complaints about student evaluations note that students may not know as much about teaching and about the goals of a particular class as do seasoned instructors themselves (although, in law, few professors learn by anything other than experience and a marginal amount of mentoring by senior professors who may lack little serious pedagogical knowledge themselves; we are not necessarily much more expert about teaching than our students are). I agree that faculty evaluations of faculty teaching should be a major part of the evaluation process. I would suggest the following:
1) Every tenured faculty member should be obliged to visit an equal, and substantial, number of their colleagues' classes each and every semester--say, ten classes per semester--and offer feedback to those instructors and to the administration about the classes they visit. The list of whom to visit and the dates of those visits should be randomly assigned. Every faculty member, including tenured faculty, should receive at least two or three visits by different faculty members every semester.
2) Those evaluations should involve more than a cursory visit to the class, and sometimes an incomplete visit at that. Professors should be obliged to read the material for that lesson and the syllabus for the course, and stay for the entire class.
3) Evaluations should be always be written and always be detailed. They should follow a set of rubrics designed in advance, including areas of effectiveness, areas of weakness, concrete suggestions for what should be improved or changed and what should be retained and enhanced, and so on.
4) As I noted, those evaluation visits should emphatically include visits to tenured as well as untenured professors. Length of tenure is no guarantee of good teaching, it is easy to become complacent, and everyone's teaching can be improved.
5) The law school administration, either directly or through a faculty committee or both, should be obliged to read, collate, and evaluate all those evaluations--not primarily for purposes of evaluating individual teachers, but for purposes of evaluating how well the faculty as a whole teach, what common flaws (if any) they display, and what the best practices are on the faculty. They should be required to write an annual report for all faculty members setting out this evaluation and set of recommendations about what to do and not to do. They should follow this up with a mandatory, dean-and-faculty-led meeting for all faculty to discuss that report, and especially best and worst practices.
6) Professors who fail without good cause to visit the requisite number of classes and take their evaluation duties seriously, say by failing to write a report or not making it a serious and detailed report, should face penalties, from public shaming to the withholding of one's paycheck or summer research grant until one has completed one's requirements.
What I like about this proposal is that it is burdensome and widely distributed. Tenured faculty members have a duty to their law school, to their colleagues, to their students, and especially to students and to junior colleagues. It should be taken seriously, not just paid lip service. A few professors who are more willing to engage in service than others, and who thus face a disproportionate burden of service as a result, should not be made to do all the work for their colleagues. This is a collective and indefeasible duty. There are good reasons to worry about student evaluations, especially poorly designed and hastily administered ones. But there is an obligation to provide serious alternatives, to make them good ones, and to treat them as a responsibility of the entire faculty, individually and collectively. Teaching is a or the central part of our job, and we should be obliged to take it seriously, both at an individual level and at a collective and institutional one. And, despite the serious reasons to dislike student evaluations, tenured professors who merely take pot shots at them from the side should be obliged (along with everyone else) to be heavily involved in making sure our students receive the best possible instruction.
I think faculty members who take seriously either their teaching responsibilities or their faculty governance responsibilities, or both, will welcome such a proposal. I should think that faculty members who worry most (and most understandably) about bias in the evaluation process should welcome a system that is more serious and systematic in providing a better means of evaluation alongside (and not simply replacing) student evaluations--which, to be sure, ought to be improved as well and should not be given undue weight, at least without culling them, looking for genuine patterns and problems, and so on. (Student evaluations should also ideally be offered more than once and not simply on the penultimate day of class.) They too should be happy to be a part of the solution, even if it is burdensome, as long as it is universally distributed.
I suspect that it is just possible that a few professors will stamp their feet and complain about having to do a great deal of extra work. (No doubt one or two will find a way to work the phrase "academic freedom" into their diatribes.) But I don't think that, say, 30-60 hours per semester spent on mandatory duties aimed at improving the teaching quality of our institutions is an unreasonable demand on us, given the importance of teaching in general, especially in a professional school, and the fact that teaching and service are both major components of our duties as professors. And it is frankly a good thing to smoke out those professors who enjoy complaining but are less than eager to do something about the things they complain about.
I should add that various universities and law schools may already do some of these things. Some schools, for instance, have post-tenure review, and others may simply take our teaching responsibilities more seriously. I'm happy to hear in the comments about more concrete examples of what schools are already doing. And I'm happy to hear about alternatives, both for improving (rather than eliminating altogether) student evaluations and for improving faculty evaluation of teaching--although I think it is valuable and important for the latter to involve serious and universal duties on the part of the tenured faculty.
I very much enjoyed writing this paper, and I hope the few people who read it enjoy it as well. It is partly a tribute to my former boss, Ed Carnes, current Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, for whom I clerked in 1998-1999. It is part of a tribute to him in the latest issue of the Alabama Law Review, on the occasion of his twenty-fifth anniversary on the bench. (The issue also includes some terrific papers resulting from a Law Review Symposium on Harper Lee.) But it is largely a reflection on clerking and the clerkship culture, and its influence on the wider legal, and legal academic, culture. In its own clumsy way, it is an effort to use the tribute format not for the standard (and, for the reasons I offer in the essay, perilous) encomium, but to engage in useful and critical reflections about a particular judge and about American legal culture more generally. Having praised that approach to judicial tributes here, I had no choice but to adopt it myself. Here is the abstract:
This essay is in part a tribute to my former boss, Chief Judge Ed Carnes of the Eleventh Circuit, for whom I clerked in 1998-1999. But it is largely a reflection on clerking and the clerkship culture itself, and the effects of that culture on the wider legal, and legal academic, culture in the United States.
The tributes by former clerks to judges that appear in the pages of law reviews are most likely to celebrate the judge as a heroic figure, and to exalt judges who: 1) cultivate a familial rather than a more formal and mundane relationship with their law clerks; 2) engage in judging as a "mission," seeking to advance particular (generally politically tinged) values in law and viewing other judges or courts as obstacles to that mission; and 3) treat their clerks as junior or even full partners in that mission. Law clerks who find that their clerkship is actually more mundane or workaday in its nature, that their judge does not cultivate a familial relationship with them, and that his or her vision of the judicial job is not "mission"-oriented may find that reality disappointing. Even if these workaday relationships are the norm, they are less likely to fill the law reviews than the romantic and familial vision of clerking. That vision has tremendous visibility and influence in the legal, and legal academic, culture. One reason for this may be that such judges are more likely to select for individuals who are skilled at seeking out, cultivating, and serving powerful mentors, that these clerkships are more likely to culminate in elite positions in the legal profession and academy, and that this process and vision then perpetuates itself.
In this essay, I argue that whatever rewards this romanticized vision offers, it has dangers too. It breeds a sense of lifelong clerkship, in which much of one's career, including a career in legal academia, is spent writing apologia for one's own judge or a particular kind of judge and thinking from the perspective of the judge or law clerk. Even if the work that results from that perspective is excellent, it may be immature. The American clerkship culture is one of hero-worship. It encourages an enduring adolescence and risks a failure to achieve full adulthood and independence. At its worst, it is unhealthy--for the clerks, for the professionals they become, for the judges themselves, and for the wider legal and legal academic culture. (It may also be true that "familial" clerkships have particular dangers, both for the clerks and for the judges who cultivate such relationships.) For developing a measured, independent, adult perspective on law and judging, there is much to be said for the more unsung clerkship: the clerkship in which the job is "just" a job, not a romantic mission or battle for justice; in which the relationship with one's judge is a "mere" professional employment relationship, not a familial one; and in which one receives a good education in the law but not conscious cultivation as a lifelong ally or acolyte.
It's shorter than the average law review article (a low bar, admittedly), if longer than any "tribute" has any right to be. I hope you will enjoy it just the same. There is much to disagree with in it, no doubt, but I hope it also provides some cause for useful reflection and discussion.
I wrote recently about a seemingly popular (in some precincts) and, so far as I can tell, quite sudden trend in public discourse, which I called the "scare-quoting of 'free speech.'" Just as arguments about freedom of religion over the past several years have involved conversation-stopping rhetorical arguments that particular religious freedom claims are actually "religious freedom" claims that do not involve freedom of religion at all, and are really part of a more or less organized campaign to achieve other interests by various more or less shadowy groups, so we are seeing the argument that invocations of free speech are not about free speech at all, but organized and strategic arguments about "free speech." As I wrote in that post, "It is simultaneously remarkable and unsurprising to see the phrase free speech start traveling down the scare-quote path."
To repeat what I said there, I do not oppose the fact of serious arguments for revisiting and revising free speech law and principles arguing about their its scope and nature. That is because of rather than despite the fact that I disagree with them. I do oppose crude, propagandistic versions of these arguments, such as scare-quoting, which is not an argument at all but a rhetorical strategy meant to forestall opposition and conversation through meme-ification and persuasive definition. But serious arguments that candidly argue for a different approach to free speech, insofar as they are clear about the arguments they are making and represent a particular contemporary vision that must be confronted, are welcome. To the extent that they represent a genuine contemporary movement, as opposed to a fringe or relative minority view, they must be acknowledged, with respect, and confronted. Even if they represent the view of a small number of people, they should still be taken seriously if those people are likely to be influential, or if those who disagree with them (like some university administrators) are unlikely or unwilling to say so clearly, and especially if (as I believe is true) their implications are wide-ranging and would significantly affect existing law. Arguments about how big a threat free speech faces on campus, or conversely whether such alarums are exaggerated, are somewhat beside the point here. Insofar as we treat the people and groups making such arguments seriously and actually listen to and engage with what they say, we should take their arguments seriously--and if we do, we can see that they do indeed have significant law-changing potential. Whether that potential is positive or negative is precisely what that argument should be about. Although I have a definite view on that (and think in particular that many of these recent arguments display a remarkable lack of, or unwillingness to provide, historical perspective), it's not relevant here. What is important is to take those arguments seriously and, in doing so, attempt to arrive at a more precise understanding of what they are and what they imply for the law if they gain traction. That requires finding fuller and more candid versions of those arguments rather than the mere rhetorical elements of this movement, such as scare-quoting--although we should take the scare-quoting seriously, as a social and rhetorical phenomenon.
This is the background that makes Michael Simkovic's post yesterday on Brian Leiter's Law School Reports, modestly titled "A well-organized campaign to bait, discredit, and take over universities is exploiting students and manipulating the public," and leading with the "key takeaway" that "Many lectures about 'free speech' are not really about 'free speech,' but rather are intended to provoke a reaction that will discredit universities," well worth reading. Insofar as Simkovic is a recognized expert in particular areas--specifically, "the intersection between law and finance, with a particular emphasis on credit markets, financial regulation, and taxation"--and he has argued for the importance of relying on "experts" with "relevant expertise" rather than generalists or non-experts or those merely claiming expertise, it is fair and not especially unkind to note that his post is rather wide-ranging in its descriptions and prescriptions on subjects such as journalism, universities and their functions, and free speech. We may therefore want to examine his arguments especially carefully and skeptically. I, for one, have no idea whether Josh Blackman is "muscular" or not--he keeps declining my invitations to an arm-wrestling contest--although I share Simkovic's admiration for Blackman's calmness under the circumstances. And although I have some background and expertise in journalism and have expressed great concern over its current state, I am less willing to make recommendations about what journalists should cover.
Regardless, the post is important, in my view, both for spelling out his arguments at length and for its representative character. As a representative argument, but one that is clearer and lengthier than the mere rhetorical strategy of scare-quoting in a post on Twitter, it will certainly be useful to my current scholarship on free speech. (My desire to offer a full examination of those and other arguments compels me to avoid stating any conclusions about his argument here. The pace of academic time, thank God, is different than the pace of public cut-and-thrust, and should be. These arguments and issues are not going away any time soon, so I don't think that delay is crucial. Even if it were, sacrificing short-term public influence for the sake of clarity and seriousness is the cost, duty, and privilege and pleasure of being an academic.) More anon, then. In the meantime, here's another one for the files, and it's a post that people interested in the issue of free speech on or off campus should certainly read and keep.
In a response to Howard's post below about the "Blackman incident," Mark Tushnet has a valuable comment, citing to recent work by Jeremy Waldron, arguing for a particular interpretation of heckler's veto doctrine. Waldron is not the only one re-examining heckler's veto doctrine these days. Howard has asked questions about it in a number of posts, and several recent papers have done the same thing. Several recent books are also re-examining these questions in light of current events concerning campus speech. (Or non-events, or "nothingburgers," as our degraded current language would put it. Some have argued that there is no campus free speech "crisis" or even much cause for concern. These two posts argue against that view, but also provide copious links to arguments that worries about campus speech are vastly overblown. I provide these links as much to give readers access to the arguments for that position as to give access to the arguments against it.)
While some of the comments following his post engage with him and with Howard, others, as I read them, are not kindly inclined toward the prescriptions some of those re-examinations suggest. This post is mostly about why I'm glad Mark and others are asking those questions, and why re-examining doctrine needn't lead to changes in that doctrine. But I begin with some general remarks about the Blackman incident and campus speech issues more generally.
As a fairly traditional civil libertarian on speech issues, I tend to side more with the basic existing heckler's veto doctrine than with the suggestions that have been made for its modification or reform. More generally, I lament that the number of fairly traditional civil libertarians seems to have declined. I worry especially about the possibility that their current numbers are less likely to include university administrators, or at least administrators who not only agree with those traditional rules but are willing to enforce them, even if it means disciplining students. Many faculty and other observers of the university complain tirelessly these days about administrators who, in the competition for students and tuition dollars, spend more time trying to make students or prospective students happy with things like lazy rivers than pursuing and insisting on the pursuit of the traditional university mission. Or they complain about the consumerization or corporatization of the university. Because many of the latter type of critics are often on board with a number of student causes and protests, they less often connect the dots between those concerns and the possibility that administrators are less likely to enforce rules governing and protecting campus speech. Enforcing rules and disciplining students is unpopular and threatens damaging publicity. Administrators who want to avoid making a vocal group of students unhappy, or who want to avoid sustained publicity for some campus incident, will strain to avoid imposing discipline, and to move past some incident as quickly and/or quietly as possible.
Friends who are undoubtedly wiser than I am have described this as smart policy. But I think they're ultimately wrong, as a matter of both policy and respect. That includes not only respect for the academic mission but also respect for students--including the students who are protesting and who, under this vision, might be subject to discipline, with due process but up to and including suspension and expulsion. I don't doubt that some administrators support the students or the values they champion, abhor hateful speech, and are acting--or believe they are acting--for that reason. But some may be acting simply to avoid bad publicity or out of worry about the university's position in the marketplace for tuition-paying students. And others may believe they are acting for the right reasons, but those actions may be influenced by more worldly and financially driven concerns. Sincere people like to keep their jobs and avoid tsuris too. Letting students heckle or no-platform, or occupy offices and buildings, may seem like a way of showing respect for those students. But it also may be a form of condescension, one that waits them out without actually attending or responding to their views. Telling people they are wrong, or breaking the rules, and are subject to discipline sometimes involves taking them more seriously than simply letting them do as they wish does. (Arguing that there is no "free speech problem" on campus can also be a form of condescension, incidentally, although I wouldn't say that about every such argument. It may be that only a small number of students are pushing to radically remake the rules governing speech on campus. But they have genuine ideas and positions, and those positions will have real implications and substantial consequences if they are applied seriously. Arguing that these students' protests and demands are no big deal can be pretty close to treating them as a minor inconvenience or the province of a few students on the fringes, and not really listening to what they are actually arguing for.) As one of my favorite Onion stories notes, sometimes respect includes both listening to someone and responding with a simple "No."
One bright spot in Josh Blackman's recounting of the CUNY incident was that an administrator spoke up clearly to remind the students of the rules governing the event and insist that they be followed. One may certainly wish she had stuck around to make sure the warning stuck, but surely some credit is due. Arguments (as in this thread, with apologies for linking to Twitter) that there was no problem with the Blackman incident because the heckling was brief and Blackman was ultimately able to speak, even if accurate, are incomplete and even misleading without recognizing the possibility that this occurred precisely because the administrator told the students to let him speak or face disciplinary consequences. If no administrator had spoken, we don't know whether he would have been able to speak, or whether the heckling would have concluded indefinitely and with the intention or result of making it impossible for him to deliver his remarks. (After I began drafting this post, Erica Goldberg pointed this out in the comments to Howard's post as well.)
This last sentence leads me back to Mark's comments. I am happy to give at least two cheers to Mark's straightforward willingness to revisit the heckler's veto doctrine, and the questions that this re-examination and similar efforts by others raise--even if they result in recommendations I don't agree with. It is equally important to note, however, that re-examining a case or doctrine doesn't have to end with a recommendation for change. Sometimes the re-examination may lead to the conclusion that the doctrine is right, or that proposed alternatives would be worse than the status quo.
Doctrine is not frozen in stone and not immune from criticism or re-examination. A responsible criticism of legal doctrine will acknowledge that it is doctrine, rather than arguing that the law one would like to see already exists and waving away inconvenient precedents. But there is nothing wrong with revisiting and questioning even decisions and doctrines that have attained semi-sacred or "super-precedential" status. Every decision is subject to potential criticism, and every position can be revisited. (And usually is, about once every generation--sometimes with legal consequences and sometimes without.)
That's true of the heckler's veto doctrine too, as important as I believe it is to free speech and First Amendment law. A number of the important decisions of the era that gave birth to the heckler's veto, and to many other important cases and doctrinal lines, may be right but are less than fully reasoned. Many if not all of them were deeply influenced by and rooted in the times that gave birth to them. Those decisions may not have an expiration date. But we should take them out and look at them afresh every now and again, especially as the events that engendered them fade in time, memory, or relevance.
I make this point in part because I see the frozen-in-stone approach from time to time in law and religion, where I do much of my writing. Particularly where its intersection with equality is concerned, I see arguments and articles that describe some set of cases or doctrines described as constitutional "settlements," or various questions as having been definitively "settled." Even if they are not so intended--they could be, but they could equally be the result of conviction, or life in an epistemic bubble, or both)--such descriptions often serve as conversation-stopping assertions. (That's even more true where such assertions are followed by descriptions of re-examinations of or arguments against those "settlements" as insidious, conspiratorial, outrageous, and so on.)
Such arguments can have some descriptive accuracy: some questions are generally treated as either settled or sacrosanct or both by the courts and the legal establishment. We can acknowledge that social fact, but it shouldn't prevent us from going on to question those "settlements." Those settlements too often come from under-reasoned decisions, or are closely linked to particular circumstances or moments in time. Even if they were exquisitely reasoned, none of them are perfect and all of them are subject to re-examination. That's especially true for law professors, whose tenured positions and lack of clients give them the luxury of being able to question even "settled" doctrines, and put them at one remove from having any professional stake in those doctrines. They do not have to spend their time convincing courts that some doctrine is "settled" or some case is "easy." They are free from the obligation to take care to use only the sort of language that judges will listen to or that is likely to persuade them. If anything, they're not just free to re-examine even sacred precedents or so-called "constitutional settlements" or "super-precedents," but obliged to do so.
But it is equally important to note that "revisiting" or "re-examining" a doctrine or decision does not mean abandoning that decision, and may in fact result in the conclusion that it is more important than ever to retain and re-emphasize that rule. Re-examination may reveal that the doctrine is a pretty darn good one. It may suggest that any proposed alternatives are worse than the existing rule, or that even if those alternatives might be better in theory, either their actual application would be imperfect or the costs of transitioning from one legal regime to another would outweigh any benefits. One may decide that the context in which the rule was originally crafted has little application to the present--or that it has equal application to the present, or even that other conditions require a heckler's veto doctrine (or some other rule) even more than it was needed in the first place. I have suggested that the possibility that something is "settled" does not oblige us to treat it as sacrosanct or beyond academic criticism or re-examination. But that doesn't mean there isn't value in settlement; it just means it's not a conversation-stopper.
This point should be obvious enough, but there are reasons to make it. Observers of scientific research have noted for some time now that researchers have strong incentives to find "new and exciting results," or counter-intuitive ideas, which are more likely to attract prestigious publications, press attention, and so on. They have argued that we need to give more value and attention to negative findings. The same is true in law. On the whole, "Rethinking [X]" will do better, place better, and get more attention if, in addition to being in tune with the times, it proposes something new, different, or radical (or, more accurately, just radical enough but not too radical) than if the result of the rethinking is, "[X] is pretty darn good, or still relevant, or at least the best we can do." The fact that the conclusion is a negative one, or one in favor of the status quo, doesn't make the inquiry less important. The "Rethinking" part of "Rethinking [X]" may be driven by changes in facts, circumstances, law, social norms, legal ideas, current events, or other factors that make it important to look at the doctrine again; or enough time may have passed that it's worthwhile looking at the issues again. But the fact that it's important to re-examine the law in a particular area doesn't predetermine the result of that re-examination. Sometimes the best answer may be that the law is still the right answer and we should stick with it. Indeed, and without wanting to prejudge the results of what I hope will be an open-minded inquiry, one reason I'm grateful for Mark's comment, and for articles like Waldron's, is that they suggest that the time is especially ripe for a re-examination of the heckler's veto that supports its continued usefulness and encourages officials and courts to enforce it with renewed vigor. I'm grateful to Mark for inspiring such an inquiry.
Granted that the plural of anecdote is not "data." Still, I was interested, in reading this first-person account by Josh Blackman of the protests and heckling that greeted his recent visit to CUNY Law School, to see this picture of a tweet from what appears to be the Twitter account of CUNY's National Lawyers Guild chapter:
Note the use of scare-quotes around "free speech." I'm not precisely sure about why it was used here, although Blackman's account suggests that students assumed the speech would be provocation dressed up as free speech but really aimed at getting attention and reaction, in part because the announced subject of the talk was free speech on campus. (Provocation is also free speech, of course, and free speech-as-provocation on and off campus is at least as old as Paul Krassner and Abbie Hoffman) Actually, Blackman had intended to speak about originalism, he writes, but "the students were not able to find any other professors who were willing to participate in the event," and the subject of the talk was ultimately changed to free speech on campus. No faculty members could be found to participate in that event either, according to the story.
But I'm less interested in its origins or rationale than in its very appearance. It comes not long after I saw--which means it must have traveled some distance--a tweet by writer Amanda Marcotte, reading:
Students of law and religion are familiar with this phenomenon, of course, as the phrase "religious freedom" has, since 2014 and peaking around last year or the year before, become increasingly rendered in even more-or-less serious media accounts as "'religious freedom.'" This went as far as its scare-quoting in a statement by the Chairperson of the United States Commission on Civil Rights in a report titled Peaceful Coexistence. The point of this epidemic of punctuation, of course, was to contest particular definitions of or assumptions about the meaning of religious freedom, albeit only in one direction. Contestation is a fine and legitimate thing, and an interesting phenomenon to observe. Of course, it can be done more or less deeply or shallowly. Scare quotes fall decidedly in the latter category. It is simultaneously remarkable and unsurprising to see the phrase free speech start traveling down the scare-quote path. Although it does absolutely nothing to improve clarity, accuracy, understanding, discussion, or justice, I'm sure it will be noted with interest by social observers and greeted with delight by typographers who charge by the character.
https://t.co/o8CaFcvsof The process is complete. “Free speech” is now being used primarily, perhaps exclusively, as a right wing code for white nationalism.— Amanda Marcotte (@AmandaMarcotte) April 2, 2018
My Prawfs colleague Carissa has been doing a superb job in both advancing and drawing attention to the issues she discusses in her most recent post. It is an issue of some interest to me as well, both because I've been blogging for over a decade (albeit less frequently) and dabble in Twitter (which, admittedly and as I've said too often, I find to be like wading in a muddy stream, with or without panning for or finding any gold nuggets). One of her main interlocutors, Eric Segall, has his own post up now on the Dorf on Law blog. I have (and will again crudely publicize) a forthcoming article on some of these subjects and an old, hopefully fun and foolishly candid, piece from back in the day when we were having similar debates about blogs and other forms of online activity by legal scholars in the early 2000s. I wasn't at the conference she refers to, so anything I say about that comes from twits about the conference posted on Twitter while it was occurring. I want to chime in with a few thoughts. I will write at undue length, as usual. But please don't count this as scholarship!
1: The first is the most obvious one and is suggested by what I wrote above: We have had this debate at least once before. More accurately, there have been debates and discussions about academics as public intellectuals for decades, and the legal academy debated the relationship between blogging and legal scholarship pretty fully about a decade ago. Of course we need not take that debate, or any debate, as settling matters, and we might have other things to say about Twitter and other bite-sized forms of writing than we did about blogs. Still, we needn't reinvent the wheel here. My partial sense of that debate is that the consensus that emerged was that blog posts can be a useful form of writing, that they can or should be recognized as a form of service (as op-eds and other public writings are), and that they should not be counted as scholarship for tenure purposes, even though some blog posts can be quite scholarly in nature, albeit without peer review and other disciplinary constraints. I think that's still the right consensus. And that had to do with blogs! Practices vary, but some of the blog posts discussed there were quite long and serious. Some foolish people still insist on long blog posts when they feel they have something to say and want to get the nuances and qualifications just right rather than make a splash. (Or, as in my case, when they write too quickly and haphazardly and don't take the time to refine and shorten the post.) If--and that's a big if, and one not reflected in the posts linked to above, but I gather something like this was said at the conference; again, please take that with a grain of salt, since I'm relying on contemporaneous tweeting--we were to include something like tweets or even tweet threads as activities that should get even partial recognition as scholarship, that would represent quite another step--a step down, I am quite sure. (Incidentally, when I have written long Twitter threads I have been criticized by other legal academics for using Twitter "wrong."* If that's the case, then it certainly should not count as scholarship, any more than we should count interesting faculty lounge discussions or chats over drinks at a conference as scholarship.) As far as either incentives or intrinsic scholarly quality are concerned, I see no compelling reason to revisit the consensus that emerged from the last conversation. Segall cites some bloggers who have written lengthy and serious blog posts. Accepting that characterization for purposes of argument, I note that the bloggers he mentions are also prolific and/or serious scholars. They don't appear to need special incentives to do the blog posts, or at least the existing incentives for doing so, such as notoriety or immediate impact, are sufficient. And not all blog posts come anywhere near meeting that standard. Most don't.
2: I understand Carissa's "defense of law review articles" to be a general defense, not a strong defense of the status quo in legal scholarship. I was gobsmacked that a commenter defended non-blind review of submissions; I know of few academic defenders of such a practice, and rightly so. I think the quality of a piece should count, not the ostensible prestige of its placement. We could criticize many other aspects, not only of the law review system, but of the format of law review articles and the tricks and stratagems baked into current writing and submission practices by ambitious law professors, and I've done so here repeatedly. Insofar as Segall argues for giving greater consideration to shorter pieces that still constitute good scholarship, I agree. Some of my better pieces (in my view) have been shorter ones, including book reviews (as we do them in the legal academy, as opposed to the 3-page reviews common in other disciplines), often precisely because they aim at a narrower problem, dispense with unnecessary literature reviews (to be clear, not all literature reviews are unnecessary, although even the necessary ones could be done differently or better), and can be sharp invitations to newer or better discussion. Some of the reasons we count long pieces over short ones, or sometimes don't count short ones at all, elevate form (not even form, really, but length) over function. We could also argue about the value of turning more long pieces into full books or published monographs, although that too threatens to elevate form over function. The means of production in law tend to prefer articles over books, and the existence of a vast universe of law reviews means it is easier and cheaper to produce long articles without having to publish books. I think we undervalue books in the legal academy. But it is also possible that some other disciplines overvalue books and that some books in those fields would be better as long articles, if there were journals willing to publish them and books were not the sine qua non for tenure in those fields. (Law is not the only discipline in which the tail sometimes wags the dog.) Perhaps the right balance lies in between. In any event, I took Carissa's defense not as an absolute but as a comparative defense--as a defense of full scholarship over bite-sized non-scholarly writing, at least for purposes of what we value and give credit for as scholarship in the legal academy.
3: There are debates about the purpose of legal scholarship. I have my own views on this, but I've offered them elsewhere, and I'm not insistent on winning those debates or ruling "out of bounds" other forms or aims of legal scholarship, although I think they must not sacrifice certain scholarly values for the sake of, say, impact or persuasion. I do not think, however, that "national attention" or "speak[ing] relatively quickly about important current legal events" are genuine scholarly desiderata. Of course these achievements may have considerable value. That doesn't mean they have scholarly value or must be treated as "scholarship." Op-eds, tweets, and other short contributions that make big splashes very rarely are scholarship in any useful sense of the word. They generally do not seriously advance knowledge, require or demonstrate mastery of a difficult field or issue, carefully consider counter-arguments, acknowledge and describe the limits or frailties of their arguments, and so on. If they did, they would be much less likely to get attention; indeed, they would be less likely to get published by newspapers or online opinion-piece publishers in the first place. They generally get attention because they provoke or persuade, and the tools used to provoke or persuade are often rhetorical strategies not necessarily linked to, and sometimes in tension with, scholarly accomplishment or values. Some of the most attention-getting, widely followed legal academic writers in the public arena (I'm thinking especially of Twitter here) are highly questionable in the accuracy and quality of their arguments. (In a comment on Carissa's post, Orin Kerr suggests that doing both--writing an article and then presenting your ideas in a blog post or op-ed--can "combine analytical rigor with public engagement without sacrificing one for the other." That can be true, and Orin is a good example of someone who does so very well. But I'm less sanguine about this one-two combo. Many such "public engagements" aim at persuasion, and do so through rhetorical strategies that can be misleading about the arguments presented more fully in the scholarly article. I'm not arguing against such engagements. But I think scholars who engage in this activity--and I certainly have, in op-eds and other public writings--should either be very careful about what they say there, even at the cost of making it less likely to get published or garner attention, or avoid trading on their job titles and academic positions. There's nothing wrong with writing something as "Joe Blow" rather than "Joe Blow, the Gavin Harrison Professor of Law at Podunk Law School.") I am perfectly happy for debates about the value of public "engagement" and real-world impact to continue. But good scholarship is not a democracy or popularity poll. Its quality is judged from within the disciplinary community. Perhaps few people will read in full the piece by Ryan Williams that Segall mentions (in a fair and non-pejorative way). But some very serious scholars will read it carefully and take it very seriously, and may in the long run judge it to be excellent scholarship. (It has gotten good peer reactions already. I treat the fact of its being published by Harvard as basically irrelevant.)
4: Some legal scholars end up frustrated with scholarship itself, or end up finding greater personal or intellectual rewards through other forms of activity. (Some of this, I think, is a function of our imperfect processes for hiring legal scholars, which sometimes focus heavily on credentials, or on general signs of intelligence or "brilliance," rather than sifting through the applicants to find those with a true scholarly vocation. Among other things, we do not require the long investment in a scholarly career that characterizes the path for scholars seeking certification in other fields, although we are moving closer to that model. Still, insofar as we don't, we have less evidence of vocation to go on, and the candidates themselves have made less of an investment in being scholars and may be less certain that that's what they want to spend the rest of their lives doing.) Some--I can think of at least a couple each at most elite law schools--become reasonably serious public intellectuals. I can think of one or two legal academics that I would characterize as having become not serious public intellectuals but, in effect, journalists or standard-issue opinion writers. Some of these individuals reach a point where they rarely if ever publish legal scholarship at all. They still write, and some write voluminously. They do not abandon writing altogether in favor of excellent teaching or service (which we might nonetheless value highly in an academic colleague in what is still also, and perhaps primarily for law schools, a teaching and training enterprise). Nor do they necessarily become people who retain their tenure but devote an absolute minimum of effort to scholarship, service, and tenure, a category of colleague generally labeled as "dead weight" within the academic profession. But they change writing genres. They don't engage in scholarship any more.
As general readers, we may value what they produce very highly. More particularly, what they produce may be valued very highly by the world outside the academy. They may garner significant book sales, go on the paid lecture circuit, get commissions from think tanks or advocacy groups, and get paid to write by various mainstream publications. In other words, they have considerable incentives and can reap considerable rewards as public intellectuals. I quite enjoy some of this work. But it is not at all clear to me why one needs to, or should, retain one's paid and tenured academic position to do it. There are plenty of people who aspire to an academic position precisely because they want to advance knowledge in a discipline through a method and form of writing that is expensive and difficult to produce (at its best, anyway), uncertain in its time horizons, unlikely to pay for itself if sold to the public, and aims at the longue duree rather than at short-term gain and rapid production. These are the people who need academic positions.
If you have decided to devote yourself instead to other forms of writing, that's fine with me. It may be your true vocation and the greatest contribution you can make to the world. But if you've made that decision, perhaps you ought to cede your tenured position to someone who wants to pursue a life of scholarship, and devote yourself to this work. You will lose security of position, true. But the point of that security of position is to serve, protect, and contribute to the discipline, not to convenience the individual. There is no guarantee that David Brooks, Kevin Williamson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or non-academic writers of serious general-interest books, will keep their current jobs or sell a lot of books. They're engaged in a chancy enterprise, albeit one that may turn out quite profitably. But that doesn't mean they should have sinecures at universities. My academic job allows me to blog; but my blog is hardly a good reason for me to have and keep that job, even if I were one day to say something useful in this space. You will also lose your title, which gives you the appearance of authority. But that appearance of authority is a function of the fact that you engage in scholarship, subject to all its duties and constraints and disciplinary judgments about its qualities. There is no sufficiently convincing reason why one should retain the title and the authority that comes along with it if one has abandoned the activity that is an essential element of that authority, and no reason why you can't find sufficient authority in what you write rather than from some academic job description in your author ID. Professional courtesy (or omertà), a desire not to offend, a healthy dose of self-interest, and the unimaginability for many scholars of giving up that job generally lead us to refrain from suggesting that not everyone should be, or remain, a tenured academic. But it's true. And there ought to be no shame, and may be much glory (not to mention honor, for the person who acts accordingly), in suggesting that people who have, or discover over time that they have, a non-scholarly vocation, ought to pursue it--and pursue it outside the academy.
I hope it is clear this is not aimed at Segall personally. I know he has a book coming out and I assume by this that he is still engaged in scholarship. I trust he takes teaching and service (in addition to the service of writing for Slate or what have you) seriously too. I am speaking more generally. Those who seek engagement and attention without also pursuing scholarship, who want to be general public intellectuals without remaining serious contributors to an academic discipline, may like having academic positions while they do so, but don't require them. And it's not clear they should have them. The cost of their not surrendering such positions is visited on would-be serious scholars who don't get jobs as academics or struggle as adjunct or contract faculty. They need and deserve those tenure-track positions more, so they can do the scholarly work for which such positions were intended. By all means give non-scholarly writing some credit, as service anyway. But that's all that's needed.
* A short addendum for the sake of fairness. I can't recall whether this person in particular motivated the sentence asterisked, but one person who engaged in such a discussion with me on Twitter takes issue with my description of that discussion and believes I have mischaracterized it. I'm happy to note that disagreement. I'm also happy to note that 1) I have received similar reactions from others on Twitter, and I think the general observation holds; 2) I certainly had that general discussion somewhere in mind but can't recall whether what I had in mind was this individual's criticisms at the time or those of others; and 3) disputes about the meaning of statements limited to some 280 characters are likely to be legion, especially among law professors (myself included, no doubt), who are often willing or eager to challenge other people's readings and understandings, and seem to me to support my view that the consensus that emerged about giving not giving credit to blogging as "scholarship" should apply tenfold to Twitter.
I occasionally read and generally enjoy the online essay site Quillette. I'm not sure how I would characterize its "politics," but I'm not much interested in doing so in the first place: the essays at their best are interesting, thought-provoking, and well-expressed, and that's good enough for me. It just put up a piece titled "Beyond All Warnings: The Radical Assault on Truth in the Law." The gist of the piece is that "the significant influence of ‘postmodern neo-Marxists’ on the legal academy is undeniable and pernicious," and that Critical Legal Studies, along with other fields such as Critical Race Studies, which the piece treats (mistakenly, in my view) as basically "subgroups" of Critical Legal Studies, have become the mainstream within the legal academy.
Leaving aside my disagreement with various assertions and detours along the way in that piece, I respectfully think this is quite mistaken. Serious CLS scholars are rare in the legal academy in the United States. (I cannot speak to the other countries mentioned in the piece. Certainly CLS seems to have had more longevity and popularity elsewhere, perhaps in part because there are more academically oriented law "departments" elsewhere, whereas the American legal academy, however much and fairly it is criticized for being too impractical, is still more of a mishmash of professional training and scholarly work.) Much of the work that is criticized in rather general or anecdotal terms in the Quillette piece is really establishment progressivism, not CLS. Most American law professors these days are, I think, at best uninterested in things like indeterminacy and rule-of-law critiques. It is possible that some contemporary legal scholars take such ideas seriously in private, but believe these urgent times require us to be silent about those issues, or at least put them on the back burner. More common, I think, are those who either never bought into CLS, or assume it’s old-hat stuff, and thus has no value for purposes of either intellectual discussion or professional advancement, or that it was “refuted.”
CLS was never popular among establishment liberal law professors, who if anything were the targets of most of its critiques. Nor is it popular among most modern establishment progressive law professors (assuming, as I do, some difference between being a "liberal" and being a contemporary "progressive"). Consciously or unconsciously, these scholars are more likely to prefer the idea that some values or "settlements" are close to absolute and that they are beyond critique, serious problems of indeterminacy, and other potential "viruses" in their program. They want those values to be honored and advanced, through law and including through judicial review. They are therefore not keen on an intellectual program that might suggest that such projects are self-contradicting, predictably cyclical, futile, or otherwise mistaken. If anything, I think the tendency these days is not only to reject or ignore CLS, but even to publicly avoid open acknowledgment of Legal Realism, despite the cliche that we all all Legal Realists now, in favor of statements about "neutral magistrates" and "sound doctrinal principles." I can't imagine a serious Crit or even Legal Realist using such terms, except as a prelude to "trashing" them.
Certainly there are progressive legal academics drawing on the literature of things like Critical Race Theory in their current work. But CRT was not just a "subgroup" of CLS. It actively resisted some aspects of CLS, such as the critique of rights. And much of the contemporary scholarly literature drawing on or referring to things like CRT is much heavier on some basic and now conventional premises drawn from that literature than it is on deep critique--especially self-critique. Some of this semi-CRT or completely-non-CLS scholarship is excellent, of course. Among other things, some terrific doctrinal scholarship is being published these days, although it is curious and deserving of notice that we seem to have returned so enthusiastically to doctrinal work even as the legal academy has hired more people trained in other academic disciplines. But this excellent work, progressive or otherwise, is not Crit work, and it doesn't aim to be.
A conventional view among political conservatives, outside and inside the legal academy, is that CLS and CRT had a strong and lasting influence on legal scholarship and continue to affect, or infect, it. That is basically the position of the Quillette piece. I think that view elides differences between progressivism, liberalism, and genuine Critical Legal Studies work. (And some conservative legal scholars--including many of the more interesting ones, in my view--are actually more interested in and sympathetic to Critical Legal Studies than many mainstream progressive legal scholars.)
My own view is that we need more CLS work in legal scholarship right now, not less. (And that includes serious CLS work from a "conservative," religious, or traditionalist perspective. Although some of CLS's leading lights argue that it was always mostly just a location for people on the Left, I don't think that's entirely true; nor does it mean that this is how its ideas must be used. In any event, as I suggested, most progressive law professors are more accurately described as bourgeois establishment progressives than as genuine Leftists.) I emphasize "right now" both because I think there's too little of it these days, and because I think this is an especially fruitful time for CLS work. A sense of urgency and common cause can, of course, be productive and lead to important real-world change. But that sense can tend to lead to work that may be doctrinally excellent, but is light on critique or self-critique, or fails to ask broader questions--especially if they might damage the cause. It runs the risk of becoming dogmatic about its premises. At a moment at which there are many serious criticisms of liberalism and/or questions about its future, combined with substantial unanimity among legal academics about various progressive values (as seen, to be clear, through an establishment lens) and the routine invocation in current scholarly and public writing of things like "rule of law," faith in judicial review, and so on, there is a lot of room for interesting and valuable work questioning those assumptions and premises.
In saying so, I'm not suggesting that legal scholars or lawyers shouldn't file lawsuits or amicus briefs, or otherwise challenge and hold accountable some actions of this administration. But that activity does not, or should not, prevent one from writing scholarship that takes a deeper and more critical look at various assumptions about the law and legal doctrine. Someone interested in this kind of legal advocacy might worry that writing Crit scholarship, or even acknowledging in one's scholarly work CLS critiques of things like "neutral magistrates" or "sound doctrinal principles," might undermine one's legal advocacy at a crucial moment in our nation's history. That worry seems exaggerated, given that judges pay little attention to serious Crit scholarship in the first place. And in some cases, that Critical scholarly work might suggest problems with some forms of current legal advocacy, such as reliance on the courts, and counsel in favor of other forms of advocacy or activism.
The bottom line, I think, is that 1) the piece defines CLS way too broadly, and attributes to it things that have much less to do with CLS than with conventional establishment liberalism or progressivism, and that 2) we need more good CLS scholarship--scholarship that need not have any particular political valence--and not what we actually have right now in the American legal academy, which is almost none of it.
I was delighted to be a part of organizing and participating in the Marquette Law Review's symposium this fall on the ethics of legal scholarship. My co-organizers, Carissa Byrne Hessick and Chad Oldfather, shouldered most of the load and put together a great discussion. Carissa's paper for that conference, on law professors on Twitter, has already provoked and produced a good deal of discussion and debate. Chad's contribution to the symposium is, to use a standard law-blog cliche, typically thoughtful--and also fun to read.
I doubt my own contribution amounts to as much. It is certainly not as focused as Carissa's, although it does talk about law professors who engage in what I describe as "multi-platform" work, including Twitter, op-eds, scholars' letters, and amicus briefs as well as legal scholarship, and the potential dangers or confusions involved in doing so. And it begins with a discussion that was important to me as an institutional pluralist and may be important to those who argue over how prescriptive we should or shouldn't be about the ethics of legal scholarship, but for others will be less important. If they want more concrete recommendations and arguments, they'll want to turn to the second half of the essay.
The paper is called "Institutional Pluralism and the (Hoped-For) Effects of Candor and Integrity in Legal Scholarship." There may be a few relatively minor changes before publication. Thanks to the Marquette Law Review for letting me post this version. Here's the abstract. Enjoy! I confess I enjoyed writing it.
This Article is a contribution to a symposium on the ethics of legal scholarship, held at Marquette Law School in September 2017. It has two goals: 1) to consider whether it is possible to contribute to debates on the ethics of legal scholarship while favoring an institutional pluralism in which different forms of legal scholarship are possible and legitimate; and 2) if one concludes (as I do) that it is possible to for an institutional pluralist to hold and advocate views on the ethics of legal scholarship, to explore the implications of the core values of ethical legal scholarship that I focus on here — candor and integrity — for different models or visions of legal scholarship.
On the first question, the Article describes institutional pluralism. It rests on two propositions: 1) Various essential institutions in public life and discourse, such as universities or the press, perform distinctive functions and follow different norms. Those norms show some stability and continuity but are subject to change over time, as a result of both internal debate and external influences. These institutions should be judged primarily on their own terms, and should not be required to follow the “logic of congruence.” 2) There is room for a plurality of approaches and models within those institutions. Not all newspapers, for instance, must follow the model of disinterested reporting; not all universities must privilege the disinterested truth-seeking model over a model that favors thicker substantive goals such as justice or equality. There may be outer limits to these variations, but within them there is room for different models of and approaches to scholarship — including legal scholarship. An institutional pluralist within the academy is certainly free to argue in favor of a particular model of scholarship and scholarly ethics, but should do so with a certain spirit of modesty and charity and not insist that competing visions or approaches be expelled from the “academic” sphere.
The two core values I single out as essential to ethical legal scholarship are candor and integrity. The Article asks how those values would apply to, and improve, different models of legal scholarship. They include the normative model that remains the most common form of legal scholarship; legal scholarship that sees its primary goal as “speaking truth to power”; and advocacy or “engaged” scholarship, particularly when it involves not just traditional scholarship but the pursuit of advocacy across a variety of formats and platforms, such as social media, op-eds, and amicus briefs or scholars’ letters. In each case, I do not reject these forms of scholarship or advocacy, but insist that their authors should be clear and transparent about their goals, arguments, animating premises, and argumentative or persuasive tactics. Doing so may sometimes reduce the persuasive power of such arguments, but it will allow readers to better understand the aim of the scholarship or public advocacy and its potential limits or omissions, and judge its arguments accordingly. Some scholar-advocates may consider these rules too confining. They might consider engaging in such advocacy in a purely civic capacity, without invoking their academic positions and ostensible academic expertise or authority. In extreme cases, they may decide that they ought to leave the academy and engage in full-time advocacy.
With what I hope is pardonable pride and an utter absence of institutional self-interest, I wanted to call attention to two events at my law school, one taking place today and one in a few weeks.
We have been blessed this year by the presence at the Law School of Joyce Vance, formerly the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. With her hard work and that of others, today the Law School is hosting a symposium titled The Role of Lawyers in Good Government, in which a variety of distinguished current and former U.S. Attorney office-holders and other high government agency lawyers discuss the role of lawyers in government and public policy. I am sorry this was posted so late, but I think it's a terrific symposium and well worth celebrating.
In a few weeks, the Alabama Law Review will hold its annual symposium. This year, the subject is Life After Scalia: Justice Gorsuch and Modern Textualism on the Supreme Court. The speakers include Victoria Nourse, our own Heather Elliott, Christopher Green, Hillel Levin, Kristin Hickman, and Matthew Franck. The title might have added the words "(and More)" after "Modern Textualism," because in addition to that question, panelists will be discussing other issues, such as the judicial nominations process. It should be a great symposium and is certainly a timely one.
I have written in recent months about my concerns over cults of personality or hero worship around judges: the relationship of this phenomenon to clerkship culture, its particular application to celebrity treatment of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and other matters. Those concerns have something to do with various work I'm doing, however slowly, on eventual law review pieces. At the often-interesting Law and Liberty website, Professor John McGinnis has a very readable piece on the "Notorious RBG" question, titled "The Troubling Apotheosis of the Notorious RBG." (From what I think one can fairly call a different part of the political spectrum, Professor Richard Hasen also recently published a piece criticizing this phenomenon. Concerns about the celebrity treatment of Justice Ginsburg, or any other Justice, and about some of her public statements, are not confined to the right. Indeed, one thing that struck me about recent Twitter and online commentary was that many conservatives who have criticized Justice Ginsburg for her extrajudicial statements wrote approvingly of recent public statements she made about the importance of due process in Title IX proceedings, without mentioning broader concerns about extrajudicial statements on legal issues that may come before the Court or about issues that are part of current political debate. Our concerns about this phenomenon should not end where our agreement with some particular public statement begins.)
McGinnis argues that the recent "adulatory" treatment of Justice Ginsburg, including not only her recent set of public appearances and friendly interviews but the industry of T-shirts, books, and workout guides--in our society, everything is eventually, and generally instantly, commodified--"raises concerns about the left’s model of a justice and of justice [itself]." The core of his column is that the "Notorious RBG" question is fundamentally about the tendencies of "the left." He concludes:
Other justices on the left side surpass her in other ways. As I have written elsewhere, Elena Kagan is both a fine stylist and the only equal of John Roberts on the current Court when it comes to the smoothness of deploying doctrine. But Kagan and Breyer are by political science measures not nearly as far to the left as Ginsburg in their voting patterns. And thus it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the veneration of Justice Ginsburg shows what the left really likes in a Supreme Court justices—reliably left wing results even if they come from an ethically challenged and not otherwise particularly distinguished justice.
As I said, the phenomenon disturbs me too, as does the general tendency toward adoring treatment of judges on the part of too many lawyers and legal academics, often former law clerks imbued with American clerkship culture, a treatment that is almost always accorded to those judges whose views are consistent with the political views of the person engaging in the veneration. Those concerns are heightened when the adoration is not just a one-sided thing in which the object of the celebrity treatment takes no part in it and does not encourage it, but one in which the object rather seems to enjoy and participate in that phenomenon, and/or takes to making general public pronouncements on various issues, which is a common element in modern American celebrity culture.
But I disagree with McGinnis's take, which seems to me to make one major mistake, and also to err more generally in not offering a richer, and less left-targeted, picture of American culture--including the American culture of hero-worship and the increasing tendency to elide the idea of heroism and the status of "celebrity." I should add that this is an adaptation of a Twitter (sorry!) thread that readers encouraged me to turn into a blog post, so doubtless it carries over some of the flaws and tendencies toward generalization of that medium. And I should make clear that I am addressing the "Notorious RBG" phenomenon, and some of Ginsburg's extrajudicial conduct, far more than I am addressing Justice Ginsburg herself, especially in her capacity as a judge, although I think her rash of recent public statements raises fair questions about whether she should either refrain from such conduct and avoid public appearances more generally, or consider leaving the bench.
First, McGinnis concludes that the adoration of "The Notorious RBG" must be about the left and crude left politics, because Ginsburg has not been an extraordinary justice and certainly is not as good as other, but perhaps less reliably "left," justices. Setting aside any debates on the quality of Ginsburg's work as a justice, I think this is starting point is seriously flawed. It treats the "Notorious RBG" story as beginning once she joins the Court and having little or nothing to do with the whole arc of her professional life. But a major source of the adulation of Ginsburg has to do with what she fought for and achieved before becoming a judge. Thurgood Marshall is similarly treated as a judicial hero, not primarily because of his work on the Court, which even some (or perhaps, albeit quietly, many) legal liberals think of as lackluster, but for his incredible work as a civil rights lawyer and architect of Brown v. Board of Education. Starting the "Notorious RBG" calendar in 1993 ignores all that she did as perhaps the greatest architect and champion in the past 40 or 50 years of women’s legal and constitutional rights.
There’s also little or no cultural or sociological sense in McGinnis's piece of the general American love of hero worship, and the way it leads hero-worshippers to read facts through the lens of their hero worship, emphasizing favorable facts and minimizing or ignoring inconvenient ones. This is a general American (or human) tendency, and it is hardly the sole property of liberals or “the left.” (Personally, I wish people would use terms like "the left" or "the right" far more precisely and selectively, especially when they are treated as nearly synonymous with "liberal" or "progressive" or with "conservative," let alone "Democrat" or "Republican." That's especially true for lawyers and the legal academy, who are generally establishment-oriented and less likely to be truly and interestingly politically radical.) The piece also ignores other relevant and more personal factors, which could be seen either as related to or as independent of the prior factors: She is in her eighties, and continues to speak out passionately on the Court on issues that deeply affect women in particular. Moreover, and on a personal level, for some it may matter that her beloved and widely admired husband passed away in recent years, leaving the Court and her work on it as a major solace. (Or so it may appear from the outside, including outsiders who love and admire her. I cannot say whether she views things in this fashion or not.)
Taking these together, I think the view is something like this: She has long been a hero for women’s rights, predating her time on the Court and continuing today. She is a role model for her achievements and her fierce determination and independence. Given all this, and given the (unfortunate) tendency of Americans to treat one’s status as a hero as generally applicable and almost indefeasible once conferred, she is entitled to do and say more or less what she wants--or, putting it in favorable or adoring terms, to "speak out"--and to sit as long as she cares to. On this view, she has earned such a right, and suggesting otherwise--let alone focusing on her rather than another, male Justice--violates or attacks her earned hero status and all that she did to earn it. (The gender-focus question was especially perceptive and pertinent early on, when some commentators were suggesting that she step down and not saying much about Justice Breyer, but before Ginsburg had engaged in any especially questionable extrajudicial statements. For that reason, it has less bite today, in my view.) Any misbehavior is either irrelevant, or should be treated as an unfair and strategic basis for "attacks" on the justice, or is interpreted through the lens of hero worship, and thus minimized or ignored, or treated as not affecting the bottom line that you don’t attack a hero and that she has earned the near-absolute right to sit as long as it makes her happy.
That’s a more interesting story, in my view, and a more complete one. It is especially important that this story doesn’t depend on making claims about “the left” that treats liberals as unique rather than exhibiting widely shared human tendencies.
None of this, of course, is a defense of RBG or the cult of RBG worship. We should not treat past heroic conduct as conferring some kind of lifetime license to act as one pleases. We should not ignore, simply because one is a hero or seems mentally sharp, the possibility that the hero is affected by age and suffering lapses of judgment as a result. (General intelligence, or even genius, is not synonymous with good judgment in decision-making, especially spur-of-the-moment decision-making.) We should not ignore the possibility that the hero judge--whether Ginsburg or any other judge and regardless of that judge's politics--is treating his or her hero status and lifetime tenure as a license to make improper extrajudicial statements. We should always worry when a hero seems to believe her own publicity or to revel in being worshipped, a common and understandable human tendency that leads to hubris and its consequences.
We should reject the general temptation to treat judges as heroes, and the current tendency of our unfortunate culture to mistake heroism, a form of virtue, with celebrity, a form of trivia and cult of personality, or to combine the two. We should treat unwise or improper conduct the same regardless of whether the person committing it is a hero or a “villain.” We should recognize, especially (and especially today) that offices of honor are defined by unceasing duties and responsibilities rather than being prizes for past achievement. Given that judges can age and suffer lapses in judgment, that they are “votes” as well as people and that none are irreplaceable, we should reject the “sit as long as you like—you’ve earned it” view, and be willing to encourage even heroes to step down when the moment has come. We should not create cults of personality and especially celebrity around judges, both because that is immature behavior and because it may have the perverse effect of injuring the very person it seeks to exalt, by tempting him or her to believe the publicity, treat it as a license rather than a responsibility, and become immured in an epistemic bubble.* And a judge’s family and close friends should serve as a reality check and as candid advisors, including warning against isolation, offering hard criticisms, and encouraging silence or prudence or even retirement, not as fans or an amen corner. Nor, although it is understandable, should they encourage such a person to do anything that will make him or her happy. Judges are already insulated enough; they need people to tell them hard truths and give tough advice. (To be clear, Justice Ginsburg's inner circle may be doing all the right things, for all I know. It is possible that she is receiving excellent advice of this sort from her loved ones and closest advisors and simply disregarding it—or, with all due respect, that her age is affecting her judgment on these questions. Even brilliant people, while remaining intelligent and energetic, can suffer from the effects of age on judgment. In any event, I certainly have no inside knowledge on these questions.)
We should, indeed, resist the lure of hero worship altogether, and resist even more strongly our cultural worship of celebrity as such—especially for judges and other office holders. These are general aretaic questions, applicable to us all, and it’s a mistake to treat these questions of how to live as just another tool in the culture war or as being about “left” versus “right.” They run deeper than that.
* On Twitter, I wrote after this passage, "I think Robert Bork ended up surrounded and insulated by fans in whose eyes he could do no wrong, and that this affected and hurt his disappointing post-judicial writings." A family member wrote to say that I was quite mistaken to think so. I will happily acknowledge that I may indeed be, and that, as with what I say about Justice Ginsburg and the advice she presumably receives from close friends or family, I pretend to no inside knowledge on those factual questions. I do think that two of the most dangerous things that can happen to one's judgment are to be a subject of widespread public scorn or a subject of widespread public adulation, both of which, often working in concert ("my enemies prove how right I am and how vicious they are, and my supporters vindicate my views and encourage me to stick by them; from now on, I will live and work in and among my supporters and away from my critics"), can distort one's independent judgment. But even if I'm right about that, I can't assume that this applies in any individual case unless I have more biographical facts to work with. I do think Bork's post-judicial writings were far from his best. But I was grateful--ultimately--to be brought up short by this criticism.
This fall, I happened to be writing a short law review piece that dealt with clerkship culture. It makes the argument, which I've also made on this site and elsewhere, that American judicial clerkship culture often encourages an adolescent love and loyalty toward the judge one clerks for, and that this is unhealthy and does not help develop a fully mature legal culture. To the extent that many or most law clerks have clerked for federal judges, and many elite law professors have clerked for elite judges, it does not develop a fully mature legal academic culture either. Not everyone agrees with this argument, of course, although it is hardly new and many have made similar arguments.
The pages of law review tributes to various judges and justices, often written by former clerks who are now law professors, are filled with adoring, sometimes worshipful language. Some of that is understandable. For one thing, the editors are unlikely to solicit or select for publication a tribute that says of one's judge, "[He or she] was just okay," or "It was just a job, although it was a great job." For another, clerkships are part of the culture of elite advancement, ours is a small community that can be quietly punitive, and one does not want to be seen to write disloyally or even especially critically or in a lukewarm fashion about one's judge. And because clerkships are so romanticized, one either absorbs that language and sensibility, or doesn't want to write more blandly, lest one be suspected of having been just a so-so clerk or of having clerked for just a so-so judge.
What is striking about those tributes, though, is the common language used to describe such clerkships. Many such tributes describe the judge for whom the author clerked not simply as a great boss or mentor, or even as a friend, but in distinctly familial and filial terms. Clerking, in this description, constituted joining a kind of family, and the judge encouraged his or her clerks to think of themselves as part of his or her extended family for life. That is a particular kind of closeness, and describes and encourages a particular kind of relationship to and with one's judge. In other cases, many involving the "familial" judge and often involving judges with a deep sense of political mission or engagement, the description is one of the chambers being part of a team, a team of near-equals and allies pursuing a shared mission: one that is deeply felt, involves more than a generalized term like "justice," and is often defined in part in terms of a sense of other judges on a multi-member court as being adversaries. Again, that kind of model encourages a strong sense of closeness and identity with one's judge. It also encourages a sense of omertà, and a desire not to let down one's "side." It encourages a particular kind of relationship, one that is far more than a mere "job."
Of course, many clerks don't have this kind of experience. Their clerkship is indeed just a job. It might be one of the best jobs one ever has, but it is still just a job. And the judge one works for is clearly one's boss: not one's second father or mother, grandfather or grandmother, or friend, or even necessarily one's mentor (even if one learns and learns well from the judge and the job). The judge is not looking for a second or substitute family; he or she already has a family and doesn't want or need another one. Nor is the judge looking for political allies or teammates on some kind of crusade or mission. Clerks are employees: special employees, perhaps, or especially important employees, but employees just the same. And the judge is "just" one's employer.
I have no idea how common that clerkship experience is. I assume it's quite common. It's consistent with my own experience. But it mostly flies under the radar. It's not the model that gets talked about again and again in the law reviews. It's not the romanticized, rhapsodized description of clerking that so fills the books and articles about clerking, or the breathless descriptions of judges or justices. More often that not, law students are given the romantic description, or hope to have that kind of life-defining (and, in my view, potentially life-long adolescence-encouraging) experience. They don't want their special year, their "elect" year, to be mundane or prosaic or just an especially prestigious and interesting job. Nor do they want to describe it that way.
There was nothing particularly timely about the piece I have been working on, and I didn't intend it to be or much care. But, in the wake of the stories about Judge Kozinski over the past week, it suddenly seems very timely indeed. I don't mean to generalize too quickly or loosely from those accounts to all "family"- or "team"-model clerkships. But in my piece, in describing both the "family" and the "team" model of clerkship, and contrasting it to the plain "job" model of clerkship, I found that I was citing many published articles by or about Judge Kozinski and the clerkship experience. And in at least one of the new accounts about Kozinski, I was struck by two things: 1) a description of the totalizing nature of the experience, one that has been described about some other judges and their clerkships; and 2) the same former clerk's desire for "greater honesty regarding judicial clerkships. Law students are often told in glowing terms that a clerkship will be the best year in their career. They are never told that it might, in fact, be their worst—and that if it is their worst, they may be compelled to lie to others in the name of loyalty to their judge."
Perhaps it's time to rethink the romanticization of clerkships that involve familial or filial relationships with one's judge, and the endless praise of judges who encourage such relationships rather than close but professional and workaday relationships. Maybe there's more to be said--certainly more than is generally said publicly--in favor of clerkships that are "just" jobs, that feel like "just" jobs, and in which the judge understands and makes it clear that the clerkship is indeed just a job, and the judge is indeed just another employer. It's a lot easier to criticize, refuse, or stand up to a judge who feels like a simple employer, not a filial figure, or a teammate and collaborator in a deeply charged and important "mission." I'm sure that many such relationships and experiences are indeed wonderful. But they are also rife with the potential for abuse of power, in a way that may discourage clerks from saying or doing much about it. And our culture of glowing tributes, displays of filial loyalty, and lifelong championing of one's former judge may not help either.
Maybe there is much more to be said in favor of the clerkship that is just a job and is treated like one, and the judge who is just an employer--and who knows it, and (as a professional should) acts like it. Perhaps that's better than an extreme in which one's clerkship might be "the best year in [one's] career," or "their worst," and in which, if it's the latter, multiple social and other forces discourage one from saying so. There's a lot to be said for clerkships that are neither the best nor the worst year, but are just jobs; and for judges who don't constitute one's closest relationship, for good or ill, but are just one's boss.
Howard does most of the writing First Amendment writing around here. But I certainly have an interest in the subject, including speech and press issues, quite apart from my interest in law and religion. Some of that has to do with my very brief time in the trenches as a reporter and my time as a student at Columbia's journalism school, which at least back then was a very practically oriented program. Although I think I have been more or less assimilated into the academy, and certainly take seriously (possibly self-seriously) the importance of "academicizing" one's discussion of issues within one's field (to borrow a term from Stanley Fish) when writing as an academic or taking advantage of one's academic title in other forums, a small part of my brain remains that of a journalist, inculcated with its norms and worldview and concerned with the well-being and integrity of that institution. My views on the state of the modern news media and contemporary journalism are not at all positive. On the other hand, journalists operate in a very different and difficult environment today; I'm glad I had my own brief time as a reporter just before the profession was irreparably altered by the Internet.
That is a long way of prefacing a link to this review of Franklin Foer's new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. Foer's primary subject is the harmful effect of the "Big Tech" companies, and their effect on the profession of journalism in particular. Thus, my review provides an occasion to offer some of my own views on what I think is wrong with much of modern journalism, including some major institutions such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, not to mention Foer's old stomping ground, The New Republic. And it's about something more than that: it's about how to interact with a culture that is obsessed with the ephemeral and to, as Foer puts it, "take back the mind."
I argue that "Taking back journalism—rescuing it from algorithms, consultants, opinionated Twitter feeds by reporters, and the obsession with page hits, and returning it to a state of serious, aggressive but disinterested professionalism—is a good in itself, a good for democracy, and a necessary start." But--and I acknowledge the tension here, which is one I experience personally--even that were to happen, I'm not at all sure it's a good thing to obsess with and attempt to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle, or even with, say, a 6- or 12-hour news cycle. That's true, I think even if one mostly avoids the trash and sticks to good writers or publications. There are excellent and even urgent reasons to make journalism better. But there are also very good reasons for cultivating one's own mind away from the noise, and focusing on more lasting and meaningful reading and thinking altogether. That doesn't necessarily mean disengaging from current events. But it might mean that wise and meaningful engagement with current events requires something other than a relentless urge to know and comment on the most up-to-the-minute developments.
A postscript: Coincidentally, Eric Segall today has a post about writing about law in an age in which there is a vast amount of both scholarship and "news" coming at an ever-increasing pace. On the former point, one could do worse than to read the first page of this paper by Mark Tushnet, and to be reminded that much of what purports to be new and improved, or just "novel," in our field is neither. On the latter, he writes:
The other major change for legal scholars is the all-too-real news cycle problem, which is a consideration that barely existed twenty years ago. To be heard over the din today, not only does one need to be smart at both substance and marketing, but one needs to be fast, very very fast. That skill is quite different than being comprehensive, careful, and thoughtful. It used to be that one had at least a year from a the date of a major Supreme Court case to contribute to the scholarly discussion of that case. The only real place to put the case in perspective was the law reviews. Very few professors wrote op-eds or magazine pieces. Today, a week is probably too long.
I have no particular objection from an inside perspective to any of what Segall writes here. It makes a lot of descriptive and practical sense. From a more detached or outside perspective, however, I think there is a lot for thoughtful people to question about these statements. Should the news cycle be a "consideration" for scholars? Should one desire particularly to be "heard over the din?" Why, exactly? What effect on scholars' work, and on their deeper sensibilities and integrity as scholars, might there be in getting "smart at . . . marketing" or "very, very fast?" (Academics these days argue routinely and mechanically that the "corporatization of the university" has had a deleterious effect on the academy and academic work. They like such sweeping arguments but are decidedly less keen on focusing on themselves. If they think that's true at a wholesale level, why wouldn't they be moved to reflect on the individual effects of a marketing-driven approach on their own work?) If a week is "probably too long" to "contribute to the scholarly discussion" of a case, what does that suggest about the nature or quality of the "scholarly" discussion that takes place within that seven-day period? What's especially scholarly, or even useful, about a "hot take?" Academics often argue in response to such concerns in one of two ways. They offer a dose of realism about "the way things are," which doesn't really answer any of those normative questions. Or they argue that what they do as marketers, entrepreneurs, public commentators, and chasers of latest developments is essentially separate from their longer and larger academic work and has no effect on it, or only a positive one. I'm not at all convinced that's true.
Again, here's the link to my review. There is surely much to disagree with in it, but I hope you enjoy reading it. I certainly enjoyed writing it.
As the United States Supreme Court gets ready to open another Term, I thought readers would enjoy this quote from Voltaire and the Cowboy: The Letters of Thurman Arnold. No special political or other message is intended here: It's just a terrific quote. It comes from a letter in which Arnold, then a Yale Law professor who had taken a leave of absence from his teaching job to go work for the Solicitor General's office, is describing his first oral argument in the Supreme Court. He is sitting with Edward Corwin, the well-known constitutional law scholar:
Professor Corwin of Princeton who is retained to consult with me on the social security case brief was with me when court opened the other day. He says that they ought to change the invocation from "God save the Government of the United States and this Honorable Court", to "God save the Government of the United States or this Honorable Court." He insists that God can't possibly do both, and he should not be asked even to try. He should be given his choice and let it go at that.
As a side note, Corwin gets the invocation wrong: It is actually "God save the United States and this Honorable Court." But we should not let a good, arguably insightful joke or anecdote get hung up on a technicality.
The New York Times on Thursday published a piece by Laurie Goodstein about religion and the Amy Barrett nomination, with the awfully vague headline (not written by Goodstein, although it is a fair description of the piece) "Some Worry About Judicial Nominee's Ties to a Religious Group." The story is unclear on whether these "some people" suggested the piece to Goodstein, and if so which "some people" did so. It quotes two law professors, and perhaps one of them suggested the story to her, but reporters go to law professors all the time for the necessary ventriloquism once they have gotten the idea for a story. It also links to a report by the Alliance for Justice, which one assumes does try to feed the occasional story to a reporter and is a more likely suspect. Or perhaps it was a bank shot: interest group suggests story to congressional staffer, who then suggests story to reporter. Or maybe it was just an inspired piece of independent reportorial digging. The gist of the story is twofold: 1) Barrett belongs to a lay Christian group called People of Praise, whose ideas and practices are, to use the standard contemporary language of plausibly deniable accusation, "troubling." 2) Barrett didn't disclose her membership in the group to the Judiciary Committee, "though many nominees" have disclosed similar memberships "in the past."
I hesitated before writing critically about this story at first, despite my interest in these issues, because I thought that point number 2, if true, would indeed be "troubling." The rest of the story was, with respect, weak at best. It certainly did not say anything more about how Barrett would perform as a judge. It quoted one professor suggesting that "These groups can become so absorbing that it’s difficult for a person to retain individual judgment," but that is a rather general statement and not grounds enough for serious concern. (And I wonder how it applies to other groups in general.) Moreover, it treated as significant (and, I think, as a foundation for that law professor quote) the apparent fact that "Members of the group swear a lifelong oath of loyalty, called a covenant, to one another." As many students of religion pointed out after the story was published, oaths and vows of this sort are commonplace within all sorts of religious communities; there is nothing terribly unusual or ominous about that. And the story essentially swallowed whole the AFJ line about Barrett's co-authored piece, now some 20 years old, on Catholic judges and recusal in death penalty cases, a line that many law professors have already suggested misreads that article. It added the AFJ's description of Barrett as having "backed away from that position," which misreads both the piece and Barrett's testimony. The piece ended with a classic suspicion-raising question by another law professor: "I’m concerned that this was not sufficiently transparent . . . . We have to disclose everything from the Elks Club to the alumni associations we belong to — why didn’t she disclose this?"
My hesitation was unwarranted. The story does not say that Barrett was required to disclose her association with the group, but is worded in such a way that the average reader might so conclude, a reading that is enforced by the professorial quote that closes the piece. But as Ed Whelan has pointed out, "[T]he Senate questionnaire, presumably because of concerns about improper inquiry into a nominee’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof), doesn’t ask about membership in religious organizations. . . . So the simple answer to the climactic question...—'why didn’t she disclose this [membership]?'—is that the questionnaire didn’t ask for it." So the one thing in the story that I thought gave grounds for concern turned out to be ungrounded. And the rest of the story, as I have already suggested, was deeply flawed. It makes it hard to read the story as anything other than a successful attempt, perhaps by an interest group, to plant a flawed critical story about a nominee in a widely read and influential newspaper. If there was a story here, it was probably that, and Goodstein could and should have written about who, if anyone, fed her the story, since that information would have given readers more information with which to judge the story and more of an education about the interplay between interest group tactics and the judicial confirmation process. As a general rule, however, reporters prefer not so say much about these mechanics in their pieces, not least because these groups are useful sources for stories and may insist as a condition of feeding the story that their fingerprints are kept off the story. Reporters should strenuously resist such conditions.
My Prawfs co-blogger Rick has a Mirror of Justice post criticizing the story. But that's not the end of the matter. Lots of people criticized the story, including many law professors who are interested in religion or law and religion, and who have various positions on that subject and come from various places on the political spectrum. On Twitter, Goodstein defended the story, starting with the line, "Seems my piece struck a chord, given defensive reaction by the nominee's allies on Twitter." As I said, however, it wasn't just "the nominee's allies" who criticized the piece. And their reaction was not "defensive:" it was critical, because they thought it was a poor piece. "Striking a chord," of course, can mean a reporter got something right; but it can also mean that the piece provoked reactions because it was flawed--as her piece in fact was. And, rather oddly, a fellow religion reporter, Daniel Burke of CNN, rode to Goodstein's defense, writing, "Looks like a well-coordinated response" to the piece, naming the Federalist Society as the presumed coordinator. This being Twitter, debate ensued.
Both the piece and the defenses of the piece raised various serious concerns for me, both on the substance and on the general issue of how reporters should or shouldn't use their Twitter feeds. For my sins, I have become more active on Twitter lately. And here is a Storified and collection of my slightly lengthy thread of Twitter posts responding to the debate. It would be long even as a blog post; as a Twitter response, it's Proustian. Clearly, the ballyhooed impending move to a 280-character length for tweets wouldn't have done much to help in this case. But I had a number of thoughts on the debate, wanted to get things right, and wanted to do so in the medium in which the debate took place. The gist of my response is roughly this:
1) Given the nature of Twitter and of contemporary politics and public discourse, doubtless there were plenty of hostile and unbalanced responses to the story. But given the number and variety of people who offered serious and well-grounded critical responses to the piece--especially those interested in law, religion, and the complex relationship between nominees' faith and their fitness for the bench--it's not enough to characterize the critical response to Goodstein's piece as "defensive" or as being about support for Barrett. Many of us just thought it was a poor story--and for good reasons, as I have written above. In particular, once the only genuinely troubling charge raised by the story--the non-disclosure angle--is shown to be dubious, all that remains is a repetition of the errors that have already been made in coverage of this nomination, along with questions about the religious group grounded in suppositions--like the idea that there is something unusual or troubling about communal vows of fealty within religious groups--about which a religion reporter, of all people, should know better. I am not suggesting Goodstein had no right to report and publish the story, or even to have stories fed to her by interest groups (if this is what happened). But it could have been reported much better, shown more knowledge about religion itself, done more to describe the genesis of the story and any interest group involvement in it, and avoided the suggestive and ominous framing and language that suffuses the piece.
2) Burke's defensive attack on criticisms of the piece was both poor in substance and odd as a general matter. It was odd because a religion reporter need not be defensive on behalf of a colleague or competitor, and should have examined the substance of the piece, which I have suggested was flawed, instead of engaging in blanket accusations about the story's critics. And it was doubly odd because, ideally, when writing on Twitter (or anywhere else), a reporter should either stick to his or her area of expertise or do enough serious reporting to justify any accusations outside that expertise. I can't speak for everything that everyone said in response to Goodstein's story--who could?--but it is clear that many of us who raised serious criticisms of the story were not engaging in a "coordinated" response, whether led by the Federalist Society or by anyone else. Burke's defense of his charge of a coordinated response is weak and in some cases erroneous. And despite its general knowing (and cliched) talk about the Federalist Society as "the real power players in DC" (emphasis added: "the?" Aren't there others?), it betrays little knowledge of how that group actually functions. It is true that there are executives within the Federalist Society who are playing a role in suggesting judicial nominees to this administration, just as other interest groups and "power players" do so in every administration, Democratic or Republican. And it is also true--unfortunately so, in my view--that there are some FedSoc executives who enjoy engaging in DC politics, and use their salaried positions at the Federalist Society as a useful and comfortable perch from which to do so. But, as with the American Constitution Society (which also has some executives who enjoy engaging in "power politics," again unfortunately as far as I am concerned), the ground-level experience of members of those groups, including law professors, is far more mundane than that. When I, for one, join either group (I have been a member of both groups at various times, depending on how I felt about paying dues in a given year; although I don't always do so, I prefer to join both groups or neither at any given time), it has more to do with wanting to receive the groups' publications than with their views. I don't get instructions or suggestions from either group, and if I did I would ignore them. Serious critics of the Federalist Society understand the difference between what a few of its executives in DC get up to and how the group as a whole operates, and the minimal influence it has on many or most of its members. There are things one may dislike or worry about with respect to either group--personally, I am not at all crazy about the elite networking aspects of either group, or about judges or hiring committees or anyone else using membership as a proxy or as a qualification or disqualification for clerkships, teaching jobs, judicial nominations, and such--but one ought to have some understanding of those groups rather than lazily treating them as bugaboos. Burke is a religion reporter; there's no reason for Burke to know any of this. But he should have done the work of reporting on it before launching accusations. Failing some serious reporting, he could and should have remained silent, or focused on the substance of Goodstein's story alone.
3) There is a broader question here that troubles me greatly: How, if at all, should non-opinion reporters (or reporters for partisan news outlets, or opinion columnists for that matter) use their Twitter feeds? I was a journalist, very briefly, and happily before the rise of social media and the current desperate straits of major and minor media institutions. I remain interested in the profession and its troubles. It seems clear to me, both from their conduct and from the various newsroom memos floating around and from media reporting on the subject, that reporters these days are positively encouraged to have Twitter feeds, and possibly encouraged to make those feeds exciting or controversial, rather than simply using them to link without commentary to their published work. Much of that pressure comes not just from editors, but from people on the other side of journalism's church-state divide: publishers, marketing departments, and various business-side news industry "consultants." It's clear that even many "straight" news reporters feel free to opine freely on Twitter, both within and beyond their actual expertise and with or without doing the reporting work to support their opinions. I can understand the "why" of the matter, which includes media institutions' desperate desire to survive in a fragmented, social-media-heavy environment, in part by seeking "eyeballs" and attention. But I think these tendencies encourage serious departures from journalistic professionalism and ethics and, for the sake of short-term gains, end up eroding trust in those institutions and imperiling them and their practices in the long run. I appreciate that my brief time in the profession came long before the rise of social media. But when I was doing things, the norms of the profession encouraged reporters to ignore or resist pressures coming from the non-editorial side of the business, to avoid public opining, and to stick to their knitting. If I had been told back then that in addition to reporting and writing for my paper, I would be expected to trawl for eyeballs by starting a Twitter feed and keeping it "interesting," and especially if that pressure came from someone on the non-editorial side of the organization, I would have ignored the instruction and possibly told that person to go to hell. Some of the most successful and prominent journalists on Twitter and other social media, including those whose positions at major media institutions mean they have some power to resist such pressures, have clearly chosen a different path. I think it's the wrong path. As I write in my collection of Twitter posts:
Individual journalists in non-opinion positions (and those with opinion positions as well) urgently need to seriously rethink the nature of their use of Twitter. They need to resist far more strenuously the temptations and seductions of having a social media "platform." They need to push back far more against editors, publishers, "consultants," marketing and business departments, newsroom memos, and peer pressure urging them to do and say more than they should on social media.
Read it all--if you have a couple of hours to spare. (I should note that whatever substantive problems it has, my collection of Tweets has one or two other errors. I refer "John Leo" rather than "Leonard Leo," for example. Mea culpa. I am duly aware that if I had written the screed on the blog rather than Twitter, I would have been able to correct such errors. And I'm aware that the piece's length violates every norm of Twitter, although I'm very happy to violate the norms of Twitter--a medium that I despise, despite my increasing use of it. That I use Twitter at all is, I hope, a matter of weakness, not hypocrisy.)
In the circles in which people comment, and then comment on commentary, and so on, and in which some of these writers treat this activity as as an earnest, important, and influential form of politics, as opposed to a conventional practice or habit with no strong justification outside the practice itself, Erwin Chemerinsky's latest op-ed (as of yesterday, anyway) will get some attention. It defends Senator Dianne Feinstein for having questioned Seventh Circuit nominee Amy Barrett about her religious beliefs and/or about an article of which she was effectively the junior co-author some 20 years ago. I wrote about that questioning here.
The problem is not that Chemerinsky is wrong as such, in broad terms. As I said in my post and have written elsewhere, in my view not all questions about a nominee's religion or religious beliefs and how they apply to the performance of an office are wrong or violations of the Religious Test Clause. The problem is that beyond this very general point--one that is shared by some but not all conservatives, and certainly many serious conservative commentators--the op-ed is vague and unhelpful, does not get to the heart of the question, and is possibly disingenuous. The proposition that it can be valid and permissible to question a nominee about his or her religion in a relevant way does not affect the question whether particular questions are fair, legitimate, or helpful. Chemerinsky writes that criticisms of Feinstein have "mischaracterized her questions." Doubtless some have: It's a big and unimpressive Internet. But anyone who has read John Garvey and Barrett's article and Feinstein's questions, as well as the changeable defenses Feinstein later offered for her line of inquiry, should understand perfectly well that the primary problem is that Feinstein's questions mischaracterized the article. Nor do Chemerinsky and some other defenders of Feinstein recognize adequately, if at all, that even if there was some valid basis for asking questions of some sort, it is possible to do so in a way that explores the question productively without discussing religion much at all, let alone making such a hash of it. Feinstein and some of her colleagues did make a hash of it. The "dogma" line will quite rightly be hung around her neck for the remainder of her career. Defending her right to question Barrett on these topics does not demand a defense of the particular questions she asked or the language she used. It certainly does not require one to ignore the mischaracterization of Barrett's article, a mischaracterization which after all served as a primary basis for asking the questions in the first place.
I think it is pretty clear that the real raison d'être for Chemerinsky's op-ed is its last paragraph, and especially its last sentence: "The attack on Feinstein is misguided because it mischaracterizes her questions and ignores the basis for them. I fear that it is a smoke screen by the right to take attention away from a very conservative nominee that Trump is trying to put on the federal appeals court bench."
I am not here to defend all the critics of Feinstein, or to deny the possibility that some of these critics were motivated--by politics, by money, or what have you--in their criticisms, or that for some of them the underlying concern was to get Barrett confirmed. Given the nature of politics, that is all but certain, although it is also true that many people were genuinely offended by Feinstein's questions and especially her language. The irony, of course, is that, especially in the absence of a definition for a phrase like "very conservative," it seems more likely to me that almost the precise opposite of this statement is closer to the truth. Barrett is dangerous to her opponents not because she is "very conservative," but because she is highly confirmable. More than that, she is potentially confirmable for an eventual Supreme Court seat. And she is confirmable precisely because she is not easily characterized as "very conservative," and certainly not as an extremist, a thoughtless conservative, a careless and irresponsible ideologically oriented lawyer or legal academic, etc.
If senators allowed themselves to openly and publicly reject nominees on the basis that they don't want smart and responsible people who meet conventional criteria for judicial appointment but are nonetheless clearly (or possibly) "conservative," or "liberal," on the bench at all, we would need fewer smoke screens from either side. It would not be necessary to paint confirmable nominees as "extremists" or "very conservative" or "extremely liberal" or anything of the sort. The results might or might not be better, but the process would be more efficient and more honest. And with that honesty would come greater and more direct political accountability for the senators themselves. (In the case of Merrick Garland, for instance, Republican senators could have said, "We have the right to block this excellent nomination and are going to do so, period," without stretching for dubious justifications and historical precedents and muddying and harming public and political discourse. Their political fortunes would stand or fall on the blunt assertion of a right to block Garland, a clearly qualified liberal nominee, and without the defense of questionable justifications for doing so.)
As it is, current convention demands that we act as if reasonable and conventionally excellent nominees should be confirmed almost as a matter of right. That in turn incentivizes senators, commentators, and--not least--groups that depend on extreme claims of urgency or emergency to fundraise and justify their continued existence to paint many excellent nominees as "extreme," "outside the mainstream," and so on, or to turn molehills into mountainous disqualifying "scandals, which also involves lengthening the duration of the nomination process as they dig through every jot and tittle for a usable "controversy." It's a lousy system, in my view. But the irony of Chemerinsky's last paragraph remains. The problem with the Barrett nomination, and the reason for Feinstein's questions, some of the criticisms for those questions (which were also fairly subject to honest criticism on the merits), and Chemerinsky's own defense of Feinstein is not that Barrett is a "very conservative" nominee and some kind of symptom of Trumpism. On the contrary, it is that Barrett may be a conservative and would count as a fine and confirmable nominee by any president, for this or a "higher" judicial office. If there is a "smoke screen" involved, it is in pretending otherwise.
I write today from Marquette Law School in Milwaukee. (Milwaukee's airport, incidentally, contains Renaissance Books, easily the best bookstore in any airport I have ever seen. Milwaukee: Come for the airport bookstore, stay for the actual city!) Thanks to the hospitality of the school and to organizers Chad Oldfather and Carissa Hessick (I am a kind of junior co-organizer to them), we are holding a two-day conference called "The Ethics of Legal Scholarship."
The issues, obviously, are plentiful, from what and how one writes to the substance of the scholarship to the publication process. The framework for the conference is a little unusual. The Marquette Law School is generously going to publish the symposium results. And we hope to lead off the symposium issue with what one might call a Draft Restatement of the Ethics of Legal Scholarship: A general set of principles, norms, and rules that do or should describe what constitutes ethical conduct for and in legal scholarship (and perhaps, although this will be a matter of discussion, what ethical norms ought to apply to "non-scholarly" work, like op-eds or amicus briefs, that might not constitute "scholarship" but are written under the title and ostensible authority of the scholar). That's the plan; whether it will happen or not remains to be seen. And having some kind of Restatement does not preclude the participants from publishing separate concurrences, dissents, or comments on that document. Indeed, the "admission ticket" papers already produced by the conferees are excellent and varied in their views and approaches.
This is a subject of great interest to legal academics and (some) others. I think it's fair to say that in conversation, law professors agree widely that there are ongoing problems and issues with legal scholarship, some or many of which could be characterized as professional "ethical" problems. It's also fair to say, I think, that those private conversations are much more candid, and often much more cynical, than the public discussions. There are understandable and perhaps forgivable reasons for that split between public and private discussions, but the more of a gap there is between the state of the public and private conversations, the more it demands to be addressed publicly and candidly at some point.
I'm excited about this conference, which has been in the making for some two or three years. I'm grateful to Chad and Carissa for organizing it, to Dean Joe Kearney for his generosity in having Marquette host it, to the Marquette Law Review for its interest in supporting and publishing the symposium, to the Marquette staff, and not least to the participants themselves.
I'm leaving the comments open. Obviously, this is the kind of post that lends itself to unserious responses, or responses that are perfectly serious but obvious or unhelpful. "Oxymoron," "contradiction in terms," things of this sort: they could end up being true, but we're all familiar with them already, and we've already resumed the conference room for the next couple of days. For those who thing the conference and its Restatement approach already assume too much or are undertaking an impossible task or the wrong task, let me reassure you that one of the conference participants is Stanley Fish, so I'm sure there will be opportunities for general skeptical questions and the throwing of assorted bombs.
But I, or we, would be grateful for comments offering more specific ideas and proposals. For instance, one might expect comments: 1) identifying ethical problems in legal scholarship that are given too little attention; 2) identifying the most important or urgent ethical problems in legal scholarship, even if they are already given attention; 3) asking questions about the definition of "scholarship" or "legal scholarship," what counts as legal scholarship, and what kinds of norms, if any, should apply to writing by law professors as law professors but outside scholarly forums, such as tweets, blog posts, "law professors' letters," op-eds, and so on; 4) proposing specific ethical norms for legal scholarship, especially those that might, as it were, be part of a Restatement or code of the ethics of legal scholarship; and 5) raising general questions, positive or critical, about what the conference should try to achieve or whether it is possible to achieve anything at all. Your contributions and suggestions and questions are appreciated. As far as I can while the conference is ongoing, I'll keep an eye on them and bring them up at the conference where they are helpful. I may offer a couple of posts along the way, or after the fact, summarizing particular aspects of the conference and the discussion.
There were some real gems in the questions and statements of senators at yesterday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for Seventh Circuit nominee Amy Coney Barrett. (Full disclosure: I was a visitor at Notre Dame for one semester some 11 years ago. I did not see much of Barrett, but I believe I socialized with her a couple of times.) As usual, they concerned religion and its relationship to judging. I must acknowledge up front that I am cobbling together the quotes from various sources, some of them from distinctly partisan media outlets. I would have preferred to draw them from ostensibly nonpartisan outlets, or obviously ideologically tilted outlets that are still treated as reliable news sources by the intelligentsia, but I did not find any reports in a (cursory) search of those outlets, nor have I found a transcript. In particular, I draw on a story in the Daily Caller, despite my general distaste for that paper. I am interested in the statements, of course, not the sources. I worked with what I could find. (For background purposes, here is a story from The Hill.) If you have links to a transcript or to other reporting on the hearing, you are welcome to provide them in the comments.
1) Senator Dianne Feinstein questioned Barrett on the 19-year-old article "Catholic Judges in Capital Cases," on which Barrett was listed as a co-author with John Garvey; she assisted Garvey with the article when she was a third-year law student. The focus of the article is, as the title suggests, the death penalty. Feinstein's questions appears to have had more to do with abortion, although I would want to review a full transcript to see whether that is entirely accurate. Speaking about that and other statements by Barrett, Feinstein said in a kind of awkward, Yoda-like fashion, "When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you. And that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for for years in this country."
2) Senator Dick Durbin questioned Garvey (and Barrett's) use of the phrase "orthodox Catholics" in the article. (The phrase, incidentally, is generally used in the article to refer specifically to federal judges.) The report puts it this way: "Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois took issue with Barrett’s use of the term 'orthodox Catholics' as it appears in her article, to the extent that it brands Catholics who do not hold certain positions on capital punishment or abortion as heretical. [para.] 'Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?' Durbin asked." Durbin later offered this explanation for his question.
Speaking after the hearing, the senator — himself a Catholic — told The Daily Caller News Foundation that Barrett has written at length about the role of faith in public life, which warrants questions about her views.
“I prefaced my remarks by saying that going into a person’s religion is not the right thing to do in every circumstance,” he told TheDCNF. “But she’s been outspoken. As a law school professor at Notre Dame she has taken on the tough challenge of how a person with strong religious beliefs becomes a judge and looks at American law.”
“So I think she has fashioned herself somewhat of an expert and I didn’t feel uncomfortable asking that question,” Durbin added.
As usual, some of Barrett's defenders on and off the Senate raised the Religious Test Clause of Article VI of the Constitution.
As I have written before, I think the best reading of the legal application of that clause is narrow. (In looking at the abstract for this article, I note with shame that I used the strategic "first article" trope. Mea culpa. People do foolish things when they're young.) The paradigm case the clause addresses involves various English test acts that required putative office-holders, among others, to avow or disavow particular religious beliefs, under oath, as a condition of entry into that office. Insofar as such statements under oath were taken seriously as a religious matter, these test acts were particularly significant. For the most part, either that Clause was a success in eliminating this problem, or social and political changes rendered it less important. (It is nice to see that various legal commentators are now taking the oath clauses of the Constitution more seriously, although I'm not sure they're doing an especially good job of it, or that they are doing so non-selectively, or that those who have argued that the oath clauses are judicially enforceable are right.)
For the reasons I've offered in the article linked to above and elsewhere, I don't think it's a viable rule, or one required by the Religious Test Clause, that nominees can't be questioned, or even selected or opposed, based on their religion. To quote from the abstract, "There are many plausible reasons why a President or Senator might validly inquire into the faith, or religiously derived beliefs, of a nominee." If, for example, a nominee for head of the EPA has stated a religious belief that the world will come to an end in precisely six years, and opined that the imminence of that event means we should use up all our natural resources now and not bother conserving them for the future, that is certainly a valid subject of questioning, and of opposition. There are more current and potentially controversial possibilities. Some broad-brush critics of Islam have argued that a correct reading of the Koran suggests that the faithful or, to use an apparently problematic term, "orthodox" Muslim may lie to non-Muslims. I will not bother citing either those assertions or the many arguments against them. It is evident in any case that it is not an accurate empirical account of how most Western Muslims generally understand or practice their faith. But if a Muslim nominee had publicly asserted a belief that Muslims can and should lie to non-Muslims in order to advance the faith, including lying for purposes of achieving the political supremacy of Islam in the United States, it is hard to believe that the Test Clause would utterly preclude questioning the nominee about this statement or even voting against him or her. The question might be ignorant and offensive, but not, I believe, unconstitutional.
I offer two or three observations about the latest kerfuffle. I generally do not favor expanding the legal operation of the Religious Test Clause by analogy or by reasoning from some ostensible underlying "principle" behind it. But nothing prevents us from questioning and criticizing questions of the sort asked yesterday, as what we might call a matter of "constitutional etiquette" rather than constitutional law. Both the senatorial statements quoted above are excellent targets of criticism.
Let us give a highly charitable reading to Feinstein's Yoda-like quote and assume that she means "dogma" as a term of art and without any intention of triggering the suspicion and hostility that the word seems to evoke for some unlettered individuals. (If so, it's hard, it seems to me, to square it with Senator Durbin's complaint, but that's a matter for the two of them to argue, I suppose.) I can well understand why Catholics and others might take such language less charitably, and in an age in which so many phrases are accused of being "dog whistles," this statement seems like a strong candidate for the "dog whistle" accusation. But I am generally chary of "dog whistle" accusations, and in any event want to be charitable here.
The question is still unhelpful enough that it ends up being doing more to cast suspicion on Catholic nominees generally than to illuminate anything important about this nominee. What one might reasonably want to know is whether, when, and how often a judicial nominee might consider herself obliged to recuse in cases, for whatever reason. It is possible to ask that question in a way that explicitly mentions religion, but with great care and sensitivity and attention to the various relevant nuances, including an awareness that we are multiple and not single selves, that we negotiate the relationship between our beliefs and the world in a complicated way, and that how even believers in a "dogma" actually carry out their faith in a particular role is equally complicated. But history suggests it's hard to do that well, and that few senators are capable of it. It's also possible to ask the question in a barer, non-religion-specific way, asking the nominee whether she can carry out her duties as a judge and decide cases impartially and leave herself open to different arguments and outcomes, and whether she will recuse in cases where she finds she cannot. It is likely that one will receive a boilerplate assurance from the nominee, although it is conceivable that the nominee will offer a fuller, more serious answer to the question. And one can still disbelieve the answer and vote against that nominee no matter her assurances. But the question itself is probably better asked in a simpler, non-religiously-oriented way, and a reasonable senator should not discount the very real likelihood that the nominee's answer that she will judge fairly and impartially is accurate, whatever the senator thinks is the nominee's "dogma" and its relevance to her performance in office. (I leave to one side the question of what we would consider necessary grounds for recusal in particular cases, and whether, for instance, we should approach with equal suspicion any nominee who has spent years working with deep conviction for a particular side of an important cause. I could imagine cases where the public statements of a pro-choice advocate would be so strong and categorical that one might question the ability of that nominee to judge such cases impartially. I could imagine a reasonable, although not necessarily correct, decision to vote against such a nominee. But I would hate to turn that into a blanket conclusion that anyone who has been an advocate on particular issues is unfit for judicial or other governmental office.)
Durbin's question was also silly, if not offensive. I actually don't take issue with much that he said after the hearing, although his post-hearing statement was not without its problems. Being the junior co-author of a 20-year-old piece is not much by way of fashioning oneself as "somewhat of an expert." Treating being "outspoken" as a trigger for such questions is not ridiculous, but it has troubling effects, encouraging people to bracket their statements about or witnessing of their faith and treat religions as a private matter, the kind of thing you do on Sunday or at home, preferably in a closet or underground bunker, and ignore or conceal the rest of the time. And while he is not wrong, in my view, that "going into a person's religion is not the right thing to do in every circumstance," it raises questions about when he thinks it is the right or wrong thing to do and whether that approach is fair and consistent or partisan and opportunistic. Still, given what I've said above I am fine, over all, with what he said after the hearing.
The question at the hearing is a different matter. It may be less significant than Feinstein's question, but it is also less related to his actual task, and thus more objectionable. Durbin may take issue personally with some Catholics' insistence that there is such a thing as orthodoxy in the faith, and (although I don't know or have any reason to believe that this is Barrett's view) that it is better to be orthodox than heterodox. But that is a religious concern, not a concern about the fitness for office of a nominee. Pace Senator Sanders, religious believers are allowed to think that some fellow practitioners are heretical or unsound in their beliefs and practices. Other religious believers are allowed to object or take offense to this. But all this has little if anything to do with the reason for the hearing, and almost everything to do with an intra-faith dispute. Asking someone under oath whether they are an "orthodox Catholic," in the context of an objection to a possible religious belief that there are correct answers to certain questions within the faith, is pretty darn close to the core concept of a test oath, even if I think it is better to criticize the question in terms of constitutional etiquette rather than constitutional law.
As a sidebar, I should note that Durbin's question was also, not to put too fine a point on it, kind of dumb and unfair. Footnote 8 of the Garvey/Barrett article--which is about capital punishment, remember--defines "orthodox Catholic" very carefully to mean "simply one who holds as correct the teaching of the church's magisterium about capital punishment." "Above all," the footnote emphasizes, "we do not with to imply that one's orthodoxy (or heterodoxy) with regard to this point of doctrine entails anything about the soundness of one's judgment or religious behavior in other areas." It's not very fair, to say the least, to "take issue" with the use of a phrase that is carefully and explicitly defined precisely to avoid making any judgments about the sincerity or soundness of disagreement among Catholics on various issues of faith and doctrine. Incidentally, given that definition, Durbin could simply have asked Barrett, "Do you believe capital punishment is morally wrong under particular circumstances? And if so, can you judge such cases fairly?"
As a final observation, I make no claims of actual animus against Catholics, or "orthodox Catholics," whether defined correctly in the context of that article or otherwise, on the part of either Feinstein or Durbin. Statements--especially statements by candidates and office-holders--can have various motivations, meanings, readings, and nuances. Where there is some policy basis for asking a question or making a statement, it is especially difficult to draw firm inferences about the sentiment behind the question or statement. Such statements can also be opportunistic: having some plausible grounds, or mistaken grounds that are not intrinsically objectionable given the mistake, but also taking advantage of how the speaker thinks some of the audience might receive it, or at least enjoying a kind of double-effect from the multiple readings of the statement. Feinstein, for instance, could have knowingly used "dogma" correctly and more or less sincerely, and with some reason, while knowing that some voters would understand it differently and more ignorantly or hostilely and that she might derive some political benefit from this reading. I'm talking about politics here, not law, and people are freer in those circumstances to draw inferences as they please. But intelligent and informed people should understand how difficult it is to do so carefully and correctly, and be cautious about doing so. In law, they should be even more aware of these difficulties, and more unwilling to draw inferences about motive or animus based on statements by politicians or office-holders, when those inferences will have a judicially enforceable legal effect. As a general rule, I think we are better off focusing on legal outputs than inputs in such cases.
Howard has already shared the news of Richard Posner's retirement from the bench. I have written several posts about him and published a couple of reviews of his recent books here and elsewhere in the past few years, and although (or because) they seem entirely relevant, I won't link to them here. I will, though, repeat one thing I have said often: Posner was and is easily my favorite contemporary legal writer, whether in his opinions or in his academic and other writings, although I have pointed to what I think are notable and increasing problems with those writings in recent years. Other than where great rock drummers are concerned, I'm not much into fandom (of course such a rule should not apply to a giant like John Bonham!). But I was and am indeed a Posner fan. In particular, I think his books published between 1990 and 2000--especially The Problems of Jurisprudence, Overcoming Law, The Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory, An Affair of State, The Essential Holmes, and Law and Legal Theory in England and America, and Aging and Old Age--marked a tremendous high point in his work. In this post, I want to discuss how to mark Posner's retirement from the bench--and how not to. Fair warning: There is much general hobby-horse riding about the American legal academy and legal profession ahead, although I think it's relevant to the post.
I have often suggested in my Prawfs posts that there is a kind of extended or eternal adolescence problem in the American legal academy and profession, one marked especially by the clerkship culture and the tendency to speak worshipfully of one's "judge" for decades after one's clerkship has ended. The legal academy and profession tend to reject, at least by outward show but I think inwardly as well, the adage that no man is a hero to his valet. I think this is unhealthy and ultimately bespeaks a deep immaturity in the American legal culture, as well as a certain amount of insecurity and credentialism (a credentialism that takes the form of seeking greatness by association, and thus requires one continually to rekindle the flame at the altar of one's idol, so that one shines in the reflected light).
The NYU Law Review in 1995 published a great symposium issue on judicial biography, including a solid contribution from Posner. The first sentence of the preface to that symposium issue reads, "American law makes giants of its judges." That personification obscures the reality: American lawyers make giants of their judges. It is thus unsurprising that two recurring themes in the NYU symposium are the tendency toward hagiography in American judicial biography, and the tendency to "canonize" various judges, although once they become canonized they may fall out of favor, or the nature of their "greatness" may change in each generation to suit the needs of the time. (Justice Holmes's reputation illustrates both phenomena, since we have celebrated many different versions of Justice Holmes over the decades, and at times he goes out of fashion altogether; his stock seems to be going down right now. It will be interesting to see how our love of celebrating anniversaries, our current disagreements over free speech, and Holmes's fluctuating stock will come together in a year or two as we start celebrating the centennial of his most famous free speech dissents.)
John Hart Ely famously dedicated his classic book Democracy and Distrust to the judge for whom he clerked, and for whom the book was a kind of apologia, Earl Warren. Ely wrote: "You don't need many heroes if you choose carefully." It is perhaps indicative of our culture--American culture generally, perhaps; certainly American legal and legal academic culture--that the dedication has been quoted at least 26 times in law reviews but has never, so far as I can see, been subjected to any skepticism or questioning. It is as if it our culture treats it as obvious and beyond question that having heroes is a good and desirable thing or, of greater importance, that it has no risks and side effects beyond the obvious and banal risk of choosing the wrong heroes. One might expect at least one article or passage, among the infinitude of words in the law review universe, that is willing to ask the heretical question whether a culture of heroes tends to become a culture of hero worship or idolatry, and whether that might not be an entirely good thing for an adult legal and political culture. There is a sense in which constitutional theory since 1980 has exhibited an odd dual tendency. On the one hand, it endlessly disparages the text of Democracy and Distrust itself. On the other, it endlessly celebrates and emulates its dedication, with the implication that Ely had the right goal--find the right "hero" and invent a constitutional theory that would enshrine his or her opinions--but the wrong specifics. I would venture the opinion that we have been too hard on the book and too easy on the dedication. A surprising amount of American constitutional theory, and American legal scholarship generally, still consists of a series of extended applications of or glosses on Ely's dedication, with the judge one clerked for (or wishes one had clerked for) substituted for Warren's name. One needn't be an absolute iconoclast to harbor some doubts and concerns about this phenomenon.
These musings are relevant to Posner's retirement because they are similar to what he has often written himself, and thus suggest something about how Posner would, or should, want to be written about on this occasion. I develop that point, and say something about how we should mark his retirement, below.
To continue: Posner has regularly, even repetitively, castigated the regular use of "the loftiest Law Day rhetoric" by and about judges and law. He has said that "ancestor worship is a besetting sin of the [American?] legal profession." He has written, again repetitively, about his insistence that his clerks call him by his first name, and criticized the tendency of judges to insist that their clerks and others act as judges' acolytes or foot-servants. His latest book devotes a huge amount of space to criticizing various judges and professors for what he sees as breathless and insincere encomia to the late Justice Scalia. Although it may be given a little (or a big) push by the fact that it's Scalia who was the subject of these tributes, Posner has often made the same point more generally. He has little interest in a culture of hero worship. Law reviews routinely devote pages to tributes to departed colleagues, and elite law reviews often publish tributes to Supreme Court justices and occasionally lower federal court judges, especially on their retirement or death. I enjoy reading them, but they are generally awash in cliches and extravagant praise, of the "He remains my idol still" variety. Sometimes a tribute writer will give a good sense of the subject's personality; many of the tributes to Marvin Chirelstein in the Columbia Law Review were successful at this. But this is rare, and serious evaluation is rarer still. Posner has contributed to some law review tributes, but (with the possible exception of his tribute to Henry Friendly, with whom he finds no fault as man or judge) those contributions, even when they praise the subject, do so as part of an evaluation of larger developments or changes in the legal culture. His tribute to Bernard Meltzer, for example, praises Meltzer but uses that praise to pivot to a discussion of the loss of certain kinds of legal scholars and scholarship as a result of changes in faculty hiring. (I should note by way of confession that I recently wrote a post praising John Manning, a former professor and mentor of mine and the newest dean of Harvard Law School. Although it was full of praise and did not critique Manning's teaching or scholarship, neither was it intended to lionize or exalt him. It had a purpose beyond mere praise. I made clear that one's debts to such mentors are best repaid not by flattering them, but by trying to help others.)
By far the most famous, or notorious, example of Posner's approach on these occasions is Posner's contribution to the Harvard Law Review's posthumous tribute to his former boss, Justice William Brennan. His tribute to Brennan on the occasion of his retirement in 1990 was laudatory, but Posner took care to note that it was too early to judge the value and consequences of Brennan's "contribution to the Supreme Court, the law, and American life." By the time of Brennan's death in 1997, Posner felt somewhat more comfortable rendering an assessment. His contribution begins:
When a public man dies in his nineties, the maxim de mortuis nihil nisi bonum is suspended, and it is permitted without breach of decorum to mingle affectionate tribute with critical assessment. Justice Brennan was largely free of pettiness and vanity, and so might actually have preferred a form of remembrance in which warm affection was seasoned with an effort at cool evaluation.
That is what Posner's contribution sought to provide. He acknowledged and praised Brennan's warmth and decency as a boss and a person, and "affirm[ed] Brennan's historical importance as a central figure in a judicial revolution." But he argued that Brennan's key contribution to that revolution lay not in some towering intellect but in Brennan's personality and his skill as a "facilitator" on the Court, along with a confluence of circumstances that made it possible for those qualities to have an impact on the Court and its decisions. Brennan's "achievement," Posner wrote, "lay not in the texture of his thought or writing but rather in his influence on the content of the law." As such, he argued, any evaluation of the "enduring quality of his work" must perforce be based on the effects of that work: "the statesman judge [as opposed to the genuinely intellectual judge] must be judged by the criteria of statesmanship, implying close attention to long-term social and political consequences." He raised doubts about those consequences, and said he did "not see how anyone could responsibly pronounce the Warren revolution a largely unqualified success," but did not reach firm conclusions. Posner concluded: "Only when [the Warren Court's] contribution to the nation's well-being has been dispassionately assessed from a perspective longer than is available to us today will it be possible to measure the value of Justice Brennan's contribution to American law."
I was a student, not a professor, when this tribute-cum-critique was published. I found it striking and admirable, but have no idea how it was received by the legal academy at the time. There is a passing disagreement with it in a 1999 law review article. (That article is titled "Remembering a Constitutional Hero," and was written for a symposium titled "Remembering and Advancing the Constitutional Vision of Justice William J. Brennan, Jr." [emphasis added]. Those titles exemplify both the usual hero-worshipping tendencies of the legal academy and the link between that tendency and the desire to advance the mission and reputation of one's judge. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the authors of that piece are former Brennan clerks.) But the best way to judge the reaction to his piece would not involve law review citations. It would be to have been a fly on the wall of the faculty lounges of the law schools (especially the elite schools) at the time. Given my subsequent experience of such places, I would hazard a guess that the reaction was less than positive: that it would have been viewed as déclassé at best, insulting and outrageous at worst.
But Posner's approach was, and is, the right one. Even if they deserve it, life-tenured federal judges, let alone Supreme Court justices and/or judicial celebrities, do not require flattery, praise, and hero-worship. They have tenure, the robe, the large chambers, the deferential treatment of clerks and marshals and lawyers, and multiple opportunities to be flown to and praised by law schools and ACS or FedSoc dinners (not to mention the financial rewards that increasingly accompany their positions). They have entirely too many uncritical valets. (In person, that is: law professors and others are happy to heap contempt on them behind their back or in print, which is little different given the sheer volume of legal periodical literature, even if they drop all that when in the holy presence.) We should dispense with most of that. It does little positive good, and what good it does may be outweighed by its harm: its distorting effect on what ought to be a more mature and independent and less personality-oriented, worshipful, elite establishment-oriented legal culture.
I venture a modest prediction. Much of the instant and even short- or medium-term reaction to Posner's retirement will consist of exactly the kind of thing he criticized and disdained. With the usual delightful dollop of irony, in paying tribute to Posner the usual suspects--deans, celebrity legal academics, law professors with Twitter feeds, and so on--will praise Posner's influence while displaying little or no evidence of that influence. Some of this will have to do with the limits of Twitter and other social media. (The overheated criticisms of Posner on Twitter--"about time!," "worst judge ever," "lawless," and so on--will likewise demonstrate those limits.) And some of it will have to do with the fact that whatever liberal legal academics used to say about Posner, his recent views and his opinion (mostly a very good opinion, in my view) in Baskin v. Bogan will wash away any former ill-will in a tide of good feelings. But much of it will have to do with the entrenched and conservative nature of the legal (and legal academic) culture, which will happily take on board some of Posner's influence while domesticating it, and certainly will not follow his advice to get rid of a culture of praise and flattery. I happen to think Posner deserves the praise, and certainly can be recognized as the most influential judge and legal academic for several generations. But that will not stop me from simultaneously chuckling over and despairing at the irony.
The best way to mark Judge Posner's retirement, of course, is as he would do so: by evaluating his career and his work. His judicial opinions and academic writing, his advocacy of and contributions to law and economics and legal pragmatism, his methodology, the influence of all of these, their consequences and systemic effects: All of these should be evaluated carefully, critically, candidly, and unsparingly, immersed in the same acid bath of which Posner himself is so fond. To paraphrase Posner's description of Justice Holmes's dissent in Lochner, whether Posner was a good judge and legal scholar or not, he was and is certainly a great one. Greatness, judicial or otherwise, is difficult to imitate or emulate. That is all the more reason both to praise Posner and to ask critically whether his is a sound model for others. And Posner's greatness, along with the sheer quantity of his written output, means there is plenty to criticize and raise doubts about as well as to praise.
One can, of course, offer very simple, brief, routine complimentary statements marking his retirement and mentioning his great influence. That seems appropriate to me. Such understated boilerplate statements may not be useful, but they will be not be harmful or dishonest either. If it is too early to offer a fuller evaluation, one can say nothing, or next to nothing, or hedge one's statement by noting that a proper evaluation of his impact will take time and perspective. One can try to offer a meaningful critical evaluation. But flowery, exaggerated, worshipful praise is not only unnecessary and dangerous; it is the very opposite of a Posnerian response. It is, however, quite typical of American legal and legal academic culture.
I have just made my way through Richard Posner's latest book (as of the time of posting), The Federal Judiciary: Strengths and Weaknesses. Not without difficulty: The second half of the book was more of a slog than the first, and finishing it was more an act of will than of love. Before making two points about it, I want to offer some context; another bit of context, a confession, follows at the end. So: 1) I reviewed and criticized Posner's last book, Divergent Paths: The Academy and the Judiciary; 2) in the course of discussing William Domnarski's recent biography of Posner (note that I screwed up Domnarski's name in that post; my apologies), I suggested that it is appropriate and relevant to ask whether Posner has declined and whether his recent work and other statements suggest that it may be time for him to retire (I did not answer the question; I just said it was a natural and important question to ask and criticized the apparent reluctance to do so, for him and for Justice Ginsburg too); 3) I recently raised that question again, albeit in the course of praising something he had written this summer; and 4) as I have often noted, Posner has long been my favorite legal writer and thinker. (Not my "hero." I think lawyers and legal academics are better off without heroes and hero-worship. The famous dedication to John Hart Ely's book Democracy and Distrust is moving, captures a common mentality of lawyers and legal academics, and is a mistake.) If I think there are good reasons to ask whether Posner has declined, these are the questions of an admirer, not a hater. I find moving his quotation from Yeats at page 376, beginning, "Grant me an old man's frenzy,/Myself must I remake/Till I am Timon and Lear," although one might recall that on some interpretations Lear begins by displaying pride and narcissism, harms his kingdom by denying his own aging and death, and comes to madness.
A longtime critic of Posner (and admirer and former clerk of Posner's nemesis, Justice Scalia), Ed Whelan, has a series of posts at The National Review's website detailing and lambasting the book. (The best posts, in my view, are this and this one.) I do not share all of Whelan's perspective or agree with all of his criticisms of Posner or the book, although some seem on-target. But I write here to offer a partial defense of the book and to raise one general, critical question about it.
First, the book isn't bad! That's faint praise, but seems necessary in light of Whelan's widely shared posts, which might well lead readers to wonder whether to bother with the book at all. (Whelan does acknowledge that there are good bits and pieces here and there, but the point may get lost amid all the disparaging remarks.) With the caveats noted below, I enjoyed a fair amount of the book, especially the first half. As with a number of Posner's books, even when the book as a whole is questionable or seems loosely put together, there are many tidbits within it to enjoy and profit from. There are reasons to read it.
For example, as I noted in my last post, I just taught the Intro to Law class for entering 1Ls at my law school. I told my students that it is common for law students to seek definite definitions for and applications of frequently used legal phrases ("intermediate scrutiny," "clearly erroneous," and so on), and common for lawyers to argue over those phrases in the manner of those who think some definite meaning can be derived from them, an exercise that easily turns into a kind of scholasticism. I told the students that such phrases rarely if ever have a precise or fixed meaning, and that--their understandable desire for certainty notwithstanding--it would be a mistake for them to begin their legal educations, or careers, under the illusion that most (or any) legal/judicial language of this sort can be reduced to some kind of mathematical formula. Such phrases should be understood as practices, or as placeholders standing in for an activity calling for judgment, and perhaps summing up some kind of underlying concept or policy, but not a definite one. Posner has a lengthy (too lengthy) section (especially 239-76, but really most of chapter 3) discussing various standards of review and other legal phrases. He argues, by picking them apart, that "there are no satisfactory answers to my questions about the meaning of familiar legal phrases commonly invoked by lawyers and judges without any clear idea of their meaning," and that they "exemplify not only concealment and indirection but also sheer superfluity in legal discourse." The discussion would have been better if it had been shorter, and some of the individual criticisms seem too cute. But it's useful and refreshing. Law students, lawyers, and judges would benefit from reading it.
The real question is not whether the book is bad, but whether it is necessary. To his credit, Posner announces on the second page that the book is what he calls a "macédoine," a "medley or jumble." I would call it a "gallimaufry," a confused medley or jumble. Also to his credit, he acknowledges the "somewhat unconventional" format of the book, which "contains a good deal of quoted material." "A good deal" is an understatement. The book is about 430 pages long. Of that, some 130 pages consist of long block quotes (I tried not to count short ones), reprints of his own writing (including several judicial opinions), and most strikingly long sections of other people's writing, including lengthy judicial opinions from his own and other courts. Some are useful. Many are useful but could have been shortened or summarized. Some are not: Did we really need five and a half pages of a Slate dialogue between Posner and Akhil Amar? A few are embarrassing: The introductory chapter contains a three-page laudatory review of his last book, from the Los Angeles Daily Journal. At times this feels less like a book book and more like a scrapbook or commonplace book. Much of it feels loosely sutured together. As Whelan notes, it is full of digressions and divagations--often true of Posner's books and usually worth the diversions, but in this case ultimately tedious and marked by abrupt transitions. Imprisoned in this fat book is a much thinner one. I would complete Cyril Connolly's quote and say "wildly signalling to be let out," but I don't see much evidence of that. The epilogue feels tacked on and perfunctory. One understands the desire to acknowledge the election of Donald Trump, but it doesn't add much, unless reprinting the four-page open letter to Trump from "Constitutional Law Scholars" can be considered a fruitful addition. It doesn't seem so to me, especially given that it's an open letter and easily accessible.
(A more substantive side note: Religion plays a weird role in the book, getting numerous brief but ominous references. Posner quotes himself saying that "our deepest values (Holmes's 'can't helps') live below thought and provide warrants for action even when we cannot give those values a compelling or perhaps any rational justification. The point holds even for judicial action. The judge [inevitably] . . . preserves a role for conscience." But he returns again and again to only one "can't help" or "deepest value," religion, often highly speculatively and generally suspiciously if not disparagingly. The closest he comes to a justification for this fixation is a short passage--immediately after arguing with seeming approval that judges are inevitably influenced by their "deepest values" and "conscience[s]," and he notes elsewhere in the book that judges' many priors include religion--offering a cursory and tendentious argument from the Establishment Clause. That's not enough of a hook on which to hang his repeated, abrupt, almost obsessive references to religion. He should have said more about it, or less.)
I said I especially enjoyed the first half of the book. That's no surprise. I also enjoyed it when I read most of it in his Divergent Paths, Reflections on Judging, How Judges Think, and his two editions of The Federal Courts--not to mention pages and pages elsewhere excoriating the Bluebook. Of course there are some changes and additions, especially from his earlier Federal Courts books. But a good deal of it is a mere reprinting or restatement of recent writings without building on them. The closest to a justification for this extreme repetitiveness that I can find is his statement (at page 393) that his oft-stated skepticism and criticisms are "very largely ignored" and that "[c]riticisms by me that seem irrefutable are seemingly not even noticed, as if I were exhibiting paintings to a blind man or singing to a deaf one." I would urge him to take more comfort than that: I think much more attention has been paid than these quotes suggest. Even if I'm wrong, I don't think it justifies repeating, quoting, or paraphrasing all this yet again and so soon after his last three books on these subjects. One despairing memoir from Lear following his displacement would have been enlightening; four or five would have been tedious, and provided some evidence that it was indeed time for him to exit the stage.
One must note that some books, including some of Posner's previous books, consist largely of reprints of published articles. Maybe that weakens my general point a little, but not much, I think. Some of these kinds of books are indeed superfluous. But in most cases those articles are less likely to be encountered by the general reader, and there is some value in their being collected in book form. The best of them have a unity of purpose that sheds light on the collection as a whole, and make meaningful changes to the articles or add connective tissue that contributes a new element or greater clarity to the work, making it more than the sum of its parts. The books themselves, as books, have some purpose and novelty, even if the material is collected from elsewhere. There's a difference between that and simply repeating what one has already said, at length and as well or better, in previous and recent books.
In sum, I don't think the book was or is necessary. And to that I would add (with the confessional caveat below) that I doubt in particular that it was necessary for Harvard University Press to publish it. Perhaps that suggests that I place too much faith in university presses, especially elite ones, and am engaging in a form of snobbery or credentialism. I hope not. But I do think that university presses have a valuable niche role to play in publishing, and that elite university presses ought to make the most of that role. Some presses--Oxford and Cambridge come most readily to mind--maintain huge lists. Others, like Harvard or Yale, do not, and should be selective in forming their relatively small booklists. They still have some importance (to me, at least) for their signaling function or imprimatur. The books they publish should deserve that imprimatur and add something to the literature. This one doesn't. (And, as I have suggested, it was not edited as well as one might hope or expect, although Posner thanks the Press for "critical comments on the structure and substance" of the book. I credit that statement, but it might tell us more about the state of the earlier drafts than about the quality of the final product.) A trade press could have published it, perhaps in softcover only. (I haven't read Justice Ginsburg's In My Own Words, which is mostly a collection of speeches and other ephemera along with some co-authored biographical material. Perhaps it is a work of genius. But Simon & Schuster was an adequate, and probably more profitable, home for it; it didn't need and probably didn't merit the imprimatur of a university press.) Or he could have kept working on it until it made a serious and new contribution. I got some pleasure from the book--occasionally from new things, but mostly from reading what I had basically already read in his other recent books. I'm not panning it, as such. But I doubt strongly that it was necessary.
* A final confession seems appropriate. I have published one book with Harvard University Press and, more relevantly, have another book in progress with them. For "in progress," read "incredibly late." Some of the reasons it is so late are fair ones: several surgeries and lots of chronic pain. Others are lamentable but understandable: I decided it needed an empirical section, and that is proving more difficult than I thought, something I ought to have weighed more heavily when estimating its date of completion. None are sufficient. I was greatly cheered by this recent article, but I'm not counting on similar forbearance, and I'm terribly embarrassed and frustrated by my lateness. I wrote last year about the effects that both chronic pain and the drugs used to treat it can have on one's productivity as a writer. That is an explanation, not an excuse--others have done more while laboring under greater burdens--but it doesn't fully capture how frustrating and demoralizing it can be to try to get things done when you feel like only half a fully functioning person. Especially given my own ambitions, I would very much like to be writing more and faster right now, as I used to. I can only apologize that I cannot, and try to press on. In any event, it didn't seem fair to criticize Posner's book--which has the comparative advantage to my own of actually existing--and especially to reserve some of that criticism for the Press, for publishing it in this form, without acknowledging the plank in my own eye.
The academic year begins absurdly early in Alabama, at public schools and universities alike, and I have already begun teaching. The 1L class began its work on Thursday with a short, intensive course called "Introduction to the Study of Law." I believe this is the second year we have taught it for every 1L student, and I have taught it both years. Our dean, Mark Brandon, taught most recently at Vanderbilt, and so it's perhaps unsurprising that Vanderbilt offers such a course and that we use a text written by two Vanderbilt law professors, Tracey George and Suzanna Sherry. The class mostly does what one would expect of such a course. It gives students some basics on what to expect from the law school experience, how to read and brief cases, some of the basic knowledge and vocabulary they will need to know to do their work, tips for success, and so on. The goal is to eliminate unnecessary fear and ignorance prior to the beginning of substantive law school classes. (Although I tell them, half-jokingly, that if there were no fear at all, they would miss out on joining the long law school tradition, and would lack stories to tell each other and their progeny in years to come.) We read a couple of cases, of course, and--also of course--spend some time with the classic "no vehicles in the park" hypothetical. Is the course necessary? I don't know. I enjoy any opportunity to meet and teach 1Ls, so I'm not complaining; and I think they get something out of it. It is certainly not a demanding course. No doubt many schools now do something like this, either for every student or, sometimes and problematically, for a smaller group of entering law students.
There are a couple of things I do in this class that I thought I would share. One is obvious, if no doubt not always done: I make sure that the students, in the short time they have with me, read at least one or two full cases. The Sherry and George book offers excerpts from the fun recent Supreme Court decision in Yates v. United States, which asked whether fish are a "tangible object" for purposes of a federal criminal law barring the destruction of material to prevent its seizure by the government. Their excerpt is fine but shorter than even the average casebook excerpt. I require the students to read the full version, including the concurring and dissenting opinions, which altogether is 43 pages not counting the syllabus (which I do not reprint in my handout). Students are not required often enough in law school to read full opinions rather than excerpted versions. They thus aren't forced often enough to do the work of figuring out what the opinion means, separating the substance from the filler, and learning how to use separate opinions to make sense of and critique the majority (or plurality, in this case) opinion, and vice versa. Just as I require my Constitutional Law students to read the Constitution itself in depth at least once, even if most of the course goes far afield from it and the text itself is often unimportant, so I want these students to read a full case at least once in law school. (Yes, they do so in their legal writing and research classes--further evidence that LRW is the most important class in law school. And I hope they all do so in the course of writing papers during law school. But more of this is better, and it's rare in substantive courses.) Yates is a statutory case and a Supreme Court case, so it's not fully illustrative of what they usually read in their 1L year, although it's pretty fun and readable. I also have them read a much shorter but still full version of a standard common-law case, and write a brief of that case. Although I don't think my own chosen common-law case qualifies, having students read a case or two is one area in which those professors or law schools that are so minded can bring in some of the underlying bigger issues that are present but not always discussed in law school--race, inequality, etc. (Some of these issues are discussed in my Intro class.)
There are three other things I talk about: jobs; whether to attend law school at all; and writing. More on that below.
First, I talk extensively about jobs. No doubt this will please the many students, graduates, and professors who worry about this issue and think law schools fail if they're not candid and detailed in talking about difficulties getting jobs, the state of the legal economy, and so on. And it is equally likely that the talk may dispirit some of my new students, who are coming in full of hope and perhaps high expectations engendered by all the usual blandishments and encouragements that they receive when deciding whether and which law school to attend. I consider it a duty, in any event--and especially a duty to do it early, when they can still reconsider their decision to attend law school, without as much expense or disruption as withdrawing later would involve. I do mention those writers who have argued that the legal economy is improving, that law school graduates still enjoy a lifetime earnings benefit, and so on; I also mention those who argue that the legal economy is undergoing fundamental restructuring and that there will be many fewer jobs, or worse jobs, for today's law students and lawyers. But the general discussion is short; much of the talk is about jobs for Alabama students in particular, and advice for their job hunt.
Alabama is a highly ranked law school and, I naturally think, a durn good one. If rankings were all, it would be a ticket to national employment as well as work in Alabama. Our ranking, among other factors (including our relatively low tuition and extensive clinical offerings; many also say they are impressed by the friendliness of everyone they meet when they visit, and the interest in those prospective students, as compared to their visits to other law schools, which seem less friendly and happy or more indifferent to them), draws students from out of state as well as Alabamans. But rankings are not all, especially when combined with two things: the national prejudice elicited by the very mention of the word "Alabama," and the tendency within Alabama to be parochial. So we face a kind of double-bind in employment. Students who come from out of state to Alabama for law school and want to live and work here sometimes find that Alabama law firms worry that they will leave after a couple of years, and that their investment in training them will be lost. They are, in short, suspicious of out-of-staters, and place a heavy burden of proof on these students that they will remain in the state for the long haul. Conversely, despite its ranking, the value of the Alabama law degree does not "travel" out of state to a degree commensurate with our ranking. So those students, whether out-of-staters or Alabamans, who want to work elsewhere (other than a few places in the Southeast like Atlanta or Nashville) find that it's more difficult than they thought to get jobs there. (I will add that when I meet with prospective students the year before they attend law school, I ask where they want to work and what schools they have gotten into. Where appropriate, if they want to work in place X and have an offer from a decent law school in place X, I often advise them to think seriously about going there, even if it's more expensive than Alabama. I offer half-hearted apologies to the hard-working folks in our admissions and recruitment department.)
I don't want to overstate any of this, especially if any of my colleagues are (still) reading this. Most of our graduates succeed in getting jobs, and I hope most of them get the jobs they want. Moreover, everyone from the dean on down is working hard on this issue, and making progress. As at most schools, however, getting a job isn't automatic, and it's better that our students be warned about our particular conundrum, even if it makes them nervous or unhappy at the beginning of law school.
I don't have perfect advice. If I were talking to Alabama law firms themselves, I would tell them, I hope gently, that their parochialism is silly. And it is tied, no doubt, to a general parochialism in Alabama, and especially a tendency to rely heavily and foolishly on those who already know each other--from school, from social networks in Birmingham or Mobile, from excrescences such as the "Machine," etc. It is not different in kind from networks of those who know each other from Choate or Stuyvesant or Harvard or other webs of the northeastern professional-managerial class. But it is worse in degree, incestuous, secretive, often has a racial- and class-discriminatory impact, and is one among many reasons that our state too often fails to update itself and too often prefers mediocrity to greatness. That's a broad statement and an accurate one, but not of course a universal one. Those employers think there are many reasons to live in places like Birmingham and Mobile, and they're right; they should have a little more faith. They should also place greater weight on the fact that these students have already chosen to come to school here. Finally, they're missing out on excellent opportunities for the sake of ostensibly sure bets. Some out-of-staters will leave, but others will stay. In any event, some will be worth the investment even if they eventually leave. In the meantime, the web of alumni and connections built thereby will benefit them in the long run, as will the infusion of new blood, energy, and ways of thinking and doing business at those firms and in the state legal community, as opposed to stagnating and incestuous circles of the already-acquainted, and the occasional high-profile scandals and routine low-profile conflicts of interest they engender. I think many lawyers at many big firms in the state know this and are responding, and I think our dean, who is an Alabama alumnus, is an extraordinary ambassador and advocate for our students. But change comes slowly in our state.
To the students, I say this. For out-of-staters who want to work in Alabama, I tell them to start preparing a plausible (and hopefully mostly sincere) story about why they want to stay and work in Alabama for a long time. (I do not tell them never to leave. The long-term shape of their careers and their decisions is their own business.) And I tell them to start immediately getting to know as many Alabama lawyers as they can, including the usual offer to buy coffee and listen admiringly to the Great Man or Woman talk about his or her practice, with the emphatic assurance that they will not ask for a job. Lawyers like to talk about themselves and, on the whole, like talking to students who profess to want to do exactly what they do. They are more willing to do so if there is no pleading for a job attached. They may remember that student, and they may introduce him or her to other lawyers who will also remember his or her name. It's slow work and there will be more noes than yeses, but it can result in a job in the long term. Similarly, for Alabamans or out-of-staters studying at Alabama but who want to work elsewhere, I encourage them to start trying to meet as many lawyers in the place and area of practice they are interested in as possible. That may include using trips or vacations to those places, and trying in advance to set up as many informal informational interviews as they can manage. They should certainly contact Alabama alumni in those places, and although younger alumni will have less power, they may understand the conundrum better and be more willing to give advice.
Most important, and perhaps most in tension with what they are told officially, I tell my new students that they should treat the job hunt as an immediate priority, not something that should wait until after midterms, Thanksgiving, or first-semester exams. Yes, they should focus hard on their studies. But it is never too early to start worrying about jobs. I advise them (and upper-year students as well) to act as if they are enrolled each semester in a class called "Job Hunting," and--as with their other classes--to schedule a certain amount of time to it each week rather than only at the end of the semester or other specific times. They should move the ball forward a little each week rather than trust that everything will work out if they apply through the conventional channels at the conventional times and/or rely on the on-campus interview process. They should do so for all six semesters of law school, including the first. I can't promise magic results. (Again I emphasize that most of our graduates succeed in getting jobs.) But I can promise a little less tension, less surprise and sudden disappointment, and more agency.
Second, I talk about the decision to attend law school itself. The modern cliche is that prospective law students should be told that unless they really want to actually practice law, with the expectation of a living but not great wealth or security, they should probably not attend law school. Take comfort: When I asked for a show of hands, the vast majority of the class reported that they had been given this advice before deciding to come to law school. (I offer the same advice to prospective and admitted law students.) We talk about why they decided to come anyway, what their expectations are, and what concerns they have. Some students talk about unhappy lawyers they know, and why they're unhappy.
This talk is less necessary than it was around 2009-12, when students came in with a great gulf between expectation and reality and less information about law school and the legal economy. Most of my students now are pretty informed about these issues, and have made conscious decisions about whether and why to attend. (They may be over-optimistic decisions, to be sure; but they are much more informed and deliberate decisions.) My point is not to scare them away. They're adults, for one thing; and for another, I loved law school and (mostly) my brief practice of law, and many of these students are far more determined, informed, and excited about the nuts-and-bolts practice of law than those of us who attended law school a couple of decades ago, when "I have a BA in English" or "I like debating" was still a frequent explanation for one's decision to attend. But it's better that they talk and think again about these questions now--when, among other things, it's easier to withdraw if they so choose--than later. We talk about these things too when I teach the legal ethics course, but by then they're already second- or third-year law students.
Finally and more conventionally, I talk a lot about writing. My general advice is that LRW is the most important course in law school, that a vast amount of legal practice in any field involves writing, that the ability to translate and explain clearly to clients and others is a major part of their jobs, and that if they can internalize the form of a good legal memo, they can apply that skill more easily and successfully on law school exams. I continue to think this advice is better and cheaper than trying to learn and game the preferences of each individual professor. This year, I handed out something I came across in my summer reading: the English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper's writing advice for those writing academic theses. Although it's written for a different audience, it's mostly excellent advice for any writer, including any legal writer. A PDF version is available here, but I reprint them below, from this source. It can also be found in this collection of letters from Trevor-Roper, which is a delightful read.
* * *
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF WRITING
1 Thou shalt know thine own argument and cleave fast to it, and shall not digress nor deviate from it without the knowledge and consent of the reader, whom at all times thou shalt lead at a pace which he can follow and by a route which is clear to him as he goeth.
* Some versions ascribe this to "the prophet Black."
** Another version adds "as commended by the High Priest Nicholas Boileau, (1636-1711)"
*** Another version has it ‘the Holy Inquisition, Pravda, and the late Lord Beaverbrook.’
I'm grateful to Rick for the mention of my piece Positive Pluralism Now, a review of John Inazu's fine and very well- and widely-noted book Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference. As a book review, my just-published piece suffers from the usual potential SSRN black hole: my experience, at least, is that SSRN is inconsistent in its treatment of book reviews but generally prefers not to put them on the main, searchable "list". What's more, it lacks even a Solum-ready abstract. So I want to offer a summary of the review, which is an attempt to use the book as a vehicle to think about issues that have interested and worried me for some time, both before and after the election.
First, although this is a critical review of John's book, it's not a dismissive one. I write:
If a new literature of pluralism emerges in this culture-war cycle, Professor John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference is likely to be one of its key texts. Inazu’s book is blissfully short, clearly written, aimed at educated general readers rather than academic specialists, and underwritten by personal experiences that cross standard culture-war lines. Confident Pluralism is necessary reading for anyone who is frustrated by the belligerence and inflexibility of the current discussion and looking for ways for different deeply held perspectives and tightly knit communities to survive and thrive. . . . Confident Pluralism is a good and valuable book.
What I find especially important about the book is
the fact of Confident Pluralism. Like other expressly pluralist interventions, it comes at a moment, during one of our recurring culture wars, in which debate hardens around the poles and those poles move ever farther apart. The culture-war cycles tend to subside. . . . But they always come back. In or around each cycle, a pluralist intervention also occurs, and these interventions have provided some of the richest and most inspiring literature, offering a welcome alternative to the tedious trading of blows between left and right, even if they have made relatively few converts.
Those are the positives, and they are sincerely meant. I am a strong believer in pluralism not just as a social fact, one to be "managed" as if it were a nice but dangerous demographic incident, but as a good in itself. As the review makes clear, and as my friends Rick and Marc DeGirolami pointed out in tough comments on a draft, whether there is such a thing as pluralism as an end in itself and whether it is a good thing in itself are difficult questions, and I only make some headway on these questions, despite having tried to address it at least once before. This is my stab at it here:
I believe there is something to the possibility of arguing for pluralism as a distinctive positive good rather than a mere “claim of descriptive sociology” to be managed. There is a real difference between an approach that treats equality (or liberty) as the good to be realized, leaving pluralism to be slotted into or reconciled with that master value, and an approach that starts with pluralism as a positive feature of our society and treats liberty and equality as factors to be weighed and considered as means of helping pluralism itself flourish. At the least, it moves away from the “logic of congruence” and an overly state-centered approach to our social and political structure. And it demands suppleness about the different meanings of “liberty” and “equality” themselves, and about the possibility that the “official” legal versions of these values do not apply everywhere or with equal strength or meaning in different legal and non-legal contexts.
That said, I have two questions or criticisms about the book, one specific to John's project and one more general, although the two are clearly related and both are related to current events. The first is substantive. I argue--against my own intuitions and desires, to be sure--that "pluralism as a positive approach—as a good in itself, rather than a descriptive fact or a “technical problem . . . to be managed”—faces serious questions and difficulties. . . . [T]hese questions remain largely unanswered in Confident Pluralism because of Inazu’s strategic refusal to stake out a more distinctive and forceful theoretical position on pluralism itself." On the one hand, that strategic (if I am right to call it that), least-common-denominator approach has been a success: More so than most law professors' books, John's book has received a wide, enthusiastic, and eager reception--although one may worry that it has reached only the kind of "reasonable" audience that already believes in its principles rather than made new converts to pluralism. On the other, it leaves many questions about both the basis for and the application of the "confident pluralism" he describes.
The second question, one that in fairness was beyond his doing, is one of timing. I write:
From an optimistic perspective, Confident Pluralism is perfectly timed, coming when the culture war is at its height and a solution is all the more welcome. A more pessimistic reading of our situation, however, is that the book is already too late. To be effective, pluralist interventions in a culture-war cycle require a very specific hospitable environment. The intervention must come when there is enough heated disagreement to make an alternative to the shouting seem attractive. But it must also occur while both sides agree that there is a war, and think of either side as having a serious chance of winning it, leaving them amenable to compromise and coexistence. That is a pretty small window—and it may already have closed. . . .
A big part of this question of timing, and a phenomenon that has wreaked havoc with all general articles about constitutional law and theory written between last summer and this one, is what I call "one final, crucial data point[:] the short-fingered data point whose swift political rise so rudely interrupted our good old-fashioned on- and off-campus culture wars. Its name, of course, is President Trump." Trump, in this view, is both an exemplar and beneficiary of the culture wars and a disruption to the routine course they were taking in locations like university campuses, which might in time have led to the usual drop-off in interest in those fights. Now I am left uncertain about what will happen next, but think it means that however needed Inazu's book might be now, it is less likely to find ready takers:
Trump’s victory suggests . . . [that] the urging of a liberal “hard line” and the rise of an anti-elite conservative populist movement [ ] are closely connected. That victory simultaneously disrupted and entrenched the culture wars. It suggested that neither side was interested in the kind of compromise and coexistence that Inazu advocates, at least as long as victory was in prospect. And now that the pre-election expectations of the elite culture warriors have been upset in ways that might counsel compromise, there is a good chance that both sides will either double down or head to the barricades on other and bigger issues rather than coming together. . . . Inazu’s book thus comes along at a moment when it is simultaneously most needed and least likely to make new converts to the pluralist cause.
There is a lot in the review about culture wars, "political correctness" (and debates over whether it exists), lumping and splitting, the cyclical nature of both culture-wars and pluralism as a response to them, the "meaning" (if any) of Trump's election, and the (short-lived?) recommendation to abandon "defensive crouch liberal constitutionalism." There are very few answers. I hope some of you read it and even enjoy it--and I hope many more of you take a look at John's excellent book.
Between more productive uses of my time, I'm hoping to circle back and comment on a few interesting things I read last week. I very much hope to get around to this post by Mark Tushnet on the obligations of those who comment on contemporary political issues. (I am deliberately generalizing from the more specific question addressed in his post.) Like many of Mark's best posts, I consider it interesting, provocative, and well worth reading-- even or especially if I disagree with it, as I do in this case.
For now, let me discuss another fun item from last week: this dialogue on Slate (sorry!) between judges Richard Posner and Jed Rakoff on the question whether there should be age limits for federal judges.* Posner says yes: "I believe there should be mandatory retirement for all judges at a fixed age, probably 80." (Posner is 78.) Rakoff disagrees, and as the conversation proceeds Posner gets more Posner-y and Rakoff gets increasingly "taken aback" by Posner's musings, so much so that he uses the fierce ejaculation "Jeepers."
A longtime fan of Posner, I have nevertheless (and in keeping with what I think is a proper Posnerian approach; to hero-worship Posner is really a form of anti-Posnerianism) disagreed increasingly with his recent writings, partly in substance and partly as a matter of style and restraint. Indeed, in a close connection to the subject of the Slate dialogue, I have wondered whether Posner himself is not showing recent signs of decline--a question that I suggested is unlikely to be welcome in the legal interpretive community. As Posner has argued elsewhere, the subject of aging and old age itself is often and absurdly treated as "taboo." That's trebly true when applied to particular individuals and when, as with Posner, that figure has of late become a darling of liberals. (The same question is relevant to Justice Ginsburg, given not only her age but her increasing propensity for extrajudicial animadversions; Posner wrote in his book on aging and old age that the aged "have less incentive to conceal egocentrism and to engage in cooperative rather than self-aggrandizing conversation." But she too is treated by some as sacrosanct not a fit subject of the perfectly obvious questions one would ask about a parent or other aging loved one.) Not surprisingly, at least one person who disagrees in part with Posner's comments in the dialogue has suggested that Posner's comments reinforce his point about the need for mandatory retirement.
I note my own previous questions about Posner's aging because, in my view, Posner is in fine form in this dialogue, and, to paraphrase an earlier post of mine, is much more right than wrong. Conversely and even more so, Judge Rakoff is much more wrong than right. Rakoff offers a number of defenses against mandatory judicial retirement ages. He argues that a number of federal judges "have served with great distinction into their 80s." He writes: "I respectfully disagree that Supreme Court justices don’t improve with age; on the contrary, many of them gain a broader perspective than they had when they went on the bench, and this enables them to pierce through the technicalities of which Judge Posner complains, so they can see the woods instead of the trees. As Justice Holmes so famously said, 'The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience.'" He asserts that "in every country of the world, it has been the lawyers who have been in the forefront of confronting despots and promoting liberty." And he winds things up with this: "I’m sorry, Judge Posner, but in my mind, a love of the law and a love of liberty are inextricably intertwined."
With all due respect to Rakoff, these statements are classic examples of what Posner likes to call "Law Day rhetoric"--the stirring language and windy invocation of broad but non-specific values that lawyers and judges use when reminding themselves and others of lawyers' vital importance . It's not that there's nothing to such values or statements. Motherhood and apple pie are both good things. But speeches invoking mom and apple pie don't tell us much about either. I would much rather live in a society with whatever "the rule of law" is than in one without it. But I'm not much impressed by general statements of this kind. In every sentence quoted above, I think Rakoff is closer to persuasion by cliche than to serious argument, and the arguments, such as they are, are more wrong than right.
1) The fact that many judges have served with distinction into their 80s is doubtless true, but unhelpful and rather innumerate. Rakoff starts by citing what are generally agreed to be great judges in the first place, although Posner is right that their greatness is more assumed than proved and is overstated. Rakoff gives us an imprecise numerator, and no denominator. He does not ask how many previously great judges declined, sometimes precipitously, with age. He doesn't show that those great judges remained great, as opposed to continuing to cast votes viewed by the interpretive community as great. Nor does he ask how much of the great work itself was done by law clerks, particularly in the later stages of those judicial tenures, and whether it might be cause for concern and an argument for retirement if the clerks increasingly did everything besides casting a vote. He says judges who fail are generally and gently removed by the chief judges of their district or circuit, but doesn't prove that this is effective and sufficient, and doesn't distinguish between judges who are clearly senile and more easily removed, and those who have simply declined enough to warrant retirement but might not be the subject of such efforts by chief judges, and might refuse under those circumstances.
2) The assertion that Supreme Court justices "improve with age" comes not only with no denominator, but no evidence of any kind. I doubt its truth. I especially doubt the notion that they "gain a broader perspective" with increasing age. I think that is definitely true, but only up to a point. A judge may learn a great deal from ten or twenty years on the bench, because of the variety of cases she hears. (And the parties she encounters; but even district court judges are going to hear more from the lawyers than the parties. What parties do the Justices encounter personally?) But there is no reason to think that the learning curve is lifelong, or that it outweighs the eventual effects of decline, which may include fixity of views, tunnel vision, and other deficiencies. And there is something strongly lacking from this picture of judges gaining breadth of "perspective" and, to use the word from Holmes that he quotes, "experience" over time. Other than the variety of cases they hear, judges live cloistered lives; many judges complain in their memoirs and elsewhere about having to give up friends, associations, and other connections to the wider world. And it's a pretty privileged and princely cloister. It didn't take very much time as a law clerk for me to notice the air of deference and insulation from inconvenience that surrounds federal judges: the generous per diems, the potential for flattery from lawyers, law clerks, law schools, and bar associations; the habit of being called "Your Honor" by most of the people around them; the marshals waving them through the fortress of parking gates and detector machines in the courthouse. And that wasn't even at the Supreme Court level, which involves that level of deference, flattery, and insulation multiplied a hundredfold. The idea that judges eventually "see the woods instead of the trees" is dangerous enough on its own, since the trees are sometimes called statutes, precedents, procedural rules, and so on, and the woods sometimes amount to free-ranging views on politics and policy. But it's especially dangerous when combined with decades of relative isolation surrounded by legal courtiers. That's a recipe for hubris and judicial overreach, not "perspective." (Perhaps unfairly after that sentence, I note that Rakoff's relatively recent and now-frequent contributions to the New York Review of Books consist of broad-brush prescriptions for reform of the criminal justice system, the abolition of the death penalty, and so on. The prescriptions are less important than the question whether they should be offered by judges or fought over by politicians and citizens.)
3) Spending enough time in this kind of environment can instill a tunnel vision about the relative importance of law, lawyers, and courts, as opposed to things like people, voters, and ordinary politics. Of course law and lawyers are important. The question is their relative importance, which can easily be overstated. Rakoff's generalization about lawyers being "in the forefront of confronting despots and promoting liberty" might best be viewed in that light. Posner responds, "I would like to see some evidence for this proposition, which strikes me, frankly, as preposterous." Preposterous? I don't know. Almost certainly vastly overstated? Definitely. And Rakoff's peroration about "a love of the law and a love of liberty" tells us nothing about either, and anyway has nothing to do with the possibility of judicial decline and the advisability of judicial retirement.
Posner has drawn the most heat for this statement in the dialogue: "It’s not true that . . . a decision must be supported by 'reason,' whatever that means exactly, to avoid lawlessness; personally, I prefer common sense to 'reason.'" I don't know whether the criticism counts as ironic, insofar as I see some of the adoring praise for some of his recent decisions as having more to do with their values and outcomes than the actual "reasons." I do think there are good grounds to worry about such a statement, especially from one who was criticized last year for what was taken to be a rather free-wheeling view of constitutional interpretation and followed it up this year with an opinion suggesting a fairly free-wheeling view of statutory interpretation. Without taking a view on any of that, I still think he is far more right than wrong in this dialogue--especially about the actual matter under discussion: the question whether there ought to be a mandatory retirement age for federal judges. But even that sentence is not half as objectionable as its critics suggest. I do think Posner's work on the bench has become too free-wheeling. But I also think that while providing reasons is a fundamental part of the American judicial process, it is easy to turn respect for "reason" into idolatry, to think the "reasons" themselves do or mean more than they actually do, and to treat "reasons" as necessary while ignoring the question whether they are sufficient. (They are not: common sense is necessary as well, even if channeled through procedural rules, textualism, and other mechanisms, and even carefully elaborated and logical "reasons" are not necessarily reasonable.)
Given that I've criticized Posner in recent years and suggested, not that he is unfit or hugely affected by age, but that it is not wrong to ask such questions, I'm happy to find him in such excellent form in this dialogue.
* As a side note, Posner was slated (so to speak) to be part of Slate's Supreme Court Breakfast Table this year, at least according to the first post. Unless I've missed it, I don't think he ended up contributing anything this year. Since I generally find him the only seriously interesting contributor sitting at the "Table," I was sorely disappointed by his absence.
Allow me to offer one discrete and fairly mundane observation about the Court's treatment of the First Amendment this Term. Last week, I thought the most important sentence in the Slants case, Matal v. Tam, was this one: "This brings us to the case on which the Government relies most heavily, Walker [v. Texas Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc.], which likely marks the outer bounds of the government-speech doctrine" (emphasis added). To that I would add a passage from today's decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, in which the Court distinguishes its earlier decision in Locke v. Davey. Neither of these moves is extraordinary, dazzling, innovative, or anything of the sort. Both are very much the stuff of standard case-crunching. But I think they're both noteworthy moves, in two respects.
1) Both of those cases, and especially Walker, are the subject or basis of efforts by some First Amendment scholars, particularly those of an expressivist and/or strongly egalitarian bent, to find brilliant new ways to apply and extend (their understanding of) the First Amendment. On this reading of the legal issues raised in cases like Walker, government would have an enhanced regulatory ability to avoid perceived "endorsement" of various values, or even a constitutional obligation to avoid "endorsing" or being seen as endorsing various values seen as anathema to particular social/constitutional values. One might see Locke as the basis of similar expansive efforts in the Establishment Clause area. On this reading, Locke gives ammunition for a broader argument that government can, or even must, regulate more aggressively, despite claims of equal access to funding or programs by religious individuals or groups, in order to avoid being seen as in any way "endorsing" religion or religious values. As my friend Marc DeGirolami summarizes this line of argument, "government conduct that is motivated by even the possibility that somebody might perceive religious endorsement (even if nobody actually has) is itself justified and validated by the Establishment Clause." Both cases are thus tools for creative, even brilliant, readings of existing First Amendment law and principles in a way that would give government considerable discretion, or even a positive obligation, to avoid "endorsement" of values that are actually or purportedly contrary to the (actual or aspirational) Constitution.
Of course I mean "brilliant" as both a sincere compliment and an expression of concern. The skill of some of this scholarship is great and it makes for thought-provoking reading. But there is now a long post-Daniel Farber tradition of recognizing the limits, dangers, and sometimes hubris and overreaching quality of "brilliant" arguments in constitutional law. However I might feel about it in scholarship, on the whole I would just as soon not have courts go in for "brilliant" extensions of First Amendment doctrine and "values." There is no particular reason to think judges or law clerks have the wisdom or skill or forethought about consequences to engage in these brilliant extensions wisely or well. There is little reason to think government will be wise in its use of such "nonendorsement" principles either; but at least those applications are subject to some political control and capacity for revision. Constitutionalizing the principles and turning them, more or less, into judicial mandates would eliminate that safeguard. I am not defending current doctrine; and for that and other reasons, I find much to think about, and therefore admire if for no other reason, in some of these brilliant arguments. But I think we would on the whole be better off if judges did not pay too much attention to them. Both Tam and Trinity Lutheran show little interest in these kinds of brilliant extensions, and some interest in foreclosing them. That, I think, is noteworthy in and of itself.
(On the other hand, I am perfectly amenable to smart and provocative scholarly arguments for fairly radical revision of constitutional doctrine in this and other areas. But I prefer such suggestions to be put explicitly as radical revisions, which are harder to put over quietly and thus require more debate and discussion before doing so. That is better than the strategic approach of treating clever or brilliant arguments for radical revisions as if they are implicit in existing doctrine, and thus are either already required or need just a little modest judicial work to achieve. The latter approach is much more elitist and anti-democratic than the former.)
2) These signals from the Court (if that's what they are) are also important for the Supreme Court's relationship with lower courts. In some of these areas, in my view, the lower courts have been much more receptive to brilliant arguments of this sort, and much more willing to apply them, despite and sometimes in fairly obvious if implicit disregard of the Court's own opinions and direction. The passages that I've identified in Tam and Trinity Lutheran show that these kinds of innovations won't find a Court that is eager to adopt them. I don't expect the lower courts to stop pushing their own visions just because the Court sends signals like this, or even stronger ones. The Supreme Court only takes so many cases; it only decides them so clearly and leaves lots of room for clever readings and exploitation of open spaces; there are many smart, driven, and politically committed lower court judges; and courts and judges, like the rest of the nation, reflect political and societal fissures. Lower courts do not have to read tea leaves if they do not want to, and sometimes it suits them not to do so. So I don't mean to overemphasize the importance of the signals here. But I do think both passages make clear that the Supreme Court won't give a friendly reception to lower court innovations in these areas.
I have often worried here about how small the American legal academic community is, especially given its multiple connections to the few elite schools. That said, much that happens within them, as in any other institution, shows generosity, kindness, and decency. And it is with that in mind that I say a few words about John Manning, announced today as the next dean of Harvard Law School.
In 1996-97 I was 25 years old, a Canadian newly moved to New York for an LL.M. at Columbia. An LL.M. in the US at one of the usual suspect schools was then regarded as the path to a teaching job at a Canadian law school. I hoped I might succeed in taking that path, and had no idea what Canadian hinterland I might end up living in and teaching at (to Torontonians, like New Yorkers, just about everything outside Toronto is the hinterlands), if I was lucky enough to get a teaching job at all. Columbia doesn't, or didn't then, have any thesis requirement for LL.M. students. But if I had to describe my year there, I would say I took a master's in legal interpretation. Among other things, I took a course in constitutional interpretation with Mike Dorf, a general course in legal interpretation with my friend and mentor Kent Greenawalt (as well as a life-changing course from Kent in law and religion)--and a course in statutory interpretation with John Manning, who was then teaching at Columbia, a few years before his repatriation to Harvard.
John's statutory interpretation course was relatively small--roughly 16 students, many of whom went on to do extraordinary things--and absolutely wonderful. It is still a model for me--an unreachable one--of excellent teaching. His use of illustrative cases was superb, his canvassing of the literature on statutory interpretation equally wonderful, and his willingness to give each basic theory its inning admirable. His own views are well known, but he didn't stack the deck and was delighted to be challenged by his students. (As an aside, I remember the night he took the class to a bar for an end-of-class get-together, and the feeling it evoked of Salinger's story "The Laughing Man" and "the Chief" at the center of that story.) I also took Federal Courts from John, and audited his administrative law class. He was incredibly dynamic in a large classroom, again a model I have tried (and failed, especially when it was difficult for me to stand or walk due to arthritis) to emulate. He strode the length and breadth of the class, untethered to notes, eloquent, excellent in his use of the Socratic method, and drawing in large numbers of the class. (The Mountain Dew helped!) John was well known as helpful to his students, and a long line of them invariably waited outside his office for the chance to chat with him.
On the morning of my Fed Courts exam, I was cramming desperately in the Law School building and looked up to see John standing over me. He told me there was an opening for a district court clerkship downtown in Manhattan, and if I was interested he could set up an interview for me the next day; was I interested? Well, was I? Would I be willing to change utterly the expected course of my life and career? Hell yes, was my answer. (You can imagine my trouble concentrating on the exam at that point! I survived.) The interview didn't pan out, but with his help and encouragement I looked for off-season clerkship openings elsewhere. Ultimately--and thanks to another friend, Trevor Morrison, then a graduating student at the Law School--I ended up interviewing successfully with Judge Ed Carnes of the Eleventh Circuit. During the interview, Judge Carnes made clear to me that John's glowing recommendation had counted for much. (My love of barbecue probably supplied the rest of the balance in my favor.) Although I'd been to Alabama, I certainly did not anticipate when I came to New York as a young man that year that I would end up living in Alabama, then or later. But there it was. My life had been changed. And one change led to another: practicing law in the United States in Washington; meeting in Washington, and marrying, my wonderful wife and partner in life; and ultimately finding some success in teaching law in the United States. When I spent a semester in the spring of 2016 teaching a class on the First Amendment and a seminar on oaths as a visitor at Harvard, much of the joy of doing so consisted in finding myself as an actual colleague to John, who had changed my life beyond all anticipation. Even now, I have just finished a semester of using his casebook and consulting his academic writing in teaching Leg-Reg. Throughout, John has been a warm, friendly, decent, and encouraging figure: one of three people (with Kent and Mike) in the legal academy, plus a half-dozen or so incredible orthopedic surgeons over the past ten-plus years, who have made this life possible.
I'm delighted for John, and doubly delighted for Harvard, at the news of his appointment. The limited and closely networked nature of the American legal academy leads to a lot of connections and a heap of public flattery. But it does not preclude genuine kindness, and the humble expression of genuine gratitude for kind acts. I can never repay to John, or to Kent or Mike, the debt I owe them. But ever since then, I have always considered it an obligation to them, and a fundamental part of my job, to try to pay forward their generosity and encouragement. On those occasions over the years when I have spotted some young person--a student, a junior scholar, even (or especially) someone I have never met but whose work I have admired from afar--and done what little I can to encourage and advance them, to commend them or their work to others, and so on--any kindness or effort involved have not been mine but John, Kent, and Mike's. If I have occasionally helped someone else out, and I hope I have, it has really been John and the others changing someone's life yet again, albeit at one remove. We are an academic, scholarly, and human community, at our best, and the kind acts that made us a part of that community, when repaid, enlarge and strengthen that community. John is a friend, a mentor, a great resource as a scholar, and a model to emulate as a teacher and person. I am overjoyed by his appointment. May he serve well and happily.
I'm not sure this post is a direct contribution to the ongoing Supreme Court symposium here. Indeed, insofar as it doesn't much address current decisions, except for those who are eager to read them as tea leaves for the future, it definitely isn't a direct contribution. But this basic thought has been on my mind for several months now, and although it's appeared here and there in recent posts, I wanted to put it directly in a post of its own. It certainly will be relevant for the next couple of Terms of the Supreme Court, and is far more relevant in watching the ongoing activity of the lower courts, whose work is largely separate from and often not even much influenced by what goes on at First Street.
There has been a lot of talk, influenced by recent lower court opinions on the so-called travel ban (or, more propagandistically, "Muslim ban") and other administration activity, about lower courts developing a form of what some critics call "TrumpLaw," law responding to and designed especially for the Trump administration. Of course, like "Muslim ban," the label "TrumpLaw" is a form of propaganda, an attempt to argue a particular contestable point in the guise of merely describing an alleged phenomenon. But the phrase, or at least the basic thesis, should not be wholly anathema to supporters of the lower courts' recent moves. Many of them have made forceful, sometimes persuasive, arguments that the courts should act with particular regard to this administration and its actions and foibles--that, for instance, this administration requires a change to or total abandonment of the usual substantial judicial deference to actions and assertions by the executive branch. The difference, perhaps, is that "TrumpLaw" may be seen as a radical departure from existing law and in effect a lawless set of actions, while on a friendlier view, what courts do when they respond to actual circumstances on the ground is just "law" (pun on "just" intended), adapting itself to the circumstances. If the facts justifying the usual deference change, then the usual level of deference necessarily changes, and this is just regular law at work, not a departure from law. On this view, what courts are doing is fully in line with some classic views of separation of powers, in which one branch must perforce act when another branch shows flaws and failings.
As a matter of law and normative views, I have problems with some of what the lower courts have come up with, especially in the travel ban cases. But I am less concerned about that, or about "TrumpLaw" as such, than with the possibility that there is a lack of clarity and consensus about what "TrumpLaw" should be aiming to achieve. Where courts take even fully justified aggressive actions, there are reasons to worry about the precedent they are creating and its application in future cases. That concern eases or intensifies depending on what their goal or endgame is. And I do not think the lower courts either have a consensus on this or have even thought about it much in these terms. Like most of us (present company excepted, of course), they are responding to circumstances as they arrive, influenced by a fiery public discussion, and may think that the urgency of the situation takes precedence over such long-term thinking. I think that's dangerous. Without such a long-term vision, individual cases will build on each other and achieve momentum--maybe good, maybe bad. It is certainly worth thinking about these questions as they go about their current work.
Keeping in mind the usual shortcomings of binary descriptions of this sort, I think there are two possible goals lower courts--and eventually the Supreme Court--might be aiming at:
1) Domestication. Courts' responses to the Trump administration and its actions could be aimed at domesticating the administration. What I mean by domestication is that they could attempt to make the administration act more professionally and conventionally, to behave more like more establishment administrations rather than like an arbitrary, populist, or aggressive administration that is often at war with its own professional ranks (to the extent they exist in this understaffed administration) and seemingly eager to dispense with the conventional ways of doing things. Take deference. Faced with a problematic executive order, the courts could insist that the administration engage in more communication and consultation within the administration, and arrive at particular executive orders only after those orders have gone through the usual process of internal examination and criticism, careful drafting, proper legal advice, and the establishment of particular reasons for acting. They could, in short, use deference or the lack thereof to force the administration to go back to the drawing board and do it "right," or at least "right" in light of prior conventional executive branch conduct. There have been some traces of this in the opinions issued so far, which have, for instance, emphasized the lack of consultation within the executive branch and the shutting out of various participants in the usual policy formation process. But under the domestication approach, if the administration went back to the drawing board and complied with these instructions, the courts would then return to the usual level of deference, even in cases where the judges themselves might consider the substantive policies themselves ill-advised or worse.
2) Resistance vel non. On one reading of the travel ban cases, including decisions at the appellate level and decisions dealing with the revised travel ban, the lower courts have gone beyond simple domestication as a goal. Their aggressive and creative use of doctrine has not been aimed at trying to make the administration more professional and conventional, while leaving it to make policy choices with which judges (and establishment figures, left and right) might disagree; rather, it constitutes utter resistance to the Trump administration and its policies. I mean this descriptively, not critically. Beyond the usual argument that even a conventional administration must be resisted when it trenches on individual rights (a superficially attractive point, although probably more questionable than this rhetoric makes it seem), one might argue that the worse and more dangerous the administration's actions are, the more necessary it is to resist them per se. Domestication alone, which would allow the administration to act dangerously while ensuring, by insisting on the kinds of procedures that insulate an administration action from aggressive judicial review, that the policies that result from it are not easily vulnerable to legal challenge, is not only not enough: it is positively harmful. The goal here is not regularity, consultation and communication, and procedural propriety without regard to substantive policy, but substantive "justice," with all the power and vagueness contained in that term. All this, as I say, can be argued to be justified. Its long-term implications, however, are more dangerous and suggest a potentially aggrandizing and openly political judicial branch, whatever the eventual policy or administration to which this approach might be applied. Beyond simple left-right division, it also suggests a strong resistance of the clerisy to any threats to the establishment itself. Although it might be aimed at even relatively conventional administrations, on the basis of ideologically driven policy disagreements, it certainly suggests a specific tendency to view populism itself as illegitimate and subject to aggressive judicial counteraction. That is a pretty strong normative statement, and one that it is harder to say is required by the Constitution itself.
These two approaches can both be spotted in the travel ban cases and in much public and judicial commentary on the Trump administration. They will often overlap in particular cases. But they are definitely not the same, and the differences between them will become more apparent the longer the administration continues, and the more individual judicial decisions there are. Their long-term implications and costs and benefits are very different. As a general matter, I prefer the domestication model, and disagree with the current judicial decisions insofar as they show signs of resistance as such rather than a focus on domestication. But for present purposes I am not arguing strongly for one model over the other. I am open to arguments that domestication is not enough and that resistance is required, although I'm not convinced. And I am certainly open to arguments about the relative, and different, costs, benefits, and long-term dangers--not least to democratic legitimacy--of either approach.
Regardless of my own position about which approach is preferable, I think these are the two main options available to the courts right now; that they are not the same; that each has its own positive and negative aspects and long-term implications; and that the courts themselves have tended to mix the two approaches without sufficient thought about which approach to take. I would feel a lot better if there were more open consideration, from judges, scholars, and commentators, about which goal to pursue. I think the better goal is to use legal doctrine to force the administration to do a more professional job, which in the end should place even terrible policies (constitutional concerns aside) more clearly in the realm of politics, not to be disturbed by the courts but rather left to the political branches and the public. It is certainly possible to think that an administration policy is terrible, the worst one has seen, while thinking it is sufficiently legally proper to be a matter of political debate rather than judicial intervention. But I am open to being persuaded otherwise. What worries me is the sense that courts are acting in the moment, without either considering these two different models or making clear which one they are aiming for. They should be more self-conscious about this and more transparent about their goals, even if that transparency makes the goal harder to achieve without critical reaction. In the meantime, rather than simply supporting or opposing these decisions tout court, scholars and public commentators (and, of course, the increasing number of public commentators who quite incidentally are also scholars, although not acting in an especially scholarly fashion) should put these ideas on their radar screen, be straightforward about their own preferences, and use these two models to provide a more sensitive analysis of the decisions we are getting from the lower courts.
The connection to the Supreme Court, of course, is that as the Court is confronted with these and other cases, it too will have to come up with a general approach. Prognosticators who talk in general terms about who will "win" in these cases, generally by engaging in armchair analysis of the ambitions and fears of Justice Kennedy and a couple of other Justices--and often trying to signal Justice Kennedy that he must follow one path or another if he wants to secure his reputation and legacy or to manipulate him into a particular vote--talk mostly and only about the administration "winning" or "losing." But I suspect that if the Court does take on a more active role in response to this administration, the more important question will be whether a majority of the Court takes a domestication or a resistance approach rather than who wins or loses. Justice Kennedy, for instance, could vote against the administration while taking either approach. To the extent that they are not simply working the refs, and there is a lot of that going on, I think progressive "academic" writers engaged in public commentary, on Twitter or elsewhere, have been overly optimistic about the likely outcome of these cases. I think their predictions would be better and more thoughtful if they talked more about the kind of approach the Court should or will take in responding to the administration, rather than in terms of simple wins or losses. I think they would also be more influential in their efforts to sway the Court or individual justices. I think Justice Kennedy could be persuaded to engage in a domestication approach more easily than a pure resistance approach, and so could some conservative justices. Regardless, I think this is the question that confronts the Supreme Court, and I hope the justices and others think more, and more openly, about this. I do not assume one or the other approach will win permanent majorities. But I do think it describes what we will see happening on the Supreme Court over the next couple of years.
Building on my earlier post and the comments on it, including mine: There is some agreement there, which I share, that a major contributing factor to the kinds of standardized rhetorical strategies and approaches we are seeing in a lot of (well-placed) law review articles these days--novelty or "under-theorized" claims that are excessive in quantity and substance; sometimes glib Clever Labels strategies; grand claims about the article's importance; overbreadth in treatment; efforts to turn (or portray) what might have been successful and modest "base hit" pieces into home runs, thus making it difficult to dig through the grand claims to find the valuable substantive core and raising the likelihood of fly balls; and so on--is the move to a fellowship model in training and hiring law professors.
As I say below, I think there are reasons for this move and that it has a number of virtues. But I think there has been too little consideration and open discussion of the model's flaws and dangers. In particular, those who run these programs and train the fellows at the high-ranked schools that generate many fellows, including the most successful ones, have not been terribly vocal in discussing what they do and its costs and benefits, whatever internal discussions they may (or may not) be having about them. That's especially dangerous because when it comes to hiring, faculties often consist of a few influential opinion-movers and a fair number of more passive voters, many of whom neither follow the trends closely nor think much about them. They also tend to follow the lead of the elite schools. That means a hiring trend can build easily and without much discussion, especially if the opinion-movers at the hiring schools are (as they sometimes or often are) just chasing the metrics or internalizing trends in the community, without second-guessing these criteria or the trend itself. And there a couple of other reasons, also covered below, why this trend can build without much second-guessing, especially public second-guessing.
One of my favorite movie quotes--I've used it in an article or two--is from Miller's Crossing: "I'd worry a lot less if I thought you were worrying enough." We're not worrying enough about this trend. I emphasize again that there are fair reasons for this model to develop. I'm not trying to throw out the baby (or the babies--the entry-level candidate/fellows themselves) with the bathwater. Criticizing an approach is not the same as urging that we get rid of it entirely. But we do need much more thinking and discussion, and more criticism, of the burgeoning fellowship model.
As always, it's a long post. I've spared you by giving the thesis above. Read the rest at your leisure and at your own peril. Comments welcome.The fellowship model can, on the whole, be seen as a kind of substitute or proxy for Ph.D studies in other disciplines. It doesn't serve all the same functions; perhaps most prominently, it's not clear that elite fellows at law schools generally use their time to acquire and absorb a canon, in legal scholarship generally or in their own field. But it does provide some of the other functions of a doctoral program. Perhaps most centrally, going into a fellowship program, one that increasingly lasts longer than one or two years and extends into quasi-post-graduate berths, serves the same winnowing and signaling function that a doctoral program does. A well-credentialed and potentially talented young lawyer who takes the fellowship path signals a strong interest in a career in legal scholarship and teaching, partly because he or she shows a willingness to take an income hit for the sake of a long-term academic career. (This also, on the margins after accounting for stipends and scholarships, makes it less likely that the entry-level population will be diverse across a range of levels, and more likely that it will be either relatively financially well-off, or that it possesses enough elite social capital to know about the fellowship path in the first place and successfully obtain a fellowship, or both.) Whatever earning capacity as a lawyer one of these fellows might have had if they remained in practice while writing on the side (which is difficult), they signal a willingness to abandon that path in favor of the academy. Indeed, by making themselves less employable in legal practice--why hire a former A student with a court of appeals clerkship under her belt as an associate when that person has been out of practice for two to five years? There are plenty of A or B students with clerkships who have remained in the actual practice of law--they show a willingness to burn their bridges out of the legal academy. That makes them surer bets for hiring law schools, especially given that tenure votes no longer serve a significant winnowing function for law schools.
And, of course, they do research and writing while serving as fellows, learn about their subject (as an academic subject, at least), and sometimes publish superbly (by standard if flawed criteria). They also gain the time and resources to do empirical work that's difficult to do as a junior scholar working toward tenure and that many law schools are looking for in candidates. As or more important, they learn the "talk" and "walk" of the academic culture, and often get significant mentoring and advice about job-talks and other elements of the hiring process. By the time they go on the market, they look, talk, and walk like a law professor, have a better publication record than many existing professors, and have a demonstrable commitment to staying and working productively in the legal academy over a long time.
I won't rehearse the standard practical-vs.-academic or practice-vs.-theory arguments here. The fellowship model, and the law school hiring model generally, has routinely been criticized on this basis on the comment pages of every law blog. Without taking a strong position on that standard debate, I am glad the issue has been and continues to be raised, if not always terribly subtly or charitably. It more than deserves a place in the discussion. Happily, others have and will continue to cover that ground--and they should.
I will say that, keeping that debate in mind but in the background, all the elements of the fellowship model that I have described above, and no doubt other factors, are arguably positives. Although there is a tremendous amount to be said for hiring scholars who are also proven lawyers with serious practical experience and may keep a finger in that pie, there is also--to the extent we continue to insist on standard scholarly/academic criteria--a higher potential failure rate in such a crop. Entrants from such a pool may also take longer to get on their feet, while fellows are generally already well-published and well-prepared for the job. And, for historical reasons at least, law schools worry about hiring people who are "retiring into the legal academy," and who may turn out to be (on some measures) deadweight on the faculty for decades. Law schools have experienced many interviews and job talks by non-fellow candidates who are still very wobbly by standard measures. By contrast, the average level of quality and confidence of well-trained and mentored fellows is very high.
I do not think any of these concerns are knockout punches in favor of the fellowship model or against hiring more practitioners, for several reasons. First there are the standard arguments in favor of practice and practical experience, which are out there and need not be rehearsed here. Then there is the question whether the "success" and "failure" we worry about are being judged according to faulty criteria. A practitioner-teacher may provide plenty of value to a law school and its students over decades, whether he or she publishes much or not. That's hardly "deadweight," although clearly some faculty, either of the practitioner or the scholarly model, do become deadweight. And one response to all this could be to actually take a chance on more non-fellow types, and use meaningful tenure votes to winnow out those who turned out to be bad bets by standard criteria, instead of acting as if anyone who has been hired and has managed to turn out three or four okay articles and average teaching evals has some kind of right to permanent employment. My basic point is that there are reasons to think well of the fellowship model. That is certainly true as long as we hold good scholarship to be a duty and desideratum in the legal academy, as I believe we should (which does not by any means rule out changing the mix to include more practitioner types). Let's give the fellowship model its due.
What, then, are the downsides, other than the standard practice-vs.-theory debate? There are quite a few, of which this is a decidedly non-exhaustive list. Others should feel free to supplement it. Some of them are "hard" points, and some are "soft" or more impressionistic or cultural points.
1) Given the possibility that those who don't succeed in getting jobs in the legal academy after going the fellowship route may suffer diminished job prospects by taking themselves out of practice, we might be concerned about that, even if we treat this as a knowing and voluntary choice on their part. That's especially true if hiring numbers stay low relative to even the fellowship applicant pool. (As an aside, we certainly should have doubts about expanding fellowship programs, especially outside of the top five or ten schools. Those schools lower down the chain that have such programs might consider using them mostly to select and groom a couple of their best graduates with a potential interest in and talent for teaching, with an eye toward hiring those fellows at their own schools.)
2) We might worry about what we are teaching these fellows. I will say it again: Every member of a hiring committee, and indeed every voting member of a law faculty, as well as the candidates themselves, should read Martha Nussbaum's classic short article Cooking for a Job: The Law School Hiring Process. Nussbaum asks whether the process is "effective in identifying good scholars, as opposed to good rhetoricians." She is concerned with the application of "nebulous standards": "items such as 'brilliance' and 'star quality' are frequently mentioned," and such standards are hard to pinpoint and subject to distorting influences. The process, she writes, favors "a certain type of individual, who combines obsequiousness with glibness and aggressiveness," over the reticent, shy, contemplative, but careful and sound scholar. Promising scholars may flunk "lunch," or the job talk, because they don't display a command of the bells and whistles of academic lingo or give a polished performance. Presciently, Nussbaum worried that such a process would "produce[ ] young scholars who have a confused sense of what their purpose is. Are they supposed to be good rhetoricians or good scholars? Are they supposed to spend years working toward a difficult truth, or to come up with catchy phrases and slogans that will market their ideas to an audience?"
All these things are in evidence in the fellowship path and the performance of fellows in the hiring process. The careful mentoring, honing of the job talk paper, and multiple rehearsals of the job talk and interviews has resulted in an increase in the superficial average quality of our candidates. But many of the virtues we see are indeed of the rhetorical sort. Answers to tough questions are well-rehearsed and sound good. But are they good in substance? I routinely see well-trained fellows at job talks who answer one set of (supportive) questions by making grand claims about the importance and sweep of their recommendations, and then respond to critical questions about the implications or applicability of a paper by emphasizing the suddenly narrow scope of their paper and denying that it has any broader implications, or who appear to have never seriously considered those implications. Surely such answers suggest the surface-level strategics of the talk rather than a capacity for deeper reflection. Some of this is tied up with politics, but that is not only a matter of the actual politics of the fellows (generally one-sided) or their mentors (same, almost certainly exacerbated by the rise of fellowships in "centers" or programs that are quite explicitly political and favor only one set of views or policies, and whose fellows are treated at some level as shock troops being prepared for the legal academy). It's also, in part, a strategic decision to appeal to the legal academy's mostly liberal and reformist views. If the point of your paper is to recommend that the courts wield an enormous hammer, you ought to be prepared to consider when and whether it should or inevitably will be wielded for other purposes. I rarely find candidates who are willing to concede openly, at the risk of alienating politically like-minded members of the faculty, that the argument they have developed might be applicable for very different reasons by very different people, and who are then willing to discuss why the proposal is still worth it or indeed why that possibility should be welcomed. If more faculty at job talks were willing to cut to the jugular vein of a job talk paper (they often are not, or lack the expertise to do so; they may not even have read the paper), they would get at these issues better and demand deeper answers. Often the answers are superficially satisfying but not deeply serious. As I wrote, a lot of job talk papers coming out of the fellowship program are finely honed and look extremely impressive, but sometimes are seeming home runs that cleverly conceal a paper that is either a failed pop fly or a base hit with grandiose trappings.
3) Tied to this point is the apparent reticence or, perhaps, lack of reflectiveness of the directors of the fellowship programs themselves. I want to tread carefully and not judge prematurely. Perhaps these directors (although they change often enough to hamper that sort of reflection) are thinking carefully about these concerns. But they certainly are not talking much about them, and certainly not openly and with the wider legal academy as an audience. It is, of course, possible that they are not reflective on these points, or that--especially as the legal academy comes to be filled with those who have already come through this process and internalized its values--they are not aware of them or deny that they are concerns. Add to this the understandable desire that their fellows should succeed in getting jobs. That means they will give whatever advice works in the hiring process. Over time, that advice, even if it was initially strategic and self-aware, will gradually and osmotically become part of the worldview of those directing and going through the programs. (Every fellowship program and mentor should devote some time to pushing their fellows to think about why all the advice they are getting may be wrong or dangerous for scholarship and teaching itself, and urging them to reach their own judgments when the time comes for them to make their own career decisions and vote on job candidates. Do they do this?) Elite law schools and professors, in my view and my partial experience, often have a fairly narrow range of focus and experience, and take for granted the standards that got them and their fellows where they are. Many or most of them know much less about life in the academic trenches at lower-ranked law schools than one might imagine. (Certainly my experience is that their advice to candidates choosing among job offers suggests just that.) It is easier for them just to see the successes and not count the externalized costs. They may lack the information, basis, or incentive to second-guess what they are doing and the kinds of lessons they are instilling. They may prefer "brilliance" over soundness because their own environment prizes brilliance.
4) As what I've said so far suggests, I'm worried in a more impressionistic sense about the effects of all this on the overall culture, both of the fellowship programs themselves and ultimately of the legal academy. As I wrote in my last post, I think it's only superficially cynical to think that most professors know what the game is and know that they are playing it, without buying into it, although a number of people have written to me to say just that. Such a position is possible, but contrary to human nature and difficult to sustain over time. Eventually, people internalize and rationalize the values they have been taught. They stop thinking about novelty paragraphs as a mere tactic, and grow to think of them first as a necessity and then as a virtue. They first over-value glib "brilliance," and then think of it as a sound criterion. It's not that they disdain substance, but it becomes easier for them to focus less on it or to forgive papers that are longer on brilliance than on soundness. That happens first at the level of the fellowship programs and their directors, and then at the level of the fellows they indoctrinate. Then those fellows seed the academy, and, lo and behold, many of them apply the same standards and replicate themselves when hiring new candidates. They treat the strategic choices they made to get a job as goods in themselves and as positive desiderata in examining new job seekers. Nussbaum's concerns become a cultural virus, and eventually just the way things are.
I said above the fold that there were "other reasons . . . why this trend can build without much second-guessing, especially public second-guessing." Let me build to my conclusion with some of those reasons. First, there's the Wizard of Oz problem. The elite schools that have fellowship programs and mentor fellows are offering strategic advice for fellows to help them get jobs, according to the criteria that law schools are likely to apply--or the criteria they think law schools are likely to apply, but this ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prediction. If they were to talk openly about some of these stratagems, let alone the problems with them, it would hardly benefit their fellows. The first rule of Fight Club is, well, you know. If they are reflective about these concerns, and I don't know whether they are or not, they have a strong incentive to keep it to themselves.
Second, the hiring law schools want to look good with their hires in everyone else's eyes. (Faculties also want to look good in their own eyes, and individual faculty members want to look good in their colleagues' eyes.) This favors taking the standard existing criteria for granted, no matter how much agreement there is that these criteria are flawed. Let me build on this with a hypothetical.
Let's say almost everyone agrees that substance matters more than placement and that placement is a poor proxy for substance. They conclude that Candidate One, a fellow who has published in Virginia and NYU (these are randomly chosen top law reviews), is doing "brilliant" work but that the work is better at appealing to elite law review editors than it is good in itself. Moreover, Candidate One has given a nice polished job talk and has great recommendations from impressive mentors. By contrast, Candidate Two, who is in practice and has few or no influential mentors but has been noticed positively by people in her field, has published in Baylor and a tertiary Texas journal (again randomly chosen), and is more halting in her job talk. But there is real soundness behind the pieces, which are (commendably) narrow but excellent and suggest the promise of more genuinely valuable work being done on the subject. And the "halting" answers suggest a genuine willingness to grapple with real questions and to revise one's views as appropriate, or to acknowledge the costs of one's approach and/or be less bold and more narrow in one's conclusions. Which candidate to hire?
Hiring Candidate Two won't make a splash when it is announced. Candidate One is likely, because she is skilled at the relevant tactics and has active (and sometimes only semi-scrupulous) mentors who will lobby the law reviews, and because of the Matthew Effect, to continue to place well, although she may also continue to have a hollowness at the core of her work. Candidate Two, having started with lower-ranked journals, may remain ghettoized there, no matter how good her work actually is. Faculty members are often insecure about judging candidates, especially candidates outside their field. The fact that the elite world is ready to reward Candidate One, that she has multiple offers, and that this does after all suggest she will do very well by standard criteria, all may push the voting faculty toward the "safe" choice. Influential members of their own faculty may share a belief in the standard criteria and be highly concerned with metrics, US News rankings, and other elite measures. They will find it easy to ridicule the choice of Candidate Two as damaging to the law school's reputation and future in a competitive and reputation- and ranking-obsessed legal academic culture. Even if the faculty at this school strongly agree that substance matters more than placement and that "brilliance" is a snare for the unwary and status-obsessed, they know or believe that the rest of the legal academy thinks otherwise, and want to look good in the eyes of that community. These again are reasons to make the "safe" choice of Candidate One. And once one moves to actual hiring votes between two competing candidates, the discussion usually becomes polarized and exaggerated. The virtues of Candidate One will be exaggerated and extolled and her flaws, which are harder to pin down by reference to conventional external criteria, will be downplayed and excused as a function of youth. Candidate Two will be exaggeratedly dismissed as an also-ran or an unimpressive hire. Safety, insecurity, search costs, and peer pressure will lean in favor of Candidate One and against Candidate Two, especially if the knowledge that almost everyone who reaches a tenure vote succeeds makes it less attractive and more costly to take a "chance" on Candidate Two.
Finally, and fascinatingly to me, there is the question of how such public discussions would be seen as affecting the well-being of the fellows themselves. Imagine writing a highly critical piece or, let's say, a post on Prawfs about the glibness and "brilliance" of candidates coming out of the fellowship market, and the dangers of such an approach and the criteria and standards of judgment that undergird it. Even if, as I have here, one makes clear that many of these candidates really are good and that the fellowship model really does have much to recommend it, the author can easily worry about whether he is sending a message to his recently hired colleagues or people he is about to meet in the next hiring season. I value all my new colleagues, whatever standards were involved in their hiring and whatever virtues or flaws they may have, and want them to feel welcome and supported. I may become good friends with them. That's even, or perhaps especially, true of those colleagues I might not have supported in the hiring process. Once the vote's over, everyone should rally round and do their best to support, encourage, mentor, and advance the career of the new colleague. I consider that a strong duty, and I think I have generally met it. But I also believe in the value of standing outside our hiring processes and considering and openly discussing our culture and the imperfect standards and approaches it embodies. That's a big part of why I still (occasionally) blog. If I don't want to risk offending a new or potential colleague, the greater incentive is to just keep my mouth shut and play the game, or at least allow the game to be played without talking about it. (Other than through cynical and knowing face-to-face gossip, which is plentiful and deplorable in the legal academy. Full many a candid, sometimes nasty but often informative, discussion is born to bloom in the faculty lounge and die unheard by the wider world.) And I am, I think, slightly more willing to air this kind of dirty laundry than many of my colleagues at large, some of whom are reluctant to do so, many of whom worry about offending others, and more than a few of whom are not especially reflective about these sorts of issues in the first place. Some might also worry that if they talked openly about these issues, mentors and program directors at elite schools might dry up the pipeline to their school, or that they themselves will suffer if they ever come up as lateral candidates or otherwise want to benefit from friendships and connections to the elite schools. I would like to benefit from those too! The academy fancies itself willing to speak truth to power, but that much less often embraces academics speaking about their own community and social and professional networks; then one suddenly hears a lot more about prudence and politics and much less about fearlessness or candor. The smart money and the prudent choice counsel silence, even for those who are interested in and self-reflective about these issues.
I'll close where I began, by emphasizing that the fellowship model has much to recommend it, that the average level of quality and standardization in job candidates has increased dramatically since its rise, and that I am not urging us to get rid of it. Even some of those programs or individual fellows who exemplarize some of the flaws and concerns I have aired here are excellent candidates and strong scholars. Some of them have all the virtues and few of the flaws, and some have some of the flaws but many virtues, with the hope that the flaws will straighten themselves out with time and experience--although, as long as our culture doesn't change significantly, I'm worried that the latter is less likely to happen. Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, Candidate One actually is a better choice than Candidate Two.
Nevertheless, there are genuine concerns to be raised about the fellowship track and the effects it may be having on the broader legal academic culture, especially when combined with such pre-existing factors as status and rankings obsession, the law review process, the outsized influence and often narrow perspectives of elite schools, and the culture and mechanics of the hiring process and of law schools themselves. Without treating the fellowship track and its rise as all good or all bad, we--and that includes the schools and individuals that run these programs themselves, and the fellows too--ought to be carefully and publicly toting up their costs and benefits, thinking and talking about their relationship to and influence on other aspects of the system, and considering whether there are ways to get more of the benefits while dealing with some of those costs. We have nothing to lose but our reticence.
I quite enjoyed Benjamin's post on the overused "under-theorized" line in law review articles. As his link to an old post of mine suggests, it is on a topic dear to my obsessive little heart.
I have no great quarrels with his post, but I would suggest that there is no actual paradox at work. Perhaps there would be if calling something under-theorized were sincere and accurate most of the time that this language is used. But I suspect that it isn't. Sometimes, calling a topic under-theorized is just throat-clearing. Often, it's strategic rhetoric for purposes of placement. Much of the time, it is somewhere in between that and a slightly but importantly inaccurate way of defending one's decision to write about a particular topic. If, instead of the standard and ostensibly impressive-sounding--the less impressive the more often you see it; paragraphs that could be saved as boilerplate are not really impressive, but they are aimed at 24-year-olds who have not seen them hundreds of times before--"under-theorized paragraph," authors wrote what they actually mean, and in plain English, we would more often see something like the following: "[X] is an interesting topic. Plenty of interesting things have been said about it, but they have not exhausted interest in the issue (my interest, at least). Even if they have, I have a few things to say about it too." I would welcome that sort of candor, and less standard-issue academic verbiage.
Benjamin's post is also arguably connected to Andrew's post about "game-changing" law review articles, as a commenter on that post suggests. And it is connected to another pet peeve of mine, also noted in the comments: the equally standard-issue "novelty paragraph." Law professors routinely write about issues that have been written about before--quite understandably, in my view, since little is new under the sun and people often like to write about old but big and interesting questions. But law professors also like fancy placements and the credentialization, platform, and opportunities for advancement that come along with them. There are three standard strategies for trying to satisfy both urges. First, one can claim--usually ridiculously--that this is the very first article to deal with X, or something of the sort. That's the novelty strategy. Usually and amusingly, the sentence asserting that an article is The First Article on a topic is accompanied by a footnote along the lines of, "Of course, there are honorable exceptions..." That footnote then lists some of the prominent prior articles that, as it turns out, also address the topic that this article is supposed to be the very first to address. Authors, it seems, are willing to do both things--to claim that an article is The First, and to cite prior articles on the same topic--and law review editors are willing not only to stomach this, but to reward them for it.
There appear to be few credible limits to this strategy. But in some cases, either the evidence of prior treatment is overwhelming, or the author has a reasonable amount of shame or integrity. In those cases, the thing to do is break out the second strategy: the "under-theorized" strategy. Yes, lots of people have written about X before. But X remains "under-theorized." And that is this article's reason to exist and claim its own share of the spotlight. The under-theorized paragraph is thus arguably a sub-category of the novelty paragraph. Or perhaps it could be seen as an alternative strategy for instances when a novelty paragraph would be glaringly false.
A third strategy, one that I think is increasingly popular but less noticed as such, is what we might call the taxonomical or Clever Label strategy. It bears some relation to the other two strategies. Yes, X has been written about before. Yes, it has already been "theorized" plenty. But this article offers a remapping of the well-covered territory, in a way that makes better sense of all those other articles that have come before. That's the standard taxonomical approach. Sometimes, the author will place such implicit stock in the new Clever Label that he or she will not even bother to concede that the territory has already been marched into dust. The implicit claim will not be that the new article is valuable because it offers a way of making sense of the issue that takes into account and builds on the earlier literature, but that the new Clever Label is so great that the label is the novelty. I love some of these articles; hey, the best of them really are clever, and sometimes really do usefully place the earlier literature in a new light, putting different approaches into conversation with each other in a new way. But I am extremely leery of those articles that, TED-talk-like, treat neat new labels and snappy, no-colon-and-subtitle-needed titles as genuinely new and profound substance. They often place well, however. So long as they do, they're not going away.
All of these are strategies for placing articles well, not for placing them as such. It is not hard to place an article somewhere. Rather, these are efforts to convince a young editor at a well-placed law review that the article under submission is not just a fine and creditable discussion of something that has been discussed before but merits continued discussion, but that it adds something sufficiently new and terrific to the mix that it deserves prestigious placement. Most scholars, if they're lucky, turn out singles and doubles, along with the occasional pop fly. Claiming that your article is the first, or the first to properly "theorize," or that it provides the niftiest new labels, is a way of trying to convince editors that everything you do is at least a triple, if not a home run. And that's the connection to Andrew's post on game-changing articles, and the comments on it. If the legal academy and its publishing arm were functioning reasonably well, we would look for a lot more singles and doubles--and in hiring new scholars, we would look for evidence that they could turn out a long succession of solid base hits. But entry-level scholars have for some time now been trained by their schools to turn out articles that at least look like triples or home runs. In reality, many or most of those articles are actually either easily fielded fly balls or carefully disguised singles. All those paragraphs up top--whether they involve novelty claims, "under-theorized" claims, or Clever Labels--are ways of making us think otherwise. It's far from clear to me that this is the best way to encourage good habits or sound scholarship.
Note that I say "making us think otherwise." Usually, with legal scholarship being the comic and reformist industry that it is, this would be the point for someone to write about how peer review would solve all our problems, by putting into place a system that would not require scholars to aim all these strategies at easily cozened 24-year-old law review editors. That might be true in especially sober or empirically based disciplines. Articles like this make me doubt it is true for all disciplines. Much depends on the soundness of one's peers. And I think there are at least two problems with law as far as this is concerned. First, we appear to be impressed by these strategies. Authors of grandiose articles that provide the illusion of clearing the bleachers, and that place well, do well on the hiring market. It's not the 24-year-olds doing the hiring, so I don't think we can fob off our problems on them alone. Second, all this has been going on long enough that I fear we have internalized all these tactics. If we insist on hiring through the fellowship process, and if fellows are being trained in the use of these strategies, and if they then succeed on the hiring market and mentor and judge the next generation of applicants, then I see little reason to hope that peer review alone will save us from our own sins.
It might save us, if one adopted the cynical view that everyone realizes that these strategies are just that, and that many novelty claims and other such boilerplate should be disregarded in favor of a focus on the substance. But in a field in which everyone on the faculty judges specialist articles when voting on hiring, it's hard to judge soundly on the substance rather than the bells and whistles. And I think this is actually a somewhat naive, first-order form of cynicism. It assumes that everyone is smart enough to know better, and that they are also strong enough to act better when they know better. A more convincing cynical view, to my mind, would conclude that we are not always smart enough to know better; that we suffer from the same cognitive defects as everyone else, and thus are likely to fall for the same tricks as everyone else, especially if we have profited from and internalized those tricks; and that even when we know better, we may lack the strength of will to resist in the face of professional norms, the praise of recommending professors at big schools, and the votes and voices of other members of our own faculty. Even if I am usually aware enough of and peeved enough by the kinds of things I have written about here to spot them when candidates come calling, I am sure I am not always strong enough to stick to my objections in the face of those influences, especially when I know that the strategies work in the wider world and I would like my law school to enjoy enhanced prestige. And I do not think I am significantly weaker-willed than most of my colleagues. So I have little good cheer to offer, other than the faint suggestion that we ought to be spending more of our time looking for solid base hitters than for long-ball hitters.
My latest contribution to the Constitutional Law section of Jotwell is this piece, titled "What Will the Federal Government's Resistance to President Trump Look Like?" It follows in some senses from my earlier Prawfs post titled "Will the Civil Service Revolt, or Work to Rule, in a Trump Presidency?" It also emphasizes why I think Prof. Jennifer Nou has been doing great and useful work on this subject, and why I think the earlier article by Jessica Bulman-Pozen and David Pozen on Uncivil Obedience is useful and newly timely, even if I also spend a good deal of time in the jot on that article's critics. Some excerpts:
How should one respond to injustice, illegitimacy, or broader threats posed by a democratic governmental regime? Although readers may lump these items together, the commas and “or” matter here, for they are not all the same and the proper response to each may differ. One common answer to some or all of them is civil disobedience. Another, rendered more problematic by the democratic nature of the regime and perhaps by the relative lack of courage of the professional-managerial class, is open rebellion. A third possible response, Jessica Bulman-Pozen and David E. Pozen argued in a valuable, important, and still under-examined 2015 article, is uncivil obedience: a conscientious, communicative, reformist act of strict “conformity with . . . positive law,” “in a manner that calls attention to its own formal legality, while departing from prevailing expectations about how the law will be followed or applied.” . . .
Behind all this, obviously, is President Donald Trump: that extraordinary figure whose extraordinary actions have called forth—demanded, many would insist—extraordinary responses from citizens and scholars alike. Many of the most prominent responses to the new regime have come from citizens, albeit often fairly elite ones: marches, “days without [X],” lawsuits, and the usual collection of group letters, petitions, and op-eds. In that context, it is clearer that thinking about modes of response and resistance to this administration, including resistance within the executive branch, has a strong constitutional law component. (Anyway, as Adrian Vermeule recently observed, administrative law “is sublimated constitutional law just as constitutional law is sublimated theology.”)
Invoking Trump as a justification will no doubt win instant forgiveness for skirting or breaking various “rules,” both in the real world and in academia. As these thoughtful articles—two of them fortunately written before a sense of Trump-derived urgency began shaping and distorting public and academic discourse—demonstrate, however, it is unclear when, whether, and how such behavior should be treated forgivingly. Strategies of resistance shaped in response to exigent circumstances do not necessarily disappear when those circumstances do, and in the meantime they encourage retaliatory counter-strategies. And many citizens’—and academics’—passionate dislike of the administration may lead them to accentuate the positive aspects of these rule-breaking strategies while minimizing or ignoring the negative. This is thus simultaneously a good, bad, and necessary time to think both about both how resistance forms not only to but within the very organs of a constitutional regime, and about the potential dangers of those strategies. . . .
[T]hese resistance practices demand wide-ranging academic analysis, of a sort that neither ignores nor is driven solely by present exigencies . . . [W]e should be grateful that the study (and critique) of uncivil obedience came along when it did—“BT,” as it were—and that Nou continues the job in a calm fashion “AT.” We need much more of this.
Via TaxProf Blog and the ABA Journal comes the news that the ABA's Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar has proposed a rule change to the current ABA standard requiring that more than half of all credit hours offered by accredited law schools be taught by full-time, and hence generally "academic," faculty. The proposal would reduce the required number to one third. Some observations:
1) Interesting! We can expect some good healthy debate and controversy on this one, as well as a fair number of extremely flowery and high-minded statements.
2) None of the sources cited or linked to above offer a discussion of the reasons for the change. Perhaps there was lengthy and thoughtful policy discussion. It seems to me, however, that the reality is that whatever discussions took place were ultimately secondary to the pressure of events on the ground. This is a proposal driven by real or perceived economic necessity, and a desire to legitimate changes that either are already happening--or that might need to happen if law schools are to remain afloat while cutting to the bone. (Whether they should all remain afloat is a separate question.)
3) On the whole and as an initial matter, I favor the proposal. In a now-ancient book review of Brian Tamanaha's Failing Law Schools, I wrote approvingly of Tamanaha's proposal that we "pare down ABA accreditation requirements that force law schools into a single educational model," so that some schools can maintain the traditional and more "elite" model while others offer a "cheaper and more practically oriented model." Under this approach, "[s]tudents interested in the latter model [would] not be forced to pay for the former," in the sense of having to meet the requirements of, and thus pay for, the elite model whether they want to or not. I noted the high-minded statements that appeared then opposing such a change, and doubtless will reappear in the current discussion, but disagreed with them. For reasons of institutional diversity, among others, I favor the possibility of different models and am not much disturbed by the objection--I would call it a description, really, instead of an objection--that it would lead to a "two-tiered" system. Among other things, I wrote that the objections gave insufficient recognition to "the reality that we already have a two-tier system, albeit one whose pretenses of uniformity drive up the costs across the board." Nor was it clear to me why "a less academically driven legal education would be a 'second-rate' one," as the opponents of such a change argued. For many students and schools, it might be the better education.
I am still so minded. The usual tendency, at least until 2008 and still to a substantial extent, is for every school to want to be and look like Yale or Harvard, no matter how little sense that makes for particular schools in particular places. (I am reminded of Tom Wolfe's description of Yale architecture students puckishly drawing illustrations of the then-chic "Yale box" appearing on the moon, on the farm, and in other unusual and inapt places.) This is partly a function of law schools' absurd credentialism, lack of imagination, and hierarchy-reproducing tendencies when it comes to hiring and the highly limited backgrounds and cultures from which most law professors spring, and partly a function of their attention to US News rankings and general desire for elite status (for the schools and, just as important, for the faculty themselves). As I wrote then, whatever their deepest wishes, many law schools have already bowed to reality and departed from some of these norms. The proposed rule change gives them more liberty to do so, without requiring it. If some law schools adopt a more practice-driven approach and rely more on practitioners to achieve it, while others are or can afford to emulate the model of a few elite schools, so much the better for institutional diversity and student choice.
4) Schools that take advantage of this model and adopt a more adjunct/practitioner-oriented faculty model, with a smaller academic faculty core and a larger store of adjuncts, will still face the need to do what too few have done: to think creatively and comprehensively about how to turn this congeries of commuters into an actual law school community. They must think about ways to bring those commuters into the school more often, make them a larger part of the intellectual and daily life of the school rather than an afterthought, include them in faculty life and discussion and decision-making, and give them a sense of being members and stakeholders of the law school community. It's a difficult but necessary task to undertake. One assumes that there are various ways to achieve this, and they need not all look the same.
5) In at least some ways, what happens in the law schools follows what happens in the larger academy, but at a distance--sometimes a great distance. Thus, years after the standard graduate-school model of generating future faculty became the norm for most academic departments, in the past ten or more years law schools have drawn increasingly, when hiring, on fellows and fellowships, which are essentially an echo of or proxy for the graduate-school model. This model creates and seeks out a store of future faculty who are professionalized and acculturated as academics rather than practitioners or amateurs, and who have long since signaled their willingness to forego legal-professional status and income in favor of becoming academics. (We still see arguments that law faculty are foregoing what would otherwise be high-income jobs that would readily be accessible to them. That might be true at the outset of their legal careers, after they have graduated and clerked and perhaps spent a couple of years in practice. By the time they have devoted years to academic study and status, however, they have long since made it more difficult to move into the world of practice, for better and worse. This might justify lower salaries for academic law school faculty members, although that's a question for the market to answer, not for abstract and non-empirical arguments about what these individuals "could" do if they wished.) That makes them surer hiring bets, at least as "academic" faculty, for multiple reasons: they have already published, they already talk the talk of the academy, and they have already made clear their long-term intentions to remain faculty members rather than abandoning the academy for professional work or retiring from practice without contributing greatly to "academic" work.
This new proposal similarly recapitulates the larger changes that have been written about and debated so much in the wider academy: namely, the part-timing or adjunctification of the university. Some of the rea$on$ for doing so are no doubt the same, and we can expect some of the same arguments--very real ones, I should acknowledge--to arise here: arguments about the potential for abuse and mistreatment, lack of quality control, corporatization of the university, and so on. I think we should think of this as a partial recapitulation of what has happened elsewhere in the university. But we should not treat the two phenomena as identical, by any means. There is a difference between relying heavily on adjuncts with Ph.D's to teach, say, English Literature, and relying heavily on practicing physicians to provide clinical and practical education to medical students. An adjunct literature professor is generally just a literature professor without job protection; a practicing physician serving as a clinical professor of medicine has another job and set of skills that both maintain his or her independence and provide something distinctive of value to the medical school and its students. Law practitioner adjuncts are closer to the latter analogy than to the former. Not all of the arguments against the mass use of adjuncts elsewhere in the academy will fit in the law school context, and they should not just be parroted here thoughtlessly. But of course we should discuss and think through the implications of changing our model.
* * *
I should note that I am surely an "academic" faculty member, and some of what I say above is hardly in my own interests. I am happy to try to maintain my own salary and other perquisites, and--although slowed recently and to my own profound guilt by illness--I like being an "academic" academic, want to contribute to the academic and scholarly life of my school and the larger community, and think this life has intellectual value and the capacity to contribute to our intellectual tradition, although I resist making overblown arguments about its immediate or "real-world" value. (I am not averse to changing things up, however, and certainly think there ought to be room for rethinking how each faculty member shapes his or her career. Perhaps sabbaticals should be given more frequently but with the caveat that every other sabbatical must be spent volunteering or practicing as a lawyer; or perhaps the obligation to do something of the kind could be tied to the reduced course loads most of us enjoy. No matter how ethereal some of us have become in our work, we might find work as clerks or runners or junior assistants to state legislators; even spending every day for a year sitting in a courtroom and watching arraignments and pleas would be of some value in enriching our perspective.) I just don't think my own interests, or those of other "academic" legal faculty, are especially important factors or relevant to the analysis.
As Brian Leiter enthusiastically announces, tax-law-blogger and blog-impresario Paul Caron, nicknamed in Frank Herbert fashion "Blog Emperor Caron," is about to become "Dean Emperor Caron" at Pepperdine Law School. Before taking a puckish turn with this post, let me say that of course I add my congratulations. I have found Paul lovely to talk with in person and via the occasional email and such. Among his many posts at TaxProf Blog over the years, a great number of them have evidenced his warm and caring relationship with his students and his abiding concern for them. I don't doubt he'll bring that same sensibility to his job as dean. Best wishes, Paul!
The thought did strike me upon his announcement as dean: Given the blog empire he has long been associated with, what if Pepperdine under his administration decided to deemphasize US News Rankings as a major metric, and focus instead on things like page hits and buzzworthiness? To that end, may I suggest that we offer as a gift to the incoming dean some possible "buzzworthier" titles for courses in the standard law school curriculum. I'll start the ball rolling with two suggestions:
Contracts: Henceforth to be renamed in the Pepperdine curriculum and course catalog "Will This Fantastic New Medical Treatment Keep Your Hands Looking Young and Lovely for Life?"
Civil Procedure: "86 Ways to Triumph in Court. You Won't Believe Number 56!"
The Lewis & Clark Law Review, under the supervision of some superb student editors and Prof. Jim Oleske, has just published a superb symposium issue on "Law and Religion in an Increasingly Polarized Society."* The contents are below and can be found here. The writers include Kathleen Brady, Kent Greenawalt, my colleague Ron Krotoszynski, Marc DeGirolami, Robin Fretwell Wilson, and others. I haven't read all of them yet, but what I have read has been very interesting.
In my rather rough and general opinion, the symposium is highly and obviously timely, and yet comes at a particularly difficult time for those who would attempt to predict the course of law and religion jurisprudence right now, precisely because of both increased polarization (at least in some sectors of the population) and the ways in which the nature and subjects of that polarization have altered dramatically in the past few months. If Hillary Clinton had won the election and depending on the composition of Congress and of political power in the states, we might have expected a more or less linear or steady progression in the kinds of issues and the sorts of debates that had been occurring in the past few years. It's less clear to me that that continues to be true. I agree with those who argue that current events and political outcomes are a continuation of rather than a break with the culture wars; and I think that even if events were taken to mean that the "losers" in that war were suddenly winning and vice versa, but without much else having changed, it would be more or less possible for the discussion to continue along a similar path to the one it had taken. I'm far less certain that that is currently, clearly the case. One needn't conclude that that is either a good or a bad thing, except insofar as unpredictability is itself a major problem. But the issues may change, the intensity and focus may shift from one area to another, and the ability to frame those issues within some kind of "culture war" might need to wait for a clearer picture of where and how that war is being conducted.
My general sense is that even prior to the last few months, there has been some enervation in the field. Law and religion scholars' responses to this enervation have varied. Some have focused their attention on other subjects altogether, outside of law and religion. Some have focused more narrowly on doctrinal questions, sometimes as a way of fighting the legal battle as tenured partisans and sometimes because doctrinalism in such cases can be a way of addressing interesting and pressing "little" questions while avoiding the big questions. (Query how much it is possible to say about the "little" questions if it is the "big" questions that are driving them.) Some may continue writing in the field but shift their attention to other areas, such as standard, good-old-fashioned Establishment Clause questions. (Vouchers!) Some may refocus on larger theoretical questions, abstracting away from particular controversies; I rather hope they do. I think those (and I would characterize some of my recent work in this way) who have tried to stand outside the actual combat and think about the cultural and sociological context of these controversies must perforce remain in a holding pattern on that kind of work until the ground becomes clearer again; at least I think that's the appropriately modest and sensible thing to do, if you're interested in those specific questions. (That said, I have a review essay coming out that at least tries to evaluate where we stand right now and the relationship between recent upsets in the culture wars and law and religion. Like any piece on these issues written between October 2016 and January 2017, it is even more uncertain in its conclusions than usual.)
All this is by way of context and some general observations on the state of the field. To say it's an uncertain time for the field is not to detract from the symposium itself, which contains some excellent contributions and is well worth taking a look at. Congratulations to Lewis & Clark and the journal editors, as well as the contributors, for this fine collection.
Here are the contents:
Kathleen A. Brady
20 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 1093 (2017)
Marc O. DeGirolami
20 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 1127 (2017)
20 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 1157 (2017)
B. Jessie Hill
20 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 1177 (2017)
20 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 1201 (2017)
Ronald J. Krotoszynski, Jr.
20 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 1221 (2017)
Ira C. Lupu & Robert W. Tuttle
20 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 1265 (2017)
James M. Oleske, Jr.
20 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 1317 (2017)
Robin Fretwell Wilson
20 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 1373 (2017)
* A personal and embarrassed note, which is sincerely meant as the opposite of a #humblebrag. I was asked to contribute to the symposium, and ended up repaying the editors' kindness and generosity with...nothing. Doubtless recovering from surgery didn't help, and certainly some of the questions of uncertainty that I discussed above contributed to my wavering, but I am still embarrassed at my failure to contribute, aside from my regret at not joining such distinguished company. Surely if there is a personal lesson, it is that it is better to say "no" to an attractive invitation than to say yes and then vacillate. Clearly, judging by the contents of the symposium, I would not have added perceptibly to what is already a very good and broad collection of articles.
My view during the Garland nomination was that the Republican refusal to grant a reasonably timely hearing and an up-or-down vote on that nominee was deplorable but not unconstitutional, and that such arguments as they provided to justify it were rationalizations, not good reasons.* I think that Democratic refusal to grant a timely hearing and up-or-down vote to Neil Gorsuch is also not unconstitutional, while setting aside for the moment whether it is deplorable or not. On the whole I think it is dangerous, although I understand the arguments that it is justified by the prior conduct. Many constitutionalists agree with me both that the obstruction of the Garland nomination was bad but constitutional, and that obstruction of the Gorsuch nomination would also be constitutional (and possibly bad, although there will be greater variation in views on that question).
But it is striking, in going back through the Garland debate, to see just how many law professors (and others) argued that the refusal to grant a hearing and straight vote to Garland was not just deplorable but unconstitutional; not just unconstitutional but clearly unconstitutional; and not just clearly unconstitutional, but clearly and unequivocally unconstitutional, which is to say admitting of no clear exceptions, or no exceptions at all.
Here are only a few examples. 1) A letter by around 350 law professors publicized by the Alliance for Justice asserted that there was a "constitutional duty to give President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee a prompt and fair hearing and a timely vote." "The Senate’s obligation in this circumstance is clear," the correspondents argued. "The Senate must not defeat the intention of the Framers by failing to perform its constitutional duty. The Senate Judiciary Committee should hold a prompt and fair hearing and the full Senate should hold a timely vote on the president’s nominee." The writers included some highly qualified and respected constitutional law scholars, including Laurence Tribe, Kenji Yoshino, Erwin Chemerinsky, Rebecca Brown, and Linda McClain. 2) Also under the AFJ, a letter from some 58 Indiana law professors argued that "an outright refusal to even consider his nomination runs counter to the Senate’s obligation, under Article II of the Constitution, to provide 'advice and consent.'" Its conclusion stated: "Chief Judge Garland is an eminently qualified nominee who deserves fair consideration of his nomination. Refusing to do so is an abdication of the Senate’s constitutional duty to provide advice and consent." The writers included a former head of OLC. 3) The AFJ publicized a similar letter from a similar number of Ohio law professors. Its language mostly tracked the Indiana letter. It concluded: "The Senate must perform its constitutional duty and deliberate over Judge Garland's suitability as a Supreme Court nominee. Holding a hearing and an up-or-down vote on his nomination are how the Senate does its job. Refusing to consider the Garland nomination on its merits would be an abdication of the Senate’s constitutional duty to provide advice and consent." 4) A letter from 43 current and former law school deans was, in fairness, cloudier in its arguments, but suggested the belief that there is a "constitutional duty to ensure a fully functioning Supreme Court," that this includes a constitutional duty of "holding hearings and providing an up-or-down vote on [a] nominee," at least where there is an eight-member Court. It added more straightforwardly that Article II, section 2 of the Constitution operates "without qualification." 5) In the Chicago Tribune, Professor Geoffrey Stone wrote that "it is [Senators'] constitutional obligation to have a fair and open hearing and to vote to confirm Garland." Note that Stone went further than his colleagues, arguing not just that there is a constitutional duty to provide hearings and an up-or-down vote but that, depending on how you read his op-ed, either as a matter of well-established practice or as a matter of "well-established constitutional tradition," the Senate must confirm any "well-qualified and reasonably moderate" Supreme Court nominee.
No doubt others could find more, and still more emphatic, examples. Although it's an obvious point, it's worth stating that no one put a gun to anyone's head and insisted these writers sign on to a constitutional argument of this sort. They could have said nothing, or argued on non-constitutional grounds, including grounds of traditional or optimal Senate custom and practice. They didn't. The fairest and most respectful reading of their action, therefore, is that they considered what the letters said before signing them and believed what they said, and that they should be treated as such.
Given what they wrote, I find it difficult as a matter of constitutional law (on their understanding, not mine) to conclude that there is not an identical constitutional duty in this case to provide a fair and timely hearing to Neil Gorsuch and an up-or-down vote on his nomination. (Possibly, on Stone's view, there is also an obligation to confirm him, although the "well-qualfied and reasonably moderate" language allows for some wiggle room, albeit one assumes it should not be used disingenuously). Of those several hundred signers, one would expect at least a few of them to say so equally publicly, and none of them to contradict their earlier reading without persuasive and sincere reasons to do so.
To be clear, I am not making--am frankly not interested in--charges of "hypocrisy," a move I generally find overused and under-important and try to avoid, and one for which I would have no grounds unless there was clear evidence that they were ignoring or contradicting their earlier-stated views. I am, instead, interested in the fact that this was a large group of law professors voluntarily making a constitutional argument; interested in the obvious implications of this boldly and broadly stated argument in the current case; and interested in whether they will follow through on their own presumably sincere professional constitutional views.
There are a couple of possibilities for action and a couple of colorable, although I think not plausible, counter-arguments. The writers are not obliged to say anything at all about the Gorsuch nomination, or to make any arguments in particular about whether Democrats can delay, resist, or deny a timely hearing and up-or-down vote on Gorsuch. They could write about other aspects of the nomination, or write only about the Garland debacle, or remain silent altogether. Given how strongly they asserted a broad and relevant constitutional principle, this would be unfortunate and suggestive of an unwillingness to speak truth to power. But it is an available option: the best option they have, I think, and the one most consistent with scholarly consistency if not integrity.
Then there are the usual "this case is different" arguments,* and the argument that delay or denial of a hearing or up-or-down vote in this case would be constitutional as a "remedy" to the earlier constitutional violation. I find neither line of argument especially plausible given the earlier assertions. Those arguments, on my reading and I think on any clear reading, were that Senators have a clear constitutional duty to provide a hearing and up-or-down vote to Supreme Court nominees, that the obligation is unequivocal, and that there is no right to ignore it, let alone to do so because you don't like the party in power or the nominee. Of course, one can argue that the Senators should fulfill their duty and then vote against the nominee. (Stone may be barred from making this argument, as we saw, depending on how he uses his wiggle room. Again, I think that wiggle room must be used with integrity.) But I think any fair reading of their earlier statements makes clear that they must believe the same duty applies here. Language like "admits of no qualifications" suggests that simply arguing that obstruction here would be justified in light of the prior obstruction is impossible to square with their apparent constitutional views.
And there are multiple problems with the "remedy" argument. For one thing, most of the time, constitutional lawyers argue, rightly or otherwise, that constitutional "remedies" must not themselves violate clear constitutional rules and duties, and people will go to some lengths to argue that an apparent constitutional violation for remedial purposes is actually consistent with a fair reading of the constitutional text. For whatever reason, constitutionalists generally avoid arguing that some action violates the Constitution but is justified nonetheless. Arguments in anti-discrimination and affirmative action law, for example (and with a good deal of generalization), generally assert that when race-conscious government action is employed for remedial purposes, it is constitutional where the remedy is aimed at addressing identified discrimination that continues to affect individual rights and is closely linked to ongoing governmental actions and effects. That is not an argument that the race-conscious remedy is unconstitutional but justified, but that it is not unconstitutional in that particularized context. It does not apply to this context clearly, if at all. It would certainly be a miracle if all of the several hundred letter and op-ed writers concluded otherwise. Moreover, it is much fairer to call any obstruction of Gorsuch a response to the Garland situation, not a remedy.
One could argue--at least one writer on the constitutional law listserv has done so--that obstruction in this case would be unconstitutional, and that advocates of responsive or "remedial" obstruction in the Gorsuch case should say so in clear terms and argue for it just the same. This has the virtue of transparency and consistency, of forcing its advocates to think about the circumstances in which the Constitution can or should be violated as opposed to massaged or reread, and of being willing to convince fewer people that the "justified violation of the Constitution" argument is right--and risking the possibility that some readers will draw the conclusion that any violation of the alleged constitutional duty of a hearing and up-or-down vote with respect to Gorsuch is just that, and cannot be justified. It would sacrifice political effectiveness for candor. I might not agree with such an argument, but I would welcome having that view aired clearly and publicly.
And, of course, if nothing else, there is a forward-looking possibility, which is that we should--once again--rethink our duties and obligations with respect to signing letters, writing op-eds, and making other public arguments. We could confine ourselves only to those arguments we are sure are right, refuse to sign letters or (especially) write op-eds where we are uncertain their arguments are right, use the narrowest possible arguments we are convinced are correct, and then hold ourselves to those views or clearly and publicly explain why we have sincerely changed our minds.
Again, I make no accusations of hypocrisy or, more important to me, of a failure to make arguments in this case that are consistent with one's clearly stated constitutional views, which is important not for what it says about hypocrisy but for what it says about constitutional and scholarly integrity. To so do, I would have to wait and see how the Senate acted, and then examine every writer's publicly stated views in this case to see whether they followed their earlier views, skirted them, remained silent about those specific issues or about the Gorsuch confirmation process altogether, or offered sincere and persuasive justifications for a change in view. I have seen a couple of Twitter feeds from prominent figures who signed at least one of the documents listed above in which the new statements seem to be in tension with their earlier views. But they may yet qualify their positions, offer sincere and persuasive justifications for any alterations, recant their earlier or newer statements, or even come out in favor of timely hearings and an up-or-down vote on Gorsuch's nomination as a matter of constitutional duty. I do think, however, that what they wrote earlier must be treated as meaning what it said and as a statement of their own sincerely held constitutional views; that any fair reading of those views suggests that, absent some very good reasons, they must urge, or at a minimum not oppose, a hearing and up-or-down vote for Gorsuch; and that any direct contradiction of those freely, voluntarily offered views would raise fair questions about their constitutional views, constitutional and scholarly integrity, or reliability as experts and public commentators.
* As a relevant aside, among the epistemic and rhetorical battles we fight these days, about "fake news," "alternative facts," and the like, there is another problem that I think is both more significant and widespread and much less discussed. That is the profusion of the kinds of arguments, rationalizations, justifications, and rhetorical tactics that are characteristic of both some lawyering and much forensic debate. The problem is not that they are valueless, but that they are much less valuable and much less genuinely respectful of serious attachment to either facts or reasoned elaboration than they appear to be, much more susceptible to "bullshitting," and in the end, in my view, more damaging than some fake story on Facebook to serious discourse or an attachment to integrity and seriousness in thinking and argument. Political argument is not or needn't be legal argument, and legal argument is itself often highly problematic. Once again, although the classic adage is that we are all Legal Realists now, and a few people argue that critical legal theory has not died but been absorbed into general legal thought, I find on the whole that lawyers and law professors at least appear to have internalized very little of the lessons of Legal Realism or CLS, and retain in thought and deed a surprising attachment to the appearance of "reasoned elaboration." Perhaps it ill-behooves a lawyer and law professor to say so, but I think this is a dangerous mistake, especially when this kind of approach to argument increasingly emigrates from the courts and colonizes public and political discussion and debate.
This is my last post, God willing, on the AALS annual meeting. In my first post, I argued, in a nutshell, that the AALS is the American legal academy's learned society; that this is a reason to welcome and defend it against its harsher critics; that the AALS or individual executives, treating the organization more as a kind of trade association than a learned society, "have sometimes been too willing to cast themselves in the role of defenders of and advocates for law schools and legal education, rather than academicizing these questions and treating them as subjects for dispassionate and disinterested study"; and that this reflected itself this year in the annual meeting theme, "Why Law Matters," which a) assumed the answer to a genuine question and b) focused in substantial part not on why law matters, but on why American legal education and law schools matter. I did my best to display some sympathy and understanding and to recognize some of the organizational dynamics that push it in this direction, but I was still critical.
In response, a couple of posters here and elsewhere, and one commenter on my post, pushed back on the assumption that the AALS is a learned society rather than a trade association. Mark Tushnet wrote at Balkinization that unlike most academic learned societies, the AALS is organized by law schools rather than by law professors, and said that "[t]he AALS's structure means that it almost necessarily must be something like a trade association for law schools--perhaps with something like a learned society attached to it once a year." "There is in fact," he said strikingly, "no 'learned society' for legal academics." Given that, Tushnet argued, "it's actually something of an achievement that the AALS's annual program has become as intellectually substantial as it is now." Here at Prawfsblawg, Dan Rodriguez offers a short post worth reading in its entirety. Here's a substantial chunk of the post:
[The AALS] is an association of law schools, not an association of law professors. Always has been. Perhaps there is an important place in the academy for an organization of law professors (other academic professions have such associations), but that is not the mandate, the purpose, or the function of the AALS....Prof. Mark Tushnet got us nicely riled up many years ago when he set out as the theme of his presidency, the idea of the AALS as a learned society. Whatever power this had as a normative prescription, and as an exhortation to improve the academic programming of the annual meeting and other AALS conferences, it created a trap to which Paul and other distinguished law profs have fallen into, which is seeing the AALS as an entity whose primary purpose is providing professional development opportunities and good intellectual content for a hungry professoriat. Worthy endeavors indeed (hence the great suggestions for improving the meeting), but AALS functions principally, and by design, to reflect and represent the interests of member law schools....While the AALS surely ought to focus a good part of its attention and resources on providing meaningful opportunities for law professors to engage, to exchange scholarly and pedagogical ideas,...we do our member law schools a disservice to evade and avoid squarely acknowledging its function as a trade association and an interest group.
Dan and Mark, for those of you who may not know, are both past presidents of the AALS, as well as individuals I know and admire. I have not researched the range of disciplinary associations of whatever kind, and am happy to defer to their description. I did note in my original post that "ours is a learned society related to a regulated profession, and thus faces some distinct issues, as opposed to the questions that face, say, a learned society of historians or literature professors"; if that's not a recognition that the AALS is formally a "trade association" rather than a learned society, it's at least an acknowledgment that there are reasons why it might lean in that direction. (In that sense, it's relevant that Mark points out that when he looked into it during his presidency, "the only other profession that had only an association of schools and not an association of professors was dentistry"--another regulated profession. Without my having canvassed the issue fully, note similarly the existence and function of the Association of American Medical Colleges.) So, okay, let's concede, at least arguendo, that the AALS is a trade association, albeit one that also holds an annual meeting that looks a lot like those of other academic disciplines--with more content on legal education itself, perhaps, but also with substantive programs on particular legal subjects. What then? Does it affect my criticisms, and if so how?
As usual, my friend Orin Kerr asks the questions I would ask, and more economically, in his comments on Dan's post. One might put it simply and sympathetically by noting that, even if (as Dan argues in the comments to his post) there is no "tension" between its functions, they may make for odd bedfellows. One wouldn't expect a trade association based on the membership of individual existing law schools to argue in its official capacity, say, that some 20 or more of them ought to shut down. (I'm not averse to this argument, but neither is it an article of faith for me.) But one might expect an individual legal academic--and most key AALS officers are legal academics--to argue just that upon academic reflection. One wouldn't expect the AALS to argue that law doesn't matter, or matter much; or that whether it matters or not has little to do with whether law schools matter; or that law schools' academic function ought to be such as to exclude various measures--proliferating LL.M. programs, various one-year "certificates" that coincidentally and happily provide much-needed income, and so on--that might be crucial to some schools' survival or well-being. But an individual legal academic might conclude just that. "Tension?" Maybe not, as long as individual speakers are free to press that point at the annual meeting and in the Journal of Legal Education, as they are. (A nice test case might be a proposed "Hot Topic" program like "First, Let's Kill All the Law Schools" or "Law School Monopolies, Public Choice, and the Economic Incentives for Law School 'Innovation.'") "Odd bedfellows?" I don't think that's an especially harsh or implausible description.
Then there is the question of the fact of the annual meeting. Again, I'm a defender of the annual meeting, and, like Dan and Mark, I think it's better than its most convinced critics argue, although obviously it's imperfect (what isn't?) and I suggested some reforms. But we might well ask why, if the AALS is a trade association first and foremost, and one organized around law schools rather than individual law professors, it exists at all. We might treat it as lagniappe. There's a flavor of this in Dan and Mark's posts. They write, respectively, that "what is more surprising to me is that the AALS has maintained such strong attendance and loyalty, warts and all," and that "it's actually something of an achievement that the AALS's annual program has become as intellectually substantial as it is now." Both of them have pushed to make the annual meeting better, however, and I don't think either of them think the reaction of law professors to the notion that an annual meeting is kind of a bonus should be gratitude and silence.
But another way to read the fact of the annual meeting is that the AALS is, functionally if not formally, at least in part a learned society, and that it wants to be and/or holds itself out to be one. The by-laws and membership structure may cut against that, or against viewing it only as a learned society. But law professors have, for lo these past hundred years (or several hundred), often argued that form can be less important than function, that organizations evolve within or despite their formal structures, that we should not elevate process over substance, and so on. So maybe the "trade association" answer is not complete. And that point is enhanced when we reflect that even if the annual meeting itself includes many programs on legal education, the AALS also holds subject-specific midyear meetings, and that many of its annual distinguished speakers end up speaking about law, or legal academic work, not just about law schools and their welfare.
Again, I'm happy to concede that the AALS is at least a trade association, although possibly not only one, or that is a trade association "with a difference." Both Mark and Dan, as I understand them, don't rest absolutely on this point. That is, they still think the annual meeting is important and don't think it should be immune from criticism and reform, including suggestions about how to make the annual meeting itself more academically useful, just because it could dispense with an annual meeting (or midyear meetings) altogether, or limit it to a meeting of law school administrators, or what have you. And it is at least possible that we might think of the AALS in the end as being neither fish nor fowl. The question then would be whether we think of it as being free to be imperfect at both functions, or demand that be excellent at both, or suggest that it divest itself of its "learned society"-type functions, or something else.
I come out somewhere like the following. 1) Okay, it's a trade association. 2) For many intents and purposes, the presence of things like the annual and midyear meetings suggest that it is also, in function and in the understanding of most law professors if not in form, a learned society. As Dan notes, if there has been confusion on the part of law professors about this, it's a more-than-natural confusion. But I think it's more than just confusion; it is now part of the identity of the AALS, membership structure notwithstanding. 3) Insofar as it is a trade association, I have much less (or no) cause to complain when the AALS or its executives speak up in the interest of legal education and law schools themselves. 4) Insofar as it also conducts meetings that conform more closely to the learned society model, it should at least give thought to making sure that its annual themes and programs are fairly academic in nature, broadly understood (I see nothing wrong with programs on teaching better, for instance). The AALS might need to lobby others, but it doesn't need to lobby or convince individual law professors attending the annual meeting. I don't want to attach more importance to it than is warranted, but I still take the general view that "Why Law Matters" is an imperfect theme from that perspective, especially when married to arguments that law mattering is the same as something like current legal education or law schools mattering. In dealing with others, it may take a more emphatic position (which, as it comes from a trade association, individual law professors may critique or take with a grain of salt; the conclusions of individual law professors need not conform to the interests of individual law schools, or existing legal education as a whole). At the annual meeting, it should be very catholic and open-minded about such questions. 5) Law professors are free to push for at least some aspects of the AALS to conform more closely to the model of a learned society. Doing so may create, or enhance, tensions between those different functions that might not otherwise exist. So be it.
Even at this length, this post is just a starting point on this issue, which clearly requires more introspection and discussion from law professors themselves, myself included. Mark and Dan have given us a lot to think about.
I'm grateful to those who read and commented on my series of posts on the AALS annual meeting, especially but not limited to Mark Tushnet and Dan Rodriguez, who are both past presidents of the AALS. I hope the posts afforded some food for thought, and a little amusement, for those attending the meeting. Let me say again that the three of us have something important in common: We are all inclined to be supporters, not detractors, of the AALS and its annual meeting. As I wrote in my first post, my series of suggestions was intended neither to praise nor to bury the AALS. On the whole, I find the annual meeting useful, and better than its more fervent critics are wont to suggest. No institution or annual gathering is perfect or exempt from criticism. But I am and hope to remain involved in the AALS, both at the section level and in the central organization itself, and I would rather be a part of it, while sometimes waxing critical or pushing reforms, than deride it altogether, boycott it, or give up on the idea of a central organization and gathering for legal academics. On the other hand, I'm always much more interested in criticizing the things I like or am sympathetic to than the things or people I completely disagree with or disdain. Let me also repeat what I said often during the series: my proposals were in the nature of "modest proposals," with at least something of a Swiftian touch. I understood at the outset that it's highly unlikely that the AALS will take attendance at meetings and send that information to deans, or honor overexposed speakers with a gold watch and a five-year ban on speaking. The extreme nature of the proposals served to place the issues they were raising in high relief and provoke discussion. As it turned out, and I suspect this is often the case with semi-Swiftian satirists, and with all authors who make proposals, by the end I was more attached to the proposals themselves than might have been my original intention, and I am now inclined to think it's actually not a bad idea at all to take attendance or come up with draconian rules to deal with extreme "usual suspects" at the AALS annual meeting. Still, I expected readers to take the particulars of those proposals with a large grain of salt and focus on the issues themselves, even if I am now inclined to take the proposals more seriously than I initially intended.
I was grateful to those readers who pushed back on the "take attendance" proposal, which was meant to deal with "lobby-sitters" and "dinner-with-friends" attendees of the meeting, who rarely darken the door of actual program meetings. The upshot of the pushback was that meeting people outside the meeting rooms is a valuable form of professional networking and should not be knocked too readily or loosely. On the whole, I am happy to agree. One might view differently those social gatherings that have more to do with catching up and hanging out with friends per se, and less or little to do with catching up on each other's work. Setting that aside, I'm quite willing to agree that there is value in professional networking--and in some or many cases, it's not just value to oneself or one's personal advancement, crudely defined, but value to the legal academy, insofar as it involves learning about others' work, exposing others to one's own work, learning about what's taking place at other schools, and so on. But I would like to emphasize in response that my question was not whether this kind of networking is worthwhile--it is--but whether and to what extent it's worth subsidizing. (Remember that some of that subsidy comes from, inter alia, student tuitions and the state fisc.) More particularly, the question was whether it's worth subsidizing all that a trip to the AALS entails, including the registration fee for the meeting itself, the extra fee for the annual luncheon (the one program that those who don't attend many programs are most likely to attend), the travel and accommodation costs, and so on, in cases where the person seeking the subsidy doesn't show up for many or any of the actual meeting events. At the best of times, financially speaking, I would find that a dubious proposition--and these are not the best of times. Defending professional networking is easy. Defending asking your law school to pay a registration fee in order to obtain a conference rate at the hotel and a conference nametag (to facilitate identification for networking purposes), but without actually attending the conference proceedings, seems to me much harder. To me, at least, that holds true even if the programs ought to be better.
Whether the AALS takes attendance at individual programs and sends those data to law school deans or not, I think we can usefully ask what those professors who value professional networking but don't intend to attend many or any actual conference proceedings might do instead of seeking reimbursement for the whole conference package when they are only going to take advantage of part of that package--namely, the "lobby" or hallway and the chance to chat with old and new colleagues. Three possibilities spring to mind. One is that the professor simply pay his or her own way. As long as a law school reasonably expects that this person is actually going to attend conference proceedings and is offering to subsidize him or her on that understanding, this seems like the right thing to do. The second is that the professor "go to the conference" but not register for it, and thus limit him- or herself to networking in the lobby or elsewhere, without access to the nametag, the programs (which he or she didn't plan to attend much if at all anyway) and luncheon, the booths downstairs, or the conference rate at the hotel. (Of course, that person could always stay at cheaper accommodations in the city and then commute to the conference hotel.) If his or her law school were willing to subsidize that, on the view that there is sufficient value in networking itself (or because it believes the professor's use of his or her PDF is discretionary as long as it is related to academic purposes), at least it would save the school the cost of the registration fee itself. Finally, if the professor really wanted the conference rate and the nametag but had no intention of attending any conference programs, he or she could tell the dean clearly and in advance that he or she planned to seek reimbursement for the conference fee, hotel costs, and the rest of it, but without attending any programs. I would be curious to find out what would happen in such cases! But surely there is nothing wrong with being transparent about one's intentions with respect to using institutional funds--and conversely, there is arguably something wrong with not doing so precisely because one wants to "attend" the conference without attending any of the programs and fears that such a request would not be approved if it were made transparently.
Again, none of this is meant to disparage professional networking. (Although some dinners with friends are just dinners with friends.) The question is what law schools ought to pay for, and whether it's fairer, and would conduce to better decision-making and resource allocation by law schools, to know what they are paying for. (And, as I said in the first place, professors could always Skype with each other, or email, or do other things. No, it's not as good. But it's a hell of a lot cheaper. And, of course, there are conferences within one's specific field as well.)
In back of this proposal, to be sure, is a general premise: I value the annual meeting as such, including the program meetings. Professional advancement is nice, and need not be viewed in purely mercenary terms. But the AALS is an annual meeting for professional education, including exposure to ideas and speakers outside of one's usual area of focus, not just for professional advancement. I think such a conference is or ought to be a valuable thing for committed members of an academic field. My views above would hold even if that weren't my background premise. But since it is, my "attendance" proposal is not only about encouraging candor, transparency to funders and stakeholders like law students and state legislators, and better resource allocation by law schools; it's also about making the AALS annual meeting itself better, by encouraging registrants to actually attend the programs--and, where subsidy is dependent on their doing so, incentivizing them to get involved in the sections or communicate with the AALS in order to make the program meetings better.
Whether this second point holds might seem to have something to do with whether the AALS is actually a learned society or not, or whether it's something else. That's the point on which Mark and Dan offer some interesting and useful points, and I'll take it up in my next post.
This is the last of my posts on the AALS annual meeting, post-dating the meeting itself. Mercifully, it's also the shortest. My last, and probably most logistically difficult reform suggestion, is to rethink locations.
I know there is a history here, and also that the AALS needs to lock in its commitments years in advance. But I suspect I'm not the only one who is tired of shuttling between New York (great city, expensive, tiny overpriced rooms), DC (good city, lots of friends in town, expensive, unattractive hotel, exhaustion occasioned by too many trips to the Lebanese Taverna), and San Francisco (wicked expensive). It's a big country and, even keeping in mind all the needs that have to be balanced, surely there are other possibilities. I think it's time for other cities: Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, Philly, Tampa, Birmingham, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, Memphis, Nashville, Pittsburgh....Some are expensive but many on this list are both accessible and much cheaper than the Big Three that the AALS has relied on for several years. (The last non-big three locale I remember was New Orleans; I'm not sure when that was, but a few years at least.) The AALS annual meeting is already something of a bubble, but there's something to be said for moving that bubble outside the usual bubbles of NY, SF, and DC. It is possible that some attendees might prefer to visit, say New York, than Pittsburgh, or San Francisco to Salt Lake City. But since the programs (or lobby, if you prefer) would be the same, I can't imagine why.
I'll round things out with a further comment about the "take attendance" post, and a post about AALS as learned society vs. trade association, although both will have to wait a bit.
The AALS annual meeting continues, and so does my series of posts offering some modest proposals for reform. I should add as a side note that readers may be interested in this post by Mark Tushnet at Balkinization discussing whether the AALS is a learned society or something else--specifically, something more like the trade organization for law schools that I pushed against in my first post. (I'm thankful to Brian Tamanaha for making a similar point in the comments to the last post.) It's an interesting point, and I'll write a separate post responding to it after I'm through with this series.
My next suggestion for reform concerns the overuse of a few, generally well-known or "celebrity," generally elite law professors as speakers at the AALS. This, too, is something that I think is widely perceived as a problem. At the same time, there are reasons both to defend the practice, or at least to acknowledge sympathetically how and why it occurs and how difficult it is to remedy. Let me be clear that there is clearly a touch of "modest proposal," in the Swiftian sense, to the modest proposals I make below.
I know from past experience as a section head and as a program planner that the AALS encourages planners of section programs to take into account the need to include junior as well as established law professors as speakers, to seek at least some forms of diversity in panel composition, and so on. I also acknowledge that in planning section programs, I too have turned to some of those well-known profs (always for a reason, but it's never hard to come up with reasons, or excuses, to do so) as invited speakers. One reason they're invited is that they often actually have something valuable to say. Another is that they're demonstrably willing to come and speak. Finally, it's worth noting in fairness that the list of people who actually end up speaking doesn't show all the invitees who declined or canceled. Sometimes section meeting programmers try harder to avoid the list of overused speakers than the results suggest.
But although the AALS urges its program planners not just to turn to the same celebrity talking-heads time and again, it's also clear that not every planner takes that advice. Among other things, program planners have a strong incentive to invite famous names, in order to get better attendance and thus secure better time slots in future years. (It's also possible, as a commenter on the last post suggested, that they may do so for reasons of personal advancement.) Between those incentives, the sheer number of sections, the willingness or eagerness of some celebrity speakers to talk frequently (perhaps too frequently) on a wide (perhaps too wide) range of topics, and the general collective action problems involved, the result is that a small number of speakers, many of them from elite schools or with individual "celebrity" status regardless of where they teach, serve repeatedly, year after year, as speakers on multiple programs. Many attendees are at least a little tired of this phenomenon. Even those who see good reasons for it think it runs to excess. And most of us could come up with the names of the same half-dozen to dozen-and-a-half "frequent flyers" or "repeat offenders," if I may lightly and respectfully call them that.
Again, I acknowledge that these celebrity speakers may have plenty to say. (But not necessarily. I have seen some phoned-in appearances, as have we all. And who knows what interesting things a newbie or less-famous law professor might have said in their place, given both his or her actual expertise in the subject and the extra effort that might result from gratitude at being invited to speak?) I also know there is real interest in hearing them speak. Nevertheless, precisely because of all the collective action problems and the difficulty of keeping things to a reasonable level of repetition, I would suggest that the AALS, and all of us, would be better off with a fairly rigid rule-based approach here. That might consist of a limit on the number of speaking appearances any individual person can make per year at AALS, a limit on the number of times they can speak in a three-year period, or some combination or variant of the two.
To those reasonably plausible proposals, I would add a brace of less likely suggestions, acknowledging their somewhat Swiftian character, although I also admit to finding them intriguing. First: Once someone has made a certain total number of AALS appearances--25, say--they should be singled out for public recognition and applause at the annual meeting or in the program, given the equivalent of a gold watch or membership in an AALS Hall of Fame, and banned entirely from speaking at AALS for a period of, say, five years. Second, as a way to counter the incentive of individual section meeting planners to invite overexposed celebrity profs to speak, in order to secure attendance and improve the section's scheduled slot in the following year, while balancing that against the possibility that a section planner might think it's really vital to have that overused speaker, we could go with something like this: The AALS will compile a list of overexposed speakers. (Plenty of people would be willing to help with that effort.) Section planners will not be forbidden to invite one of them to serve as a speaker. But if they do, that section is automatically assigned an unattractive slot on the last day of the conference the following year. That way, a section planner who thinks it is absolutely necessary to invite Overexposed Speaker X to participate can do so--but he or she had better decide it's really worth it, because the section will suffer for it the year after.
These measures are obviously draconian. Like most rules, they are over-and under-inclusive, but may be necessary where standards won't suffice to solve the problem and it's better to have a firm rule. It may be worth it here; a "drive sensibly"-type standard is clearly not working. Such an approach would do a world of good, I think, especially for younger and less famous law professors from the more plebeian schools. Although it's not a principle reason for my suggestion, I would note that a policy along these lines would also be good for minority professors, both senior and junior, and in some cases would remedy the slight, perhaps only seeming, absurdity of some majority-group, elite celebrity professor being invited repeatedly to take the spotlight, and accept the plaudits, to pronounce on the virtues of diversity or the equal importance of all law schools, while junior professors, denizens of lower-ranked schools, and minorities are effectively frozen out of that speaking slot.
A few counterpoints and concluding observations after the jump.
Three concluding notes about this proposal. First, I repeat that it is in the nature of a "modest proposal," is unlikely to occur, and definitely has its share of arbitrariness. Think of it, in part, as a way to bring the issue of overexposed celebrity speakers at AALS to the surface and provoke discussion about it. Still, I'm not sure how much we should worry about its being somewhat arbitrary. It is arbitrary, but not terribly unjust, unless you think that being prevented from making Panel Appearance Number 26 is terribly unjust. And we might ask: Even if such a rule is arbitrary, what's the worst that would happen? On the one hand, we would lose some valuable remarks from some valuable speakers. On the other, as I think everyone agrees, not every celebrity speaker makes valuable remarks on every occasion, and some of them make the same points, albeit potentially valuable ones, repeatedly, so we wouldn't really lose that many insights on net. If they couldn't speak so often, they might only accept invitations to speak on the occasions where they believed could make the best contribution. We would hear from a wider and newer range of speakers, some of whom would turn out to have unexpected and terrific things to say. We might get more, and more varied, forms of diversity in the universe of conference speakers. Those possibilities seem worth the cost of a firm and somewhat arbitrary rule.
Second, one possible objection is that for some (or many) law professors, this is the only chance they may get to meet and hear from some of these celebrity speakers--some of whom, after all, are celebrities for good reason. Although I'm sympathetic to this point, I don't think it outweighs the need to address what I see as a problem for the annual meeting. But I find the point interesting, unexpected and, as I said, sympathetic, and I'm happy to air it for discussion.
Finally, let me note that in writing this post, I went over this year's list of speakers to scan for repeat performers. Two things struck me about them. First, to be demographically blunt, they are not all white men, or white women. (But most of them are.) Second, they are not all elite and/or "celebrity" professors. A large number of them are. But running close behind are individuals who are present or former AALS officers, not necessarily from elite schools, and many of whom are speaking on topics concerning legal education, often in programs put together by the AALS itself rather than individual sections. (If that is correct, we might worry about that.) My sense is that the list is somewhat broader than the stock image one might have in mind of repeat performers all coming from the same three or four schools. But I don't know whether that is always the case, or whether this year is different from the usual pattern. And I wouldn't want to overstate the breadth of the list. There is a celebrity culture in law schools, often involving faculty from the same few schools, and it does result in a number of generally elite repeat performers at AALS. I think it's worth acknowledging this fact more openly and discussing it, and what (if anything) ought to be done about it. The rules proposed here are intended to help encourage that, in part because of their epater-le-bourgeois quality--although I also kind of like the proposed rules, and perhaps especially the more far-fetched ones.
Enjoy your annual meeting!
I am no particular fan of the ABA Journal, whose quality seems to have declined over the years. That said, I'm happy, or happy-sad, to note that this month's issue includes a column by Bryan Garner on a favorite hobby-horse topic of mine: the lamentable disappearance of book reviews from many law reviews, bar journals, and other general legal-reading sources.
Note that the ABA Journal used to run book reviews, but for quite a few years now has stopped doing so--although it does seem to find the time and space to let us know about "lawyers in film" and "the top legal movies" at least once a year, and about "Legal Rebels" more or less ceaselessly.
Following up on yesterday's post on the AALS annual meeting, there are three more specific suggestions I would like to make in the remaining posts. The first has to do with attendance at the AALS annual meeting, and specifically the question whether a number of attendees are "lobby sitters" who do not actually attend much if any of the meeting programs; whether law schools, especially in a time of budget shortages, really ought to be paying for that activity; and what might be done about it.
It is impossible for any person attending to figure out how many law professors at AALS attend many of the programs, some of them, very few of them (or the annual AALS luncheon only), or none at all. It is true, and I think anyone who has ever been to AALS will agree, that it seems as if many people attending AALS just hang out in the main hotel lobby, stirring only to sign up for random prize drawings at the publishers' booths and go out to dinner with friends, without attending many or any actual programs. It's impossible to say: the faces in the lobby change, and of course they may leave to attend many programs and then return to the lobby. But it is at least a possibility that some professors attend the annual meeting largely, if not entirely, to get a (law-school-subsidized) trip to sit in a hotel lobby in SF, NY, or DC, a (subsidized) chance to see far-flung friends, and a nice (subsidized) dinner with them. That's not what the annual meeting is for. Nor is it what law school budgets, including discretionary faculty "research" or "professional development" funds, are for.
I would recommend the following modest proposal: Require people to sign in at every program meeting, and carefully compile and record the attendance data. Requiring everyone to sign in before entering a program meeting, and compiling the data, will require some greater expenditure of resources, but it's not immense or impossible. It may not stop people from leaving the room shortly after signing in, but so be it.
Follow up on this by sending to the deans, and only to the deans, data about their own professors' attendance, noting the name of each faculty member from that school and the number of programs for which he or she actually signed in. Leave it to individual deans, in consultation with their faculty or not depending on individual school policies, to decide how to respond. Maybe it will turn out that all the seeming lobby-sitters actually do attend various programs, and maybe not. Maybe the dean and/or faculty at a given law school will decide that it is a waste of that school's budget to subsidize a trip that consists largely or exclusively of dinner with friends in some distant metropolis. Maybe they will decide that the law school can and should refuse to subsidize any AALS trip where the attendee fails to attend fewer than three, five, or more programs. Maybe they will decide to leave the use of such funds purely within the discretion of individual faculty, even if the funds are used unwisely. The students at those schools, or the central administrations of those universities, or state legislators where public universities are involved, may be also curious about those data and ask to see them, and react accordingly depending on the answers (or the refusal to give any answers).
The results might be unpleasant, but they don't strike me as unreasonable. In particular, it doesn't seem unreasonable to me for deans to question whether their budget is best spent subsidizing dinner-with-friends junkets. Nor does it seem unreasonable for students and other law school funders to ask the same questions. At the least, such a policy would certainly help us to learn more about actual attendance practices by individual law professors at the annual meeting.
A couple of anticipatory responses to questions or objections after the jump.
A note or two about some possible comments or questions. (I field-tested these posts on Facebook before posting them here and got some interesting responses, incidentally. I'm grateful to those "friends" who responded.) It may be argued--it has been argued--that what happens at those friendly dinners is more intellectually interesting than anything that takes place at the actual meeting program. It may be also be argued that those informal meetings and dinners are good for professional advancement and so on, perhaps as distinct from and perhaps inextricably linked to intellectual development. I have a few answers to these points. The first is that I'm happy to elicit discussion of these issues and hardly expect my proposal to meet with complete agreement. Indeed, I look forward to agreement, disagreement, and anything in between.
More directly, even if these points are true, I'm not sure they merit full subsidy of lobby-sitters' attendance at the annual meeting by law schools, especially when they are accompanied by the extra expense of actually registering for the conference. (Many professors have complained, fairly or not, that the registration fee for AALS is pretty substantial.) Interesting intellectual discussions with far-flung friends may be more enjoyable and fruitful at a nice restaurant in New York, but can be held more inexpensively at conferences elsewhere, by email, or via Skype. In particular, one would expect more intellectually fruitful discussions to be held at subject-specific conferences, and "mere" dinner-with-friends gossip and discussion to be the nature of meet-ups at a general conference. Professional individual advancement of certain kinds (planning conferences or joint book projects, for instance) can be valuable for law schools. But, again, I'm not sure that justifies paying a substantial registration and travel fee, absent any attendance at the actual meeting. Other kinds of professional advancement--trying to make a lateral move, say--can also ultimately be good for law schools, but there's still less reason to accept without meaningful discussion the proposition that law schools should subsidize it, especially by paying for someone's registration fee at a conference that he or she doesn't attend. If that's all you're there for, you can always pay on your own dime to travel to the same city and stay at a cheaper hotel nearby, without registering for the meeting or asking the law school to pay for anything. (Or you can ask the law school to subsidize that kind of trip, and see what happens.)
In any event, it would be interesting to find out what people are doing at the annual meeting, and discuss openly how to shape our funding policies accordingly. Taking and reporting on attendance will facilitate that. And if the data suggest that the dinner-with-friends discussions are more interesting or valuable than the program meetings themselves, then: 1) law schools (and their constituents, such as tuition-paying law students) can have a useful discussion about how to respond to that; and 2) the attendant embarrassment will certainly be a strong incentive for the AALS to plan better programs.
It may also be noted that there are other conferences held in concert with the AALS annual meeting, which the AALS has gradually treated with a more welcoming spirit in recent years. The most prominent is the Federalist Society meeting, which is very good, but I have also attended at least one fine session of the Lumen Christi meeting. Registration fees for those meetings are low or non-existent, and I am informed that conference rates are available at the AALS hotels at least for those who register for the FedSoc meeting. I have no problem with law schools subsidizing a trip to attend one of those conferences, even--or, rather, especially--if the person seeking the subsidy doesn't register for the AALS annual meeting. They're serious conferences in themselves, and signing up for one and not the other would save the law school paying for the trip considerable expense. The interesting question arises whether, if law schools stopped subsidizing AALS trips absent a showing of actual attendance at some number of program meetings, the lobby-sitters and dinner-with-friends types, if they exist, would simply sign up for and not attend one of those conferences. I think we can burn that bridge when we come to it. But I'm really not sure how that possibility would play out. Some professors might be shameless about accepting a subsidized trip to not attend the AALS meeting, but refuse to register to not attend the Federalist Society meeting, for strange political reasons. If people stopped attending AALS but continued taking advantage of subsidies for FedSoc or some other simultaneous meeting, AALS might respond in various ways, including more vigorous competition and a more attractive (and perhaps more politically diverse) annual meeting. And it is possible that the changes in law school funding policies that might result from all this, or the change in relationship between the AALS meeting and the satellite conferences, would lead the satellite conferences to start charging a registration fee, taking attendance, or something else.
It's worth observing that at least one or two sections have come up with creative ways to combine the networking and friend-meeting aspect of the AALS annual meeting with actual programming content. The environmental law section, for example, plans annual field trips that seem quite popular. I haven't attended one of those field trips, so I can't speak to their merits. But they do indicate that there are productive ways to enable people, at least within a particular field, to network and see friends while encouraging participation in section events rather than mere lobby-sitting.
Of course, it's possible that there is little or no "lobby-sitting" behavior at AALS. And if there is, some might argue that it's nobody's business but their own how they choose to spend their time and their professional development funds. Requiring people to sign in for program meetings and collecting and analyzing the data would help us to answer the first question. And I welcome the more open and transparent discussion that would result from the latter argument, if anyone cares to make it. Whether it's anyone's business or not depends in part on the specifics of individual law schools' policies regarding professional development funding. But I think it's hard to argue that how individual law professors spend law school money that is earmarked for professional development purposes is no one else's business. It's not just a salary bump, or at least it sure ain't supposed to be.
Two final points on this subject. First, given my view, which I offered in the first post, that learned societies do or should mean something, and that there is or ought to be some value in having annual gatherings of a learned profession, I do think there is something important about discussing all this in the context of the AALS annual meeting specifically, and I do hope that the result of such a discussion is a policy or social norm that encourages actual participation in the meeting by attendees, rather than mere lobby-sitting. If a change in policies also encourages better and more attractive programming at the annual meeting, so much the better. And if it results in a few people having to spend their own money on what is essentially a personal trip, or staying home instead, I will not weep overmuch at that prospect.
Second, it is fair to note that individual school policies concerning paying for attendance at the AALS annual meeting have already changed at many schools. For instance, many schools that used to automatically and separately subsidize attendance at the AALS annual meeting now require professors to seek reimbursement for this trip out of their general professional development funds, forcing them to decide whether to spend those funds on AALS or on something else. (If there are law professors out there who only "attend" AALS, or SEALS, but without actually attending any program meetings, and who face no difficult allocation decisions because they never attend conferences in their own fields and have no other professional activities or needs on which to spend their professional development funds, well, that raises another set of questions about those individuals, if they exist.) Surely that is mostly the result of general budgetary concerns, but I suspect it also has to do with implicit judgments about the value of the annual meeting. Having more and better data about attendance might shape these policy changes further. Refusing to subsidize AALS trips by lobby-sitters might encourage the AALS to improve its programming further. (In fairness, I argued in my first post that complaints about the content of the meeting are overstated.) That would surely be a good thing, and it might lead law schools to return to their earlier policies, which allow and encourage attendance at what is, after all, the annual meeting of the legal academic profession's learned society.
Again, I welcome comments--hopefully temperate, but critical comments and questions are certainly welcome. Enjoy your day at the conference!
The AALS annual meeting starts today in San Francisco. You can find a full program here. That makes it an ideal time to propose some changes or reforms to that meeting. I have several suggestions and will make them in several posts. The second suggestion, which will follow in a subsequent post today or tomorrow, is my personal favorite. But I start with both a general defense of the AALS annual meeting and a general critique of the tendency of the AALS to defend law schools, which I think moves it too close to a trade association or lobby (more on lobbies, of a different sort, in my next post) and too far away from what ought to be its role: that of a learned society.
I expand on this point at my usual painstaking and/or tedious length below. But I will summarize it here, both for tl;dr purposes and in case you're hurrying into a program meeting. The long and short of it is this: The AALS, as a learned society, should discuss and examine, but not defend or (possibly) take a position on the status quo in legal education. That job is outside its proper role. And it should certainly have avoided or rephrased its conference theme this year, "Why Law Matters." That is not really a question at all, and at best is not the right question. And it goes too far toward assuming the answer.
At the outset, to place this and the following posts in context, let me say that I am not generally hostile to the AALS and that I am generally inclined to defend it. I know that a large number of non-law-prof Internet commenters are ill-disposed to the AALS and its annual meeting. Those commenters may be unaware that a fair number of law professors are themselves hostile to the AALS, the annual meeting, or both. Other law profs are not opposed to the organization or its annual meeting but, for various reasons, make a point of skipping it every year. I am not attending this year, but it has to do with my own schedule, not with any judgment of the event itself, this year or in general. My credentials for criticizing without scorning the AALS, and my general views on the organization and its annual meeting, are something like the following. I have attended the annual conference almost every year since I began law teaching. I have been the section head or co-head of at least two sections and served on section executives almost every year, and hope to continue doing so. I serve on an AALS Standing Committee, though I must confess, with sincere apologies and the usual pathetic nod to my various surgeries and so on, that I was a poor committee member this year. As with my involvement in individual sections, I hope to remain involved in the central organization itself. I come neither to praise the AALS nor to bury it.
Learned societies are common features of the academy and its individual disciplines, and should be. As I've written here before, I have doubts about the direction those societies are taking. Specifically, I am concerned about their increasing tendency to take explicitly political stands, justified by dubious arguments about the relationship between some academic discipline and political duty or change, or about the supposed insight that membership in some academic discipline gives one on various issues. I tend to believe that academics who share my doubts should not boycott their respective learned societies, but remain actively involved in them while opposing those tendencies. Similarly, those who question the value of a particular learned society ought to remain inside it and strive to make it better, rather than dismissing it altogether. As for the AALS annual meeting itself, I understand the arguments that the meeting is too varied and its section programs too weak, and that one is better off attending a subject-specific conference than a general gathering like this one. But I still find sufficient value in various section meetings, workshops, and so on, as well as the general value of participating in the overall affairs of legal education and its learned society, to justify attending. And I think the criticisms of the quality of the section programs, while not ungrounded, are exaggerated. In any event, if you think the programs are not good enough, you should stay involved and work to improve them. It's true that, in general, I'm not a joiner. But in this case, any criticisms or suggestions I offer here are of the "inside-the-tent" variety. I will also note respectfully that one of our perma-Prawfs, Dan Rodriguez, is a past president of the AALS. He did an excellent job of discharging his duties, and has been an effective defender of the AALS. He, better than I, can speak both to its virtues and to the challenges and tensions it faces and, perhaps, the difficulty of making some of the changes I suggest in this and subsequent posts.
Although I am happy to defend the AALS and its annual meeting in general, there are some changes I would love to see. In this first post, after the jump, I make a general point about the role of learned societies, which I apply specifically and critically to this year's questionable conference theme, "Why Law Matters."
A) In addition to the general "purely academic vs. substantially political function" question confronted by many learned societies these days, these groups also face the question whether their job does or should involve what we might call a "trade association" role as well as that of a learned academic society. That's probably true of all learned societies. But it is especially true of the AALS, because ours is a learned society related to a regulated profession, and thus faces some distinct issues, as opposed to the questions that face, say, a learned society of historians or literature professors. Since 2008, especially, the AALS and/or individual executives seem often to be willing to talk about the state and fate of law schools, the value of going to law school relative to other professional choices prospective students might make, the value of a law degree, and so on. From my own perspective, and notwithstanding the reasonable arguments that individual speakers have made on these points, they have sometimes been too willing to cast themselves in the role of defenders of and advocates for law schools and legal education, rather than academicizing these questions and treating them as subjects for dispassionate and disinterested study.
I can understand the temptation to do so, and even how some might view it not as a temptation but as a duty. But I think it's a questionable course of action. I'm not sure it's consistent with the best traditions of a learned academic society, which ought to approach such questions academically. Whatever value there is in the study and teaching of law in general, as a learned academic society, the AALS must remain open to the conclusion that if plausible arguments can be made that a large number of schools ought to shut down, or that students could do better elsewhere and ought to be deterred from attending law school, or other conclusions that would be harmful to individual law schools or to the welfare of American legal education in general, then so be it. The job of the AALS should be to facilitate learned discussion within and about the academic profession of law, not to serve as a lobby or trade association for American law schools.
To this general point we might add that, whatever supposed expertise the AALS might bring to the kinds of issues that might occasion "trade association" work on behalf of law schools, it also faces some important institutional tensions and incentives that might influence its positions and answers. Suppose that the best answer to the general question of the future of law schools is that 30 or 40 percent of them should be shuttered, and/or that we need to focus on the survival of the best, most elite law schools and kill a great many of the lower-ranked law schools. I'm not arguing for that position here, especially the latter position. I don't tend to share it, although I think self-interest shouldn't affect our reaction to these options, and I certainly think a plausible argument can be made for reducing the number of law schools. As a matter of institutional political economy, however, it would be a difficult position for the AALS to take, even if it were the best answer produced by academic consideration of the question by the legal academic community. The AALS depends for its well-being on the membership of law schools in general, half of which are necessarily "lower-ranked" and many more than half of which are necessarily non-elite. All those schools are represented in the organization, and its leadership often includes deans and faculty from those lower-ranked schools. They are unlikely to champion such a position, and unlikely to support a learned society that does. It is certainly possible, in another discipline, to conclude from the inside (or the outside) that that discipline is over-producing members (or would-be members) and that it ought to get rid of many of its graduate programs: that, for instance, if history programs are turning out far more history Ph.D's than there are jobs for history professors, there ought to be fewer graduate programs in history. It ought to be open to our learned society to reach similar conclusions. But for reasons of institutional politics, that's a difficult or untenable position for the AALS to take.
Accordingly, in my view, if the AALS discusses such issues at all, it ought to treat those questions as subjects for truly academic discussion, and refuse to advocate for or take positions on law schools or legal education in general.
B) That is a general criticism, but it has a more specific application to this year's AALS meeting theme: "Why Law Matters." In describing that theme, the conference program says, among other things, that "[w]e need to make the case now for why law matters and the academy’s role in advancing respect for and understanding of the rule of law." It adds that "[a] more intentional focus on why law matters can also help us to re-energize our teaching, research, and service, and inspire a new generation of students to dedicate their lives to the law." The program includes a symposium titled "Why the Decline of Law and Legal Education Matters (And What We Might Do About it?)," which includes the following description:
During the last decade law and legal institutions have confronted a loss of power and status vis a vis other social coordination mechanisms–in particular markets and technology. During this same period law schools have faced a perfect storm of underemployment for graduates, reduced tuition revenue, and declining subsidies from state governments. Has the legal academy’s focus on threats to law schools left us slow to react to the even greater challenges to the rule of law? What is being lost? Why did it happen? What can law schools do about it?
To my mind, the title of the general program theme, and some of its particulars, including that symposium description, are not ideal for a learned society. It's a little thing, perhaps, but there seems to me a big difference between asking legitimately and academically, "Does Law Matter?," without any pre-judgment of the answer to the question, and asserting positively that "Law Matters," and thus that the only remaining question to be answered is "Why" it does. There are, of course, all kinds of arguments that can be made for why law does matter, and they are arguably especially pertinent this year. But there are also relevant and plausible arguments that can be made for why law doesn't matter, why it doesn't matter much, or why it doesn't matter as much as some law professors, lawyers, or laypersons think. These should be framed as questions to be discussed openly, academically, and without concern for what those answers might mean for our own jobs.
And there are even more reasons why, even if law matters, it's far less clear that "the decline of law and legal education" "matters" for the well-being of law itself. Maybe "law" would suffer if there were fewer and better law schools--but maybe not; maybe it would benefit from the change. Law is not the sole province of lawyers. Perhaps it would benefit from having fewer (and fewer unhappy) lawyers or law students, and more civically educated and engaged engineers, small business owners, blue-collar workers, and others. We should at least be open to the possibility, instead of channeling the discussion in a direction that is likely to issue in more of the usual defenses of law, the legal profession, and especially legal education.
"Why Law Matters," in my view, is neither the right question nor a question at all. It would have been better if the AALS, if it were going to select such a theme, had titled it differently, and organized the discussion accordingly. Something like "Why Does Law Matter?" or, even better, "Does Law Matter?" would have been a much more appropriate theme. It would also, I think, have a better chance of producing a more interesting discussion.
Relevant, preferably non-overheated comments are welcome. More suggestions for changes or reforms to the AALS annual meeting will follow in three subsequent posts.
I figured it would not take long, between the election itself and Randy Barnett's slightly parodic (I think) recent counter-post, for Mark Tushnet to revisit his notorious Balkinization post on "abandoning defensive crouch liberal constitutionalism." My assumption was that he would (a) double down on his original post, (b) walk it back in various ways, or (c) do both. Yesterday he put up a post on the question. It is titled "Doubling Down (on 'The Culture Wars Are Over')." Despite the title, my reading is that he went with (c).
Yes, Mark writes that he will "double down on the point that clearly was most annoying--the claim that the culture wars are over, and that liberals won." I think there is a pretty good basis for that claim. The election does not directly refute it, by any means. If the election results are read as a result of economic concerns, or of working-class populism, or of nativism, they can be read as irrelevant to the culture-war questions Mark focuses on and thus not refuting his argument. If they are also read as having do to in part with a combination of those concerns and the arguable failure of the Democratic nominee to run a sufficiently smart and locally responsive campaign, or the fair and/or unfair negative perception of the candidate, or the foolishness and complicity of the party apparatus in doing its best to install a longstanding establishment candidate and her machine rather than spend the last eight years building and encouraging new candidates, or some combination of these and other factors, some within and some beyond her control, then the election results are even weaker as a refutation of Mark's argument.
The best argument against a general and confident claim that "the culture wars are over, and that the liberals won," I think, has more to do with the general nature of culture wars, which counsels against hubris or premature declarations of victory. It may be that culture wars are more or less permanent features of the American landscape, that they subside or change focus but do not simply go away, and so cannot so easily be declared "won" or "lost." I think there is some truth to this point, but also that there are strong grounds for saying that on some issues there are long-standing, seemingly permanent changes in social views on some issues. On some of the issues that Mark picks out in implicitly defining what he means by the "culture wars," there is an excellent case that the "liberals" won on those issues. We should be specific in saying that these are liberal victories, not necessarily leftist or radical victories, and that some of those victories may involve or rely on some domestication of the issues under conflict or of the "victorious" position, as in the strategic shift over a couple of decades by the LGBT movement away from some issues and positions and toward a focus on the bourgeois institution of marriage, understood and depicted as such. Although I think something was lost by steering away from more radically "queer" positions and marginalizing queerer thinkers in favor of more powerful establishment types and their views, as a fairly bourgeois person myself I can't complain too much about this. In any event, there is no doubt that there have been real changes and genuine liberal victories on some important culture-war issues among those selected by Mark. (On others, I think the "victory" is less clear or stable than he suggests, and that some of his language implicitly concedes this possibility.)
So, on the one hand, he doubles down. On the other, I think there are also significant signs of walking back his argument. Here, the evidence is less what he does say, and more what he doesn't say and how he characterizes his earlier post. Consider that line again: "I'm going to double down on the point that clearly was most annoying--the claim that the culture wars are over, and that liberals won." Given that Mark received deplorable hate mails in response to his post, I am happy to posit both that some readers (or, more likely, some readers of others writing about his post) indeed found that the most annoying point, and that he is arguing this in good faith, and with plentiful personal justification. But my take on both the original post and on much of the (public, polite) reaction to it is that for many, that was not the most annoying point of Mark's original post, nor its central or most important point. For those readers, what mattered most was not, say, the assertion that liberals had "won" on gay marriage, in a culture-war as well as a legal sense. Rather, it was the point that, after all, formed the title of the post: that liberals should "abandon [a] defensive crouch" and take a "hard line" in dealing with "the losers," complete with historical comparisons casting those "losers" in the role of the Axis powers in World War II and the Confederacy in the Civil War. [Note an update below the fold. I don't think it changes the general argument I make here, but it does add a cite to another post by Mark shortly after his initial one.]
Again, I don't doubt that Mark's most vicious correspondents were focused more on the substantive culture-war issues themselves than on the advocacy of an aggressive, uncompromising consolidation and advance on these issues by liberals, perhaps or even presumably led by a cadre of elites of the sort Mark teaches every day. But I read the public reactions to the post, at least in those media intended for generally educated readers of a conservative bent, as focused much more on the latter than the former point. And on that point, there is a contestable but fair argument that the election results, along with interviews, reporting, and some polling data, do show both that this concern was relevant and that many voters reacted strongly, not to particular substantive issues themselves, but to the idea of having centralized establishment elites entrenching their own power and using it by hook or crook to push their victories into new territories on new positions and take a "hard line" against those "losers."
On those issues, Mark's new post at a minimum deemphasizes them, on the whole is fairly silent about them, and to the degree that he addresses them seems to take a different tone, if not a different position. The earlier post acknowledged that people may differ on "question[s] of tactics," but argued that "taking a hard line . . . is better than trying to accommodate the losers. He added: "When specific battles in the culture wars were being fought, it might have made sense to try to be accommodating after a local victory, because other related fights were going on, and a hard line might have stiffened the opposition in those fights. But the war’s over, and we won." The new post contains this language:
But, what about accommodations for those with religious objections to providing business services to members of that community? Here everything turns on details, which the gloaters seem to ignore. From the outset I thought -- and wrote, but of course no one paid attention to it -- that we were likely to end up with a limited form of accommodation. I thought that it would be for relatively small owner-operated businesses whose owners had religious objections to providing what I'd describe loosely as "expressive-related" services. And I still think that's where we're going to end up, though there will be variations in the details -- size, what counts as an "expressive-related" service, and the like. For me, this sort of accommodation was itself an indication of the "we won" position.
It is true that Mark elsewhere has been more accepting of some accommodations than others have been or are. But the "abandoning defensive crouch" post certainly doesn't spell that out, and I'm not sure it's fair to tax the "gloaters" with having ignored any especially clear language on that point in the earlier post. (You can read it for yourself, of course, and may read it differently than I do.) Nor do I think they would have been out of line in reading the tone of the earlier post as being very different from the tenor of the paragraph quoted above. It appears to move from having treated accommodation and compromise as something that used to make sense but no longer does, and about which there is little good reason to compromise or accommodate either tactically or for its own sake (because "liberals regard [the positions on which accommodation or compromise is sought] as having no normative pull at all"), to now treating any future accommodations as just further confirmation of the liberal "victory."
I think it is fair to read all this as showing a degree of walking-back. [See the end of the post for an update.] And the other evidence of walking-back is more general but equally important: it's the shift in focus that is effected by treating his earlier post, or reactions to it, as having been principally about whether "'we' won" the culture wars, when I think it would be fair to read the earlier post as having been about what to do next--namely, to take a "hard line" against the "losers." That shift allows Mark simultaneously to "double down" and to remain mostly silent about a great deal of the post and the public reaction to it. That reaction includes the election results, which in their own way suggest that Mark's post contributed imperceptibly to a Trump victory and thus weakened, rather than strengthened, the liberal culture-war victory or the possibility of advancing it. (Although I firmly oppose Trump, I do not mean this as a condemnation. Good academics should write what they think and write as academics, not treat themselves as PR specialists or apparatchiks of a party or political movement.)
At the end of his earlier post, Mark wrote: "Of course all bets are off if Donald Trump becomes President. But if he does, constitutional doctrine is going to be the least of our worries." It may have seemed like a throwaway line at the time. But I think it's right, or at least that constitutional doctrine around the specific culture-war issues Mark was writing about is less important now than other issues. The effect of that prospect on the culture wars is, I think, complicated, and I've written about that elsewhere in a forthcoming book review. It is possible that Mark's own blogging and writing will reflect that change in focus. But I hope he does continue to revisit these issues, and my sense is both that there will be continuing occasions to do so and that "doubling down" will not be enough. Some reconsideration of the earlier post in light of subsequent events will continue to be necessary, and will require either some genuine revisions or still more walking-back.
A couple of side issues: 1) Mark writes that another feature of the reaction to his earlier post by various critics was a "systematic misreading of the post as advice to liberal judges rather than to liberal academics--a misreading that does not give one a great deal of confidence in those who assert that they are interested in interpreting the Constitution's text as written; if they can't read a blog post's text accurately, why should we think that they can read the Constitution's text accurately?" I think the snark is not justified by the original post. If that was the intention of his earlier post, it was not so clear as to make the "misreading" egregious, let alone to justify labeling that "misreading" as "systematic." Again, you can read the post and decide for yourself. I think it is certainly true that it does not read as giving advice to judges. But neither do I read his earlier post as addressed to a "we" composed entirely of "liberal academics," or at least of liberal academics acting as actual academics. To me, it reads as advice to a "we" composed of liberals actually engaged in wielding power (possibly including judges). To the extent that it is addressed to liberal academics, they appear to be addressed in the role not of academic writers writing for academic purposes and audiences, but as writers of amicus briefs and op-eds, advisors to interest groups, advocates and strategists, and so on--in short, as apparatchiks and political actors, not academics or intellectuals, and in no way distinct from many other sectors of the political establishment. To be sure, there may be some academics, liberal or conservative, who think of themselves in precisely those terms (alas), who tailor or trim their academic writing to serve those ends, and/or who believe, with whatever hubris or self-deception, that even their law review articles are an important part of their political work. And certainly arguments can be made about the indistinctness between purely "academic" and purely "political" writing and work. Suffice it to say that I think the natural reading of the earlier post is that it was intended for an audience of fundamentally political actors acting for political purposes, and that it did not seem to place any emphasis on academic readers in particular, as opposed to elite liberal lawyers more generally. Reading it as addressed only or specifically to judges would be an error; reading it as not being addressed only or specifically to "liberal academics" would not, in my view.
2) I continue to be skeptical about the helpfulness of the historical analogies Mark offers. My earlier post, linked to in the previous sentence, registers some doubts about the analogies he used in his earlier post. In the new post, he now offers the suggestion that "[t]he gloaters are like Robert E. Lee preparing for the the battle at Gettysburg -- they expect to win, of course, but they're going to be surprised (I think)." That may be true for the awful gloaters he heard from. It is not, however, my sense of the view of more respectable and serious conservative writers, as well as some liberals and pluralists, who were disturbed by his earlier post. My sense is that at least some of those, including some of the better thinkers, do not expect to win and would not be surprised if they lost. (As for the liberals and pluralists who disagreed with his "hard line" views, as well as a number of conservatives, some of them agree strongly on some or many of the positions Mark focuses on, while disagreeing with his view of what to do next and how to do it.) They may well think, however, that the map, the ground of conflict, and the order of battle has changed significantly as a result of the election campaign and outcome, and is still changing, in a way that makes it difficult to settle on any useful historical analogy as yet.
3) Readers interested in these general issues may also be interested in this op-ed by my friends Micah Schwartzman, Nelson Tebbe, and Rich Schragger in Vox (insert usual note about Vox here), arguing that while it was common before the election to hear claims that the "left" had won the culture war--I insist again that "left" is an unhelpful term in this context, not least because treating the culture wars as one of, if not the dominant, grounds of political battle itself represented a long-term shift that emphasized certain sectors of liberalism or progressivism and marginalized other ideas and constituencies who also used to be the "left," and also because, as I argued above, liberals won some of these issues by making them more liberal than left in orientation--"all that has changed" now. As the sub-headline argues, "Trump wasn't elected as a culture warrior. [But] [h]e may govern as one." I agree with some aspects of the piece and disagree with others. I will limit myself to a few observations about it. First, the two sets of writers should engage with each other, because there are obvious differences between them, which can certainly be papered over by superficial argument but shouldn't be. Second, I cannot say I find its basic point surprising, whether I agree with all its specifics or not. It seems like a pretty settled practice to me that Republican administrations, even those whose presidents are either relatively moderate on or unconcerned about culture-war issues, understand that a price of political victory is to hand over particular cabinet departments to the cultural conservative wings of their party, and thus that whatever the president's own views are, cultural conservatives are going to get to enjoy particular fiefdoms within the executive branch. Unsurprisingly, it is also true that for Democratic presidents, including those who are relatively moderate or unconcerned about culture-war issues, it is generally understood that the cultural-progressive wing of the party is going to be handed particular cabinet departments and advance views that may be further left than those of the president. That practice is both a matter of custom and a necessary element of marshaling and satisfying political coalitions within a single party. Presidents win elections and "lead" administrations, but not without settling accounts with and giving plums to key party constituencies. Thus it is that, at least for people who oppose that president, it is a frequent complaint that the president is governing further "left" or further "right" in his or her administration than the campaign or the president's own statements and inclinations suggested. No surprise here. Third, it seems silly to rake the president-elect for having no good answer to the debating-society question how one can pledge to nominate judges who will treat some cases as "settled" while also vowing to overrule other decisions that are arguably equally well settled. On that question, they could profitably read Mark's post--or a century of legal academic writing in general, or the countless decisions of countless judges. Finally, and regardless of which issues I agree with them on and which I disagree with them on, I'm glad that the op-ed focuses on political and civic action, local as well as national, rather than on Justices or judges.
UPDATE: As evidence that if there has been any "walking back" or, to put it less combatively, clarification, it actually occurred much earlier and not just post-election, a post by Mark has been pointed out to me--one that I should have remembered, so my apologies--that he put up shortly after the initial "defensive crouch" post. It can also be used to argue, against what I assert above, that Mark has been clearer about the possibility of accommodation on the blog itself, and in a context closely related to the initial post, if not in the initial post itself. On the other hand, I should note that the subsequent post--which is titled "What Does 'Taking a Hard Line' Mean?"--also lends evidentiary support to the argument I make here, that it is fair to read the main reaction to the initial post, and more tendentiously the main point of the post itself, as having to do with the "hard line" argument and not the "culture wars are over" argument. (The latter argument is tendentious because Mark, in the post, calls this "one parenthetical comment." Again, one will have to judge for oneself, by reading the original post, whether one believes the "hard line" argument was parenthetical or central to the post.)
Dan Filler has an interesting take on the Pence-Hamilton pseudo-event (in Boorstin's terms). He notes a debate among "progressives," a term that still begs for definition and certainly does not necessarily mean leftists, about whether the actors' action was strategically wise or not. And he argues that we should treat "Hamilton as a piece of explicitly political art, not an anodyne feel-good musical about a founding father." I note that there need be no conflict or contradiction between the two, and I doubt there actually is in the case of the Hamilton musical.
Perhaps I am too mired these days in my interest in social class, in the frequent cluelessness of my own class (I mean that generally, not about Dan, and I mean it at least as much about myself), and in what I will, with some deliberate provocation, call the "actual" left as opposed to liberals and progressives. But I had a somewhat different take on the politics of Hamilton and of this episode. (As a purely practical political matter, I think Jack Shafer is probably wiser than both of us in this case.) I shared it on Facebook, not here, because one can be slightly freer on Facebook and because law professors, for bad reasons and with bad consequences, are always fascinated with other law professors' politics and eager to make shallow assumptions about them, of the "supports X so must be liberal, supports Y so must be conservative; therefore a wonderful/terrible person" variety. (We are not always subtle thinkers, especially about politics.) Clearly it was wiser to post it there than here. But what I wrote fits so nicely as a counterpoint to Dan's post that I cannot resist posting it here as well, with a few of the expletives deleted:
Now that I've read the actual statement [made by the actors], it doesn't seem like a big deal. Of course the "we" is contestable, but almost every invocation of "we" in the American context is a rhetorical and political statement that involves contestable definitions, identifications, and usually inclusions and exclusions. People may agree or disagree with particular such assertions but should always understand them as political and not statements of fact. There is a broader question whether we should care what paid performers have to say, any more than I'm especially interested in my barista's view on agricultural policy. But except for the possibility [I would say here, the certainty] that caring too much about what celebrity performers have to say is a sign of a weak democracy and politics, I don't object to actors and singers and baristas having opinions. Even if I did, there's not much I can do about it.
Then there's the broad question whether we should be concerned about the politicization of the consumer marketplace, of which theatrical enterprises are one sector, just as Wal-Marts are another. But expressive businesses, like theaters and wedding photography businesses, are often involved in politically significant expression and should be able to use or not use their voices accordingly. Plus, this was a seemingly unusual and good opportunity.
What I find slightly more interesting and, given what I know about the political self-satisfaction of the class of people that can afford tickets to Hamilton, less likely to be noted outside of actual left or right circles, is what the decision to speak once necessarily implies about all the decisions not to speak. Every day, especially given both ticket prices and the nature of its audience and cultural appeal, Hamilton plays to an audience of neoliberals, militarists, wielders of economic power, beneficiaries of massive corporate corruption and economic and political inequality, people who exploit connections in a relatively closed circle of the rich and powerful, etc. And those are just the nights when Hillary Clinton catches the show! A substantial part of its consumer base and business model is brokers, corporate lawyers, legacy admits to the Ivy League, executives, managers, investors, media elites, and so on. Its audience base is people who can afford to complain about the help, or praise their nannies (who they may or may not pay well or legally), not the nannies themselves. No doubt the regular audience could do with a pointed extra-script lecture or two as well! But that would be bad for business, and disturb the audience-validating, as opposed to audience-challenging, function that is the essence of musical theater. None of this yet reaches Hamilton Inc.'s cozy relationship to President Obama, and the mutual benefits and ego-stroking that were involved in it. Maybe the PBS documentary cut this part out, but I don't recall the actors at the White House performance of Hamilton breaking script to say, "Mr. President, we, sir--we--can't help but notice that you have raided and deported the hell out of undocumented immigrants in record numbers. Also, what the [deleted] is up with the drones, or Syria, or...." I suppose that actually would have been seen as rude in people's eyes. But once you start picking and choosing your exceptions and special occasions, of course you are making a political statement, conscious or not, about all the morally complicit and dubious audiences you are happy to flatter, the number of questionable actions--deportations, assassinations, killings, etc.--you are willing to "normalize," and so on.
Again, I think the actual remarks to Pence were far from harassing or rude, and he belongs to what I expect to be an unusually awful and dangerous administration, and so it's not a big deal for me. It runs mildly against the usual protocol of respecting the office and generally being nice to guests, but the remarks were mild and polite. But Hamilton itself should be understood as being closer to a fundamentally conservative bourgeois enterprise and not to some actual left or even especially vigorous progressive endeavor, except by those who are bemused and bedazzled by identity politics. If it were otherwise, it wouldn't be such a big hit in the first place.
This post on "what to do" in response to the election of Donald Trump is long but shorter than my last. It involves more easily attainable and less disruptive action, but also has little if anything to do with real-world impact. I ask here what I would like to see in the next few years by way of responsive legal scholarship that is more or less in my field.* I'll dispense with the easy stuff first and relatively quickly, then add a few suggestions about what I would like to see, and one more suggestion about what one might see. Either direction would be interesting in its own way.
It is obvious and therefore uninteresting that one may expect an uptick of interest in separation of powers and federalism. A couple of conservative legal scholars have idly wondered, on blogs and listservs, whether their calls during the last eight (or eight-plus) years for limits on presidential power, and their interest in a vigorous separation of powers and federalism, will get more respect now that the shoe is on the other foot in a rather dramatic way. My prediction on that point is somewhat depressing and perhaps too cynical. I certainly think there will be an increased interest in these positions. But I doubt somewhat that mainstream liberal law professors will draw heavily on the work of conservative legal scholars who have made even relevant and helpful arguments along these lines. I think they are more likely to draw on the existing conservative literature a little, but much less than one might expect. Instead, they will adopt a mix of the following: invoke work from past eras when progressives favored such measures; write pieces advocating separation of powers, a more restrained or constrained executive, and federalism on the basis of their own existing work and methodology, drawing on the strands that would advance the Trump-resisting project, even if and when the bulk of their conclusions in that past work runs in the other direction; give more attention and more favorable and extensive treatment to federalism- or separation-of-power-favoring liberal scholars, like Heather Gerken, than they may have up until now; and, per the usual methods of many legal scholars, treat whatever they are writing in this new political direction as "novel" or the "first" to advocate this or that, sometimes because it really is novel but more often out of genuine and/or phony amnesia. As I say, all this may be too cynical. But I do expect existing arguments from legal conservatives along lines that might restrain Trump to get less attention than one might expect. Citation and prestige networks will remain more or less as much (or as little) of a closed loop as they always are.
I wrote here a while back, before the election, wondering whether a Trump election might presage a revolt within the civil service. I also touched on it yesterday in my post, in which I suggested that one possible response of law professors in light of the election would be to go to work as government lawyers and civil servants in the Trump administration. I do think the ground-level mechanics and sociology of the civil service, and modes of bureaucratic entrenchment and resistance to the chief executive, overt and covert, will become a growing topic of interest, which is a good thing. (One hopes people will also write about the potential long-term consequences of such a model.) In addition to the couple of things I linked to in my earlier post, check out this online piece, rather confirmatory of my general prediction, by Jennifer Nou in the Yale Journal of Regulation blog, on "Bureaucratic Resistance From Below."
A pivot between the more and less obvious things I would like to see in legal scholarship over the next few years is the possibility of a more widespread interest in things like legal pluralism, mediating institutions, and subsidiarity. That is good news for those whose excellent books on First Amendment Institutions would make a superb Thanksgiving or Christmas present. I cannot say I would have predicted this on my own. But when The New Yorker--the New Yorker! home of generalized cosmopolitanism and attachment to centralized government!--suddenly expresses a post-election interest in Charles Taylor and specifically in subsidiarity, muses that subsidiarity could help us "get a grip on our political selves, and be less inclined toward nihilism on the national scale," and titles the piece "How to Restore Your Faith in Democracy," one gets the hint that something is up. I don't want to overstate this prediction. Based on what I have seen of about half of the current political commentary, it is just as likely that scholars of a political hue will simply argue more forcefully--and more successfully this time, or so they will swear--for more of the same. But I do think there will be some increased interest in things like legal pluralism and subsidiarity, in quarters that have in recent times been somewhere between uninterested in and forcefully opposed to these ideas.
Let me suggest three other topics or approaches I would like to see more of in the next couple of years. They're all offered sincerely enough, but since I'm interested in and working on all three things and have been for some time, my vision may be distorted by my own preferences. I deal with them after the jump, so here's a list: 1) Critical Legal Studies; 2) Robert Cover's "Justice Accused" book; and 3) social class. I'll wrap up with the possibility that, instead of any of that, mainstream legal scholars will either stick with the same-old same-old or, more strikingly, return to the conventional views of earlier and seemingly superseded generations of scholarship.
The first possibility I'm interested in is a revival of interest in Critical Legal Studies. To the extent that that school was viewed as an organizing mechanism for thinking about resistance to a conservative (or "Liberal") status quo and saw the left (as opposed to mere liberals or "progressives") as operating from a minority position against the prevailing tide, it would be a natural time for more people to pick up an interest in it again. To the extent that the election causes a few liberals to focus more on class issues, on the legitimating effects of the current system, and on the degree to which establishment liberalism, including establishment liberal legal scholarship, partakes of these problems and structures, again this would be a natural school to focus on and revive.
Since most legal academics are establishment liberals, one shouldn't overstate the degree to which they will suddenly become interested in formerly-outre left theory. I think they should be interested in it. I have seen a fair amount of recent liberal legal scholarship that really does seem to recapitulate, in its unthinking doctrinairism and unquestioning use of contestable premises, everything the Crits wrote about and against, while operating at a fairly high level of either bad faith and denial, or amnesia. I think CLS scholarship and thinking would be worth reviving even if--perhaps especially if--the establishment liberal had won. A CLS revival certainly wouldn't have happened in that event. But at least a little revivalism is more likely now. (I'm currently working on--and tragically behind on--a piece about CLS, although it has a somewhat different focus.)
The second, more specific item is a renewal of interest in Robert Cover's classic book Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process. That book, which asks what a judge should do "when he must hand down a ruling based on a law that he considers unjust or oppressive," will be or seem to be of renewed interest under the current regime. And the questions it asks will be of particular interest not with respect to judges, but with respect to the mid- and lower-level government officials and civil servants I mentioned earlier. (Cover's book is of interest to me because of a long-term project on oaths and the Constitution. It remains decidedly long-term as a project. But one might expect increased interest in that general topic as well.)
Finally, it would be nice to see an increased interest, within legal scholarship, in social class. (Final self-serving note: I'm under contract and working on a book--and, again, woefully behind on it--about social class and the American legal academy.) Certainly that topic came up, in various ways (including self-critical ones), in the Crit literature. And the ClassCrits remain interested in it, although I don't sense that they currently have a huge audience. And both the facts on the ground in the past decade and the popularity of the Piketty book have caused an uptick of interest among legal scholars about economic inequality. But that interest doesn't necessarily translate into an interest in social class as such. (A recent symposium issue of the Texas Law Review, some of which is directly about class but much of which is not, is illustrative of this point, I think.) I know a couple of rising and established legal scholars are interested specifically in social class and the law. Given one of the possible lessons of the election for members of the establishment or elite, I expect and hope that this topic will become more popular. One might well start with a recent commentary by law professor Joan Williams, who to her credit has been working on these questions for a long time.
I suggested above that mainstream, establishment legal liberals might not take a sudden interest in the Crits, and wrote that liberal "scholars of a political hue" may simply follow a substantial number of their establishment confreres in politics and political commentary and "simply argue more forcefully...for more of the same," a prospect nicely captured here. So one possibility is that nothing much will change by way of thinking, scholarly agenda, methodology, or jurisprudence among the legal liberal mainstream, elite or otherwise, although naturally some of the current issues will change. From a political and--perhaps more important for many legal academics, if less openly acknowledged--a professional standpoint, that may turn out to be perfectly sensible, even if I personally think it would be unfortunate.
Another, more intriguing, possibility is that liberal legal scholars will instead turn to arguments and approaches from the past--arguments and approaches that in many cases have been superseded, or criticized in the intervening decades, to the extent of being pronounced dead. Much of that will depend on the precise state of play of the federal judiciary. But maybe we will see everyone suddenly writing straight doctrinal work (or more straight doctrinal work, since there has already been an uptick in doctrinalism), or invoking and acting as latter-day followers of Bickel, Wechsler, or Ely. The uncertainties of the 1970s brought us Happy Days. The current situation may bring us a revival of the Greatest Hits of Past Liberal Legal Scholarship. If this happens, it would be especially interesting if scholars writing in this re-mined vein do so un-self-consciously and as if the critiques of the past few decades didn't exist. But even if they are more self-aware than that, as times change we will inevitably end up recapitulating whole earlier histories of argument, thrust, and counter-thrust, although faster and perhaps more farcically.
* I deal mostly with general constitutional law and theory here. I don't address my own sub-field of law and religion. I have some ideas of what might happen here, but not much. Per my post yesterday, my answer on that question is "I don't know yet."
Orly’s post below asks, “How are you changing your scholarship, teaching, and service in light of the election?” It is a potentially interesting question and something many of us have been musing about for some time. Here are some thoughts about options for law professors in response to and in light of the election. In a separate post I’ll talk about what I would be interested in seeing in legal scholarship itself post-election.
As usual, this post is long. (It’s a big question! It demands either a long answer or a really good short one—and I doubt I’m capable of the latter.) I move back and forth to some degree below between taking as a given the assumption that Trump represents a serious threat to “X,” where X represents the rule of law, the welfare of particular vulnerable constituencies, the survival of the United States, and so on, and remaining agnostic on those questions. It seems obvious that answers to the “what next” question depend in part on one’s view on those questions, and on one’s view of both the degree of harm potentially involved and the probability that these harms will occur. One may remain agnostic about some of those questions but still decide to change one’s approach radically, if one believes that the risk of harm may be low but that the harms that might eventuate are immense and difficult to repair. For the most part, I ask about scholarship and teaching in the long run, and less about immediate pedagogical reactions in class to students in the immediate wake of the election, although that aspect of “what next” figures in some of my analysis.*
Two potential responses on the scholarly front to the question “what will you change” may not be voiced by as many people, even if many people share these answers, although they do come up in the comments to Orly’s post. The first is: “Not much, if anything at all.” Like other academics, legal academics work in particular silos and on particular subject matters. I would not expect astronomers’ scholarship to change in light of the election. Law—all law—is a more political enterprise than astronomy under present conditions, or so I assume. But one might write in a legal field or on a topic within that field that one anticipates will not change. A contract law scholar might well have this answer. I leave open the possibility that one may find, or look for, ways in which this subject might provide tools for resistance, reveal underlying structures that support or reify a class or economic structure that makes the current situation possible, and so on. Even if that is possible, one assumes both that some people have particular scholarly interests in such a field that are distant from such concerns, and that others might agree that these questions are valuable but doubt their own ability to contribute much to such work.
A second response is “I don’t know yet.” Again, surely many people would agree with such an answer, even in fields that are very much likely to be affected by the election, but they are likely to be less vocal than those who believe they already know what needs to be done in their field. But even if one has a timeline shorter than Zhou Enlai’s, one may believe it’s simply too soon to tell.
There is a third, important or consequential answer that is possible. It is relevant both to those whose subject areas are likely to be affected by the election and to those whose subjects are unlikely to be affected by it. The answer, in short, is “I’m going to quit, or take a leave from, law teaching.” And one possible thing to do upon quitting is to join the Trump administration, while another is to not do law at all. I explore the reasons why one might quit, and the kind of work one might take on, after the jump.
So: Let’s say that you believe strongly in Trump’s threat to “X,” and either disagree with or for other reasons want to resist any urge to “normalize” his election. Let’s further assume that you believe that in such circumstances, you have a moral and/or professional duty to act accordingly. Set aside, for purposes of discussion, the possibility of leaving the country, although if you believe in the “X risk” that surely is a possible and perhaps a wise response. But you intend to stay and act. For such people, leaving the legal academy, temporarily or permanently, seems like a perfectly logical response and should at least be considered. And in considering it, one should be wary of a perfectly natural and human tendency to rationalize away the reasons to disrupt one’s own life to that degree.
Why leave law teaching? If you believe strongly that there is a high risk of X and that you are obliged to act in response to it, you still have to ask how to act. And there is no reason to assume that the best way to act, the most valuable response you can offer, is in your current job. It might be. But that’s hardly pre-determined. In particular, you are (or, these days, may be) a lawyer as well as a law professor. If you believe action is necessary and that this action includes legal work, you might examine your options and conclude that you can do more important “resistance” work as a lawyer than you can as a legal academic. Maybe you will write some piece that really changes things, or effectively teach resistance strategies to a large number of students, a sufficient number of whom will use those strategies. But maybe you won’t. You almost certainly won’t accomplish the first, and the second is at least uncertain.
On the other side, you might be able to perform concrete legal work for potential victims of the new regime that will make a concrete difference in their lives. It could take a variety of forms: immigration work, criminal defense, estate or small-business planning, real estate, employment law, health law, benefits appeals, or even constitutional litigation. In any of these areas, you might be better able to effect necessary (perhaps urgently necessary) change than you can in your current job as a law professor. Resistance movements or revolutions may require house intellectuals (although they needn’t serve in the academy). But they don’t require a lot of them, and you might do more concrete good as a foot-soldier practitioner than by trying to be one of those house intellectuals. So: Just do it. Quit—or take a leave of absence, if you feel more comfortable with that—and be a foot-soldier practitioner. (A very small number of law professors are elites and unusually qualified and skilled in both practice and the academy. Maybe they would not end up as “foot soldiers,” but as generals. They, too, will have to weigh doing elite work in the academy against doing full-time elite work as a “general” in practice, and may reasonably conclude that they will do more good as the latter.)
One counter-consideration is that an increasing number of law professors have limited practice experience and that many of them have a highly academic set of skills and experience, including doctoral work in some non-legal field. This is a common complaint of critics of the legal academy, both internal and external, of course. Wherever one comes out on the normative question, there is much descriptive accuracy to it. Maybe the comparative advantage calculus will be different for these people. But the benefits to others may still favor quitting even for these individuals, at least assuming they have a JD and either belong to a bar or are eligible to join it. Others might benefit more from a competent but inexperienced lawyer, doing small things, than an expert legal historian or lawyer-sociologist dreaming of big things.
If you decide you can do more good in response to the election outside the legal academy than inside it, where would you do most good? Let me mention three possibilities, leaving aside the rare answer of being a “general.” One is, as I mentioned, as a foot-soldier: an individual lawyer handling “basic” concerns, like helping immigrants on immigration or benefits matters. You might not teach in that area or have significant practice experience in it, but you could learn, and do some concrete good for specific individuals and communities along the way. There’s no glamor or celebrity in it, but neither was there in being a member of the infantry in World War II, and we needed more infantrymen than generals, or logisticians back in Washington.
Two other options seem more intriguing and less likely to have been considered by as many people. The first is: Go to work for the Trump administration. Or, more accurately, go to work as a civil servant, whether as a lawyer or not. Again, I’m thinking of the basic bureaucrat-civil servant level rather than some fancy position. (If you don’t want to “normalize” the election, you might prefer to work at a “low” level rather than a high level.)
You might have two reasons for doing so. First, the government needs lawyers and other symbolic analysts who will loyally uphold the rule of law, follow norms of care and reason rather than arbitrary or punitive action, act consistently with and not against the Constitution and laws, etc. If you worry about this regime being lawless, you can do some good for others by being a loyal and lawful civil servant. A dinosaur has a small head and smaller brain and a big body, and messages from the head to the body take a while to get there. Even if the chief executive is dangerous, or dangerously small-brained, a lot of routine but, to its subjects, important work will continue to be done and need to be done, and a lot of it can take place before or despite whatever messages are being conveyed to the “body” of government from its head.
Second, you might go into government specifically to resist or subvert the new president. You could do all sorts of things in this capacity: insist on the letter of the law being followed where its spirit is dangerous, and vice versa; “work to rule” where some new governmental policy ought to be slowed or resisted; leak to the press; insist on obedience to the Constitution where you think your orders compel you to violate it; and generally be a spanner in the works or a body slowing the machine. You might, in short, turn the executive branch into a vehicle for resistance to the chief executive. You might do both: work loyally and well insofar as your job allows you to serve and protect others, and act subversively insofar as orders from the top are pushing you to do otherwise.
A third job/response possibility is that the most important work you might do—more important than whatever you might accomplish as either a law professor or a lawyer—might be civic or activist work of an entirely different kind. I’ve argued here and elsewhere that there are systemic dangers to law professors and other academics tending to prefer to speak and act as “experts” rather than as plain citizens. It reinforces the sense of a status-seeking elite or of rule by technocrats, resistance to which was one factor in the election outcome; and it de-emphasizes the importance of general, mass civic action in one’s capacity as a citizen. Maybe you would do the most good, in response to the election and the risk of “X,” in your civic capacity than as either a legal academic or a lawyer. The civil rights movement needed lawyers, leaders, and planners, but it also needed bodies on the line. To call them “foot soldiers” deprives them of the dignity and importance of their efforts. But it’s still the case that any such movement needs a lot of people to follow orders, to march and/or be jailed, to storm the barricades, and so on. It needs citizens acting for civil rights by putting their bodies on the line, perhaps more than it needs “Historians for Civil Rights” or even a twenty-first or twenty-second civil rights lawyer.
You needn’t quit your job to do such work. But to the extent that you believe “X” demands action, you might believe the risk of “X” is so great that it demands full-time action, or that it needs more bodies in Montana, or south Texas, rather than Manhattan or Austin. There are at least reasons to consider the possibility that the best response is for you to become a full-time activist, or to take a job of whatever sort so you can pursue activism somewhere other than where you currently live and teach. It might also be the case that you would be too busy as a law professor, despite the luxuries of time the job generally permits, to pursue activism to the extent you believe is necessary given the urgency and importance of the threat of “X.”
You could decide, instead, to keep your job but devote more time to your activism and much less time to your official work as a professor and scholar: you could stop doing scholarship for a few years and phone it in as a teacher in order to devote more time to civic activism. Perhaps the circumstances justify it, although I’m not sure why keeping your academic job is necessarily a relevant “circumstance.” On the other hand, plenty of people want jobs as legal academics, and some of them might be better qualified than you—either in general, or better qualified to do good for the cause as law professors than you are. And tenure is not, or isn’t supposed to be, a sinecure. It’s an academic protection, not a form of job security for its own sake or a highly paid place to be a journalist, or op-ed writer, or mountain biker, while barely doing your actual work. If you are going to spend most of your time as an activist, whether in a legal capacity or not, maybe you have a moral and professional duty to give up your berth in the academy to do so. Michelle Alexander, to her everlasting credit, gave up her tenure as a law professor because she believed she could do more good elsewhere, and/or that it was more appropriate for her to give up her position for someone else if she was essentially going to pursue work as something other than a “law professor.” And that was before the election. If the election and the regime it brings to power is indeed “non-normal” and the times demand urgent and unusual action, you might decide that your work is most needed elsewhere than in the legal academy, and that under those circumstances it is also right for you to surrender your coveted spot there to someone else.
I am not urging people to do any of this. I am suggesting that to the extent that the election was non-normal and the risk of “X” is great, not every response to it needs to be undertaken as a law professor. What you personally would like to do is, from this perspective, less important than your carefully, logically considering what needs to be done. If you run that analysis, you might conclude that you would do the most good for the most (or most vulnerable) people not as a law professor, but as a lawyer, a civil servant, or in a purely civic capacity as an activist. Maybe not! Maybe you can do the most good in response to the election by continuing in your present job, with or without changing (or chancing much) what you do on a day-to-day basis. But if you accept the operating premises I have used here, you cannot simply assume this to be the case. And in considering your options, you should avoid the tendency—again, a perfectly natural human tendency—to rationalize yourself into the conclusion that other than changing your syllabus, or picking up a new course, or doing more work on the side as a lawyer or citizen-activist, nothing really needs to change for you.
Although nothing here says any of this, I know how some people are likely to read, or read into, this post, and so I suppose it’s worth adding some denials or clarifications. I understand that few people are likely to actually take up any of these suggestions. In some cases it will be because they conclude that they can be of the most good in their current jobs—although, again, I think there is reason to second-guess such a conclusion and be wary of rationalization. People might therefore conclude that law professors who don’t do anything different, or who really only change little things rather than taking big and bold steps, are hypocrites. I’m not suggesting that. For one thing, I think accusations of hypocrisy are generally made too lightly and quickly and are a conversational dead end. For another, because most people live with and in all kinds of inconsistencies, I don’t consider such charges either especially devastating or especially interesting. In any event, my goal here is neither to set up such an accusation nor even to challenge people to take the possible steps I’ve outlined above. I simply want to offer an analysis of the options available to law teachers who sincerely believe that something needs to change in their work in response to the election, and who believe it for civic reasons and not just because they think the election poses some new questions of largely intellectual interest.
Another conclusion people might draw from law professors doing only a little in response to the election—changing their syllabus and so on—rather than acting more boldly is that these individuals really are normalizing the election, or believe the risk of “X” is smaller than their more urgent rhetoric suggests, or something like that. That may well be true for some law professors. It is surely true for at least some of them. But I would not make that a general assumption. Law professors, like everyone else, are capable of inconsistency, imperfection, devotion to considerations—family and job considerations, financial considerations, and so on—other than the needs of others, etc. Maybe academics are more prone to these tendencies, given the comfortable and enviable nature of their jobs and the relative contentment and inertia of the managerial-professional class; I don’t know. But nothing about such tendencies is unique to them. They may sincerely believe in the importance and urgency of the situation, even if they do relatively little about it. Again, my goal here is only to explore calmly some of the broader options and implications of the basic question of what law professors ought to do in light of the election.
* Well, it was supposed to, anyway, but I didn't get around to it, so I'm adding it here. One option, or response to the options presented here, would be to envision one's primary response as offering support, sympathy, and guidance for students who are upset about the election result as such (perhaps a more academically questionable function, although I don't think sympathy, about a variety of issues, is out of place as a general function for teachers), have been made the subject of hateful and threatening remarks (easily within any teacher's purview, I think), and feel that they or their loved ones or communities are vulnerable. One can certainly understand this as a response, without any foreknowledge about whether this reaction will be indefinite or short-term and ease or increase with time. But it is not clear that it is sufficient as a reason to stay in the legal academy as opposed to choosing one of the other options discussed here. Going out of the academy and into other communities might give one an opportunity to offer the same comfort and sympathy to people who feel even more vulnerable, have been subjected to even worse threats and abusive language or conduct, and possess even less of an institutional or community support system. Obviously both possibilities are factors to be weighed.
As a non-citizen, I will, alas, not vote today. (I am in the process of applying for American citizenship, and the election is one but only one of the reasons why I am finally getting off my duff and applying. Another reason is that I teach con law, and am tired of introducing the Constitution by talking about "You the People.") In this election in particular, I have felt a mix of seriousness about and frustration with both the election and the state of discussion (or "discourse," to maintain my academic credentials) around and about it. I also take the view, which is a personal view and one that I do not insist applies to everyone, that following the moment-to-moment headlines, commentary, and pseudo-news on days like this does not necessarily demonstrate or indicate a commitment to politics as a serious and weighty activity. To the contrary, it may have as much to do with treating politics as a fairly weightless leisure activity or, in Stephen Carter's words, "[politics] as a hobby." (Others, in fairness, will spend the day engaged in more meaningful and direct political activity, such as going door-to-door or driving poorer voters to the polls, although they will be vastly outweighed by the hobbyists.) I will therefore spend much of the day avoiding television and social media. Instead, I will sit quietly and read Virgil--I have been spending the election season, which was coincident with recovering from surgery, reading classical literature--and Duncan Kennedy.
I do want to make one modest proposal, however, before the returns are in and before we know what will happen on the streets in response to the election. There has been much discussion and speculation--some serious and sincere, some frivolous, and probably some that is both--about whether one outcome or the other, or the absence of a definite outcome tonight, will lead to rioting. A while back, for instance, Sandy Levinson mused about possible "(justified) rioting in the streets" if Trump wins by a close vote. And there has been general discussion about the possibility of riots by the "alt-right" or populist supporters of Trump if Clinton wins. I don't welcome the prospect of rioting in either case. (Others are, perhaps, more ambivalent about it.) But I won't discuss the "will they (we)/won't they (we)" or "should they (we)/shouldn't they (we)" questions here. I address a more practical question: Where should one riot?
My modest suggestion is that any group deciding to riot, or encourage and organize rioting, should reject the usual rioting sites: general central gathering places, the downtown or business districts, or--worst of all--the most underprivileged and vulnerable neighborhoods, which are often where rioting occurs. Instead, if people riot--which, again, I hope they don't--they should riot in the residential neighborhoods of what we might broadly call the elites or the upper middle class.
I am perhaps less concerned with rioting in downtown or business districts as such, insofar as they are more likely to lead to property damage to insured businesses than to more "personal" damage. (I am not here making the argument, popular in some circles, that violence directed against property is not "real" violence.) On the other hand, the idea of targeting these areas tends to rely on a stereotyped vision of some idealized place that consists of nothing but the headquarters of banks, brokerage houses, and multinational corporations. Perhaps that's realistic in a few places, thus suggesting among other things the tendency of the popular imagination to view all places as cities, and all cities as large cities--and, at that, all large cities as basically four or five of the largest cities, those most likely to draw a narrow class of individuals. My downtown/business district has some local branches of banks and a couple of Starbucks. But it also contains a lot of small businesses, run by individuals whose lives and resources (and those of their employees) are closely tied to making a living through those businesses. Damage to those businesses is real damage to the well-being of workers and other individuals on the ground. Even the "name-brand" consumer businesses in my downtown are more likely to be franchises owned by fairly "regular" individuals, some of them recent immigrant families. As for the more idealized version of rioting as a kind of Fight Club scenario aimed at gargantuan consumer businesses and safely empty corporate buildings, I see little evidence that it has been effective in the past, and I question whether it is especially well-aimed. In its standard-cultural-tropeness, it also may come closer to the "hobby" model of radical political action than to a serious commitment to politics, radical or otherwise.
As for rioting in the neighborhoods of the poor and disadvantaged, a tendency that may be exacerbated by residential segregation by class and race and a lack of transportation resources, it seems really poorly aimed. And its potential harm is great, striking as it does at the homes and businesses of those who are least likely to be fully protected by insurance, who live and work in these neighborhoods and can least afford damage to them, and who depend on local businesses for food and other staples. Some of these neighborhoods are still recovering from, or will never fully recover from, riots that occurred in those areas decades ago.
In various ways, both on the left and the right and--at least in an abstract and perhaps not deeply felt (or, in a bad-faith way, actively denied) way, in the liberal and maybe the conservative center--many people believe that the causes of the current election and its discontents, and the causes of the discontents that led to the current election, can be laid at the feet of those people who have the most actual control over and power in the current political, economic, and cultural system. That doesn't just mean the 1 or 2 percent, the Kochs and Soroses. (In any event, they are most likely to be fully insulated in their homes and neighborhoods by public or private security forces and by geographical isolation.) It means something like the top ten or twenty percent of income-earners in the country. It comprises those individuals most likely to have effective political representation; to be contributors to, workers in, or complicit in big-money politics and the party establishments; to work as professionals in those institutions that reinforce or reify the current system, among which I would include the academy; and to be most effectively insulated from the costs and harms of that system and its unequal allocation of power and representation. Insofar as one might want to "bring the war home" to those who are most responsible for the current state of affairs, to force the relevant individuals and institutions to internalize the full consequences of a system whose benefits they richly enjoy and whose costs they effectively externalize, and to make more urgent the need to restructure a system that draws dissatisfaction and anger on the part of the dispossessed, those on the left and right and at least some in the center ought to consider the value, if there are riots, of literally bringing those costs "home" to the class that bears the most responsibility for an ineffective, gridlocked, more or less oligarchical and/or elite-favoring system.
If that's right, then people planning to riot or organize riots might start their planning work by looking at the many websites that provide a look at individual zip codes by household income and other socio-economic factors. The median household income in the United States in 2014 was $51,939. National averages are problematic because of variance by state and locality, but according to this measure the top 20 percent in the United States has a household income beginning at $111,000; higher up the steep curve at the top end of the distribution, the average household income of the top 10 percent begins at $155,000. I would go with the top 20 percent, but I acknowledge that there is room for debate. Whatever your starting point, if you're going to riot, or organizing a riot, or more or less gently excuse or welcome such rioting, why not start with those neighborhoods? Isn't it better and more politically relevant and responsible to riot in Park Slope, or Hancock Park or the west side of LA, or Mountain Brook in Birmingham, or Walnut Creek in the Berkeley area, or Hyde Park in Austin, or in my downtown historical district or the "north of the river" area in Tuscaloosa, than in some neighborhood whose residents are least likely to either be responsible for the current power structure or able to handle the costs of the rioting?
Social media provide a positive benefit here. They make this kind of organization more possible, and also facilitate a kind of shared civic involvement in this radical direct action. Let's say you consider such rioting "justified." One could use social media generally, or institutions like the hashtag, or sites like change.org and other popular petition-gathering and organizing sites, to start a movement in which you acknowledge your privilege, and your complicity in and the advantages that you receive from an unjust political structure, and invite rioters to start with your high-income zip code. Just imagine the wonderful hashtags that you could use on Twitter in inviting the rioters to visit your neighborhood! "#PleaseRiotInMyNeighborhood," "#I'mWithThem," "#IGaveAtHome," "#ThePurgeStartsHere"; these are just a few suggestions. Users of social media are nothing if not inventive and clever about these sorts of things.
Of course there will be some regrettable inconveniences. But if you are one of the people in an affected neighborhood--and I take it that many readers of this blog, including legal academics generally, will be in that class, both by virtue of the individual income of the legal academic and the likelihood that he or she is in a dual-professional-income household--you should be better able to deal with those inconveniences than others. It is easy enough to keep one's children in a safe place; they probably already enjoy disproportionate educational and other institutional advantages over others, and you probably already read to them and engage in other forms of close parental involvement in education, so they can most easily afford some time off from school; and you are probably well-protected by insurance. (In some cases, you could also retreat to a vacation home or second home.) And surely you can bear any harms more easily than genuine small-business owners whose resources are all tied up in their business--and much more easily than those who live in poor and disadvantaged areas.
It's just a modest proposal, to be sure. And, of course, there may be few or no riots. Certainly I hope that is the case, whether the riots are "justified" or not. Still, it makes a lot of logical, political, and moral sense to me.
And with that, I return to Virgil and Duncan Kennedy and wish everyone well on this election day.
I appreciate Andrea's post below about so-called "ballot selfies" and laws restricting them, or more specifically restricting the sharing of photographs of completed ballots. She argues that ballot selfie bans are likely to be both ineffective and unconstitutional. Her arguments on the first point seem reasonable, and as a civil libertarian I am sympathetic to her second point. (Although I think that, despite significant domestication efforts by the courts, it still makes some sense to think of at least some elements of election law as being their own subject, with their own history and vagaries, and not as wholly a creature or subset of First Amendment law. For discussion and citations on the general topic, see, for example, this article by Heather Gerken.) So I am not disagreeing with her conclusion. But I would like to say a word, if not in defense of the bans or of a particular outcome, then in favor of the proposition that there are genuine concerns about photographing and sharing completed ballots: that they are not merely a matter of ancient history, but are of continuing relevance.
This requires some background about the University of Alabama and local Tuscaloosa politics. A problem of long standing here is the existence of "the Machine," an underground or secret society that in effect serves as a coalition and coordinator of some of the older (and, yes, extremely whiter) fraternities and sororities on campus. The Greek life is a big deal on campus here, although last time I checked the numbers it involves only about a third of the students here, and only some of those students belong to Machine houses. Simply because they are coordinated, however, the Machine and its member houses exert an outsized influence on on-campus life and politics. It is all too rare that "independent" candidates for student government leadership, including African-American candidates, can win against the Machine's chosen candidate, although it sometimes happens, including recently. Aside from general tendencies toward bloc voting, various forms of social coercion, and general dirty tricks, one of the ways the Machine enforces its choice of nominee among its members has been the insistence that members of Machine houses show how they voted. Various methods have been employed by the university to cut down on this. But the demand that member students demonstrate that they voted for the Machine candidate has been a major part of its dominance over campus politics. Reforms are ongoing, and they include making clear that no student or student group can demand to see how any individual student voted.
Unsurprisingly, especially given the general low vote turnout in local elections, enterprising local politicians have realized they can leverage this vote, by attempting to convince the Machine to support some local municipal candidate and order its member students to do likewise. Turning to interest groups or affinity groups for political support is nothing new or unusual, or even wrong in itself--although one may condemn particular means of doing so, such as the use of "walking around money," the role of "politiqueras" in South Texas Democratic politics, and other methods, and one may feel still worse about any local politician attempting to win the support of a student group, like the Machine and the houses that belong to it, that has been complicit in decades of racial segregation. And the means of winning that support can be fairly innocent, like relying on common acquaintances and backgrounds or handing out campaign T-shirts; or they can be more insidious and corrupt, such as funneling money to the Machine and/or hiring Machine officials as "campaign workers," with the fairly clear if implicit bargain that the Machine rep will earn his or her money by pressuring all the members to vote for that candidate.
I know a little something about this because my wife served (and served very well, by all accounts) on the Tuscaloosa City Board of Education, and was defeated for re-election in 2013. She lost because an ambitious local candidate for the chair of the board secured the Machine vote, and did so in part by running a former Machine member as her opposition in our voting district, which features a large student population, including many of the Machine houses. I won't relitigate the issue here--it was litigated, and she ultimately lost at trial, although that second link (to the word "litigated") suggests some of the reasons the loss was problematic, such as the widespread ignoring of subpoenas to testify, misconduct that the judge let go without penalty or pursuing the matter further, and local opinion was unhappy about the result. I will simply say that one of the allegations in the case was that the Machine had pushed its students--many of whom, it turned out, were not even properly resident in the voting district, but voted there because they were pushed into doing so--to vote for its selected or bargained-for candidates, and promised such things as wristbands for admission to election-night parties and concert tickets to its members who returned to their house and showed a designated representative their "I Voted" sticker. Under the circumstances, that's all it could really do, given the secrecy of the ballot. (Why the students didn't simply stand up to the Machine and refuse to vote if they were not properly resident in the district or did not feel comfortable or informed voting on local issues, or vote for whoever they pleased in defiance of their orders, is a mystery to me.) But if the Machine's coordinators could have demanded, or had thought to demand, that the students provide a photograph of their ballot, to demonstrate that they actually voted for the candidates they were ordered to vote for, I don't doubt they would have. (Update: I am told that some students in Machine houses were in fact urged or required to do just that, although I can't verify it definitively.)
The conduct, or misconduct, that was involved in that election involved a classic suite of behaviors that are of long standing in American political history, such as the offering of things of value in exchange for votes and the funneling of money toward groups whose assigned role is to guarantee votes for a particular candidate. Some of that conduct is legal and some of it is illegal. But the general system of providing and safeguarding the integrity of elections by providing for voting by secret ballot was a response to the widespread nature of this conduct. It is very much a longstanding structural mechanism to ensure the integrity and legitimacy of the vote. Some of this history is noted in Rick Hasen's editorial arguing that ballot selfies are bad for democracy.
One may disagree with Hasen's conclusion, and I have already indicated my ambivalence given the arguable First Amendment issues at stake--although, again, I note that one should not simply and mechanically apply general First Amendment law here without noting a long set of historical practices, structural mechanisms and concerns, and somewhat sui generis, functional or institutional analysis within election law. Nor am I making any arguments about the frequency or prevalence elsewhere of the kinds of schemes that were involved in the Machine's involvement in Tuscaloosa politics, that are likely to continue until the Machine is brought above-ground or dismantled, and that certainly will continue to figure in on-campus politics here. I will simply say that our experience here suggests that the conduct that gave rise to the system of ballot secrecy in American politics has certainly not disappeared entirely. Concerns about the potential value of photos showing one's actual completed ballot in effectuating and enforcing vote-buying schemes and other efforts to interfere with genuinely independent voting are far from "purported" and should carry ongoing weight.
A few words about my university and community, since I live and work here and would like to see it do well, yet still saw fit to publicize its problems in this post. As the New York Times article linked to in the second paragraph suggests, the makeup and nature of the university has changed a lot in the last decade or two. A major part of that change has been the influx of out-of-state students, who--I hope--are finding ways to enjoy some of the university's customs and traditions (obviously, that's not a uniquely Southern or Alabama thing; most universities have them, although in the South they do love them some customs and traditions) while changing and improving them and discarding the ones that ought to be discarded, in part because they have no inherited stake in or from-the-cradle love of those traditions. Another important element of the change has come from Southern students themselves, many of whom are disgusted by some of the conduct and traditions they have seen and would like to see the student associations they belong to become genuinely racially diverse. When it is the students themselves who are so eagerly pushing for change, I do not want to perpetuate benighted assumptions about the South that are so widely popular among people who do not live here and would reject out of hand living here, instead righteously and conveniently choosing to live in a few select parts of the country where the structural mechanisms that ensure segregation and cocooning, by class if not by race (although the two are often closely linked), are so quiet, familiar, and taken for granted that they can convince themselves they are living justly and have no moral complicity in the problems with their own community. The story here, and the place itself, is more complicated than the still-conventional stereotype suggests. I would rather have people come to live here, whether as students, professionals, or academics, take advantage of all the good things it has to offer, and work to change and improve things, in part simply by being here and thus changing the culture, than living comfortably if semi-blindly in ostensibly problem-free enclaves elsewhere. And although the university as a whole has been too slow to push for change, and sometimes adults have reinforced the very systems the students have fought against, there are also many individuals and groups, on and off campus and including key members of the university faculty and administration, that have worked and continue to work to make the place what it often is and always ought to be. The Machine is an embarrassment to the university, and will be as long as it exists in its current form; and at least some of the local politicians who rely on the Machine for their votes are an embarrassment to the city. It has an outsized influence. But it is not the whole population of Tuscaloosa, which I love and where I have found a very supportive and decent community, nor is it the whole of the university itself. Still, as long as there are sorely needed changes, I'm quite willing to acknowledge and publicize them. I just wouldn't want it to be the one and only takeaway about my university and my community. All this is beside the main point, which is that there are reasons, not just "purported" reasons or rationales, to be concerned about ballot selfies. But I felt it needed saying.
Here at the University of Alabama, we are mourning the loss of our friend Norman Singer, who taught in the Law School and the anthropology department. Norman died on Monday at the age of 78. His obituary in the local paper provides some biographical details:
He was Professor Emeritus of Law and Anthropology at the University of Alabama, and for 40 years held full tenured professorships in both departments, though he was proud that he never took salary or benefits from Arts and Sciences.
Professor Singer had a wide-ranging international career as well. After graduating from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, he worked for a year in Stockholm. A trip through Russia and into Iran introduced him to the Middle East. He returned to the States, graduated summa cum laude from Boston University Law School and in 1964 and joined the Peace Corps with his wife, the former Bethany Wasserman. They spent four years in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where Professor Singer was a member of the first law faculty in Ethiopia and where two sons were born.
Prof. Singer joined the University of Alabama Law School in 1971 and in 1975 received the SJD from Harvard, with an anthropological/legal dissertation on traditional legal systems in Ethiopia.
While teaching full time at the University of Alabama, Professor Singer also fitted in numerous projects in countries as diverse as Albania, Cambodia, Croatia, Egypt, Fiji, Iraq, Trinidad, and Zanzibar. He became known as a major expert in restructuring land tenure in countries with poorly-organized or non-existent private land systems. He also took leave from the University to spend 1980-82 as the Ford Foundation Res. Rep. in the Sudan.
Professor Singer may be best known in the legal world as the author of a treatise, Sutherland, Statutory Construction. In recent years, he has shared authorship with his eldest son, Shambie J.D. Singer.
He was born in Boston, Mass. to the late Morris and Anna C. Singer. His first marriage ended in divorce.
He is survived by his wife, Anna Jacobs Singer; sons, Shambie, Jeremy (Nicole) and Micah (Ali); stepdaughters, Joanna Jacobs and Stephanie Jacobs; special children, Ejvis Lamani, and Anil and Aron Mujumdar; grandchildren, Sofia, Avery and Zeke Singer; and sister, Helen Silverstein.
"Some" details, I said. I would add a few more. Norman was a blast. He was boisterous and humorous. He had decades-long friendships with many of his students. His office door was always open and he was usually shouting out of it from inside to someone or other. (In a lively, not an angry, way.) And just as he was a big part of the life of the Law School, his wife, Anna, was and is a major part of the Tuscaloosa community and especially of our local synagogue; his stepdaughters, Stephanie and Joanna, were and are a big part of the local community as well.
When talking to hiring candidates about the strengths and distinctive qualities of UA and Tuscaloosa--and particularly given the difficulties of convincing hiring candidates, some of whom have lived in only a few and fairly standard places, that it is possible to move somewhere quite different (in some respects; all college towns have many shared traits) and have a good and fulfilling life--I generally focus on the strong, supportive sense of community I have found here, both at the Law School and across and beyond the university. Especially as a parent, and given all the medical issues I've faced in the past decade, it's been an extraordinarily important and rewarding aspect of life here. When I think of that, I am often reminded of one of the first visits my wife and I made here with our daughter, then about a year old, while we were still figuring out where to live and so on. Norman and Anna had us over to their house, a few blocks from where we live now, to welcome us and offer their advice. Their children had long since reached adulthood, but they found some old wooden toys for our daughter to play with while we talked. It's a little thing, I know, but a sense of community is built up from many such little things. It was a warm and welcoming visit and, between life in the Law School building itself, life in Tuscaloosa more generally, and our involvement with the temple, one of countless numbers of occasions when we were grateful for the warmth and friendship of both Norm and Anna. We will miss him, and extend our love and condolences to his family.