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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Learned Hand to Ronnie Dworkin: F*** you

In recent years, even after John Sexton stepped down (up?) from NYU's law school deanship to assume NYU's presidency,  NYU has endured repeated drubbings from Brian Leiter and others for its rampant Sextonism.  But Sextonism, which is the hyperbolic puffery about a school's place in the world, is distinct from law porn -- the phantasmagoria otherwise experienced as the onslaught of glossy brochures sent by various law schools to every faculty member in the country during what Paul Caron calls the US News Silly Season.  (Caron and Bernie Black believe it was Pam Karlan who coined the term law porn, and Leiter who spread the meme.) 

Various people oppose not only Sextonism, but also law porn, because it so often encompasses Sextonisms.  It's important to keep them distinct though.  Not all law porn is pernicious exaggeration;  as Vic Fleischer reminds us with his qualifed defense of law porn, some degree of law porn may be desirable because it facilitates law school branding, e.g., Yale is for squishy theory, and Chicago is for law and econ. 

Branding, shmanding.  Sometimes, I say, law porn should be embraced simply because it titillates the mind.  Unsophisticated as this defense might be, what prompted this post is that I have spent substantially more than an hour enjoying the very law porn produced by NYU.  As some of you have probably seen, Dean Revesz's minions recently sent out a substantial NYU Law magazine with a focus on its law and philosophy offerings.  The cover story is a lengthy profile of Ronald Dworkin by Adam Liptak, the NYT national legal correspondent.  Regardless of whether you like his work, there's no question that a profile of Dworkin promises to be interesting, even if a bit odd at times (e.g., the photo of Dworkin, the great egalitarian, sailing on the waters off of Martha's Vineyard, where he keeps his third home). 

Indeed, Liptak's profile, which, sadly, is not yet online as far as I can tell, contains the gem of a story recounted by Dworkin about his clerkship with Learned Hand, then 87 years old.   During the clerkship, Hand was busy crafting his Holmes Lectures to be delivered at Harvard.  Hand wanted to push his thesis of judicial restraint -- to the effect that "due process and similarly vague constitutional phrases were essentially unreviewable by the courts," in Gerald Gunther's words.   Dworkin kept saying to his boss that the implication of Hand's thesis would be that Brown v. Board was wrongly decided, a position Hand was loathe to assume in public.  They argued and argued about whether Hand was ducking the issue in the lectures' draft, until Hand said to Dworkin: "Fuck you."  Dworkin described Hand at that moment as having steam come "out of his eyebrows, and he grabbed his yellow pad, and he started to scribble, and he started throwing away and throwing away and throwing away."  Hand, according to Dworkin, "finally in a way ... adopted my view.  But it wasn't the outcome I wanted, because I wanted him to give up his theory."  Speaking of Hand, Dworkin said, "I disagreed with everything he said but he was a very good person to have to argue with."

Sure sounds like it.  In any event, the rest of the issue is actually worth reading in, if not reading through.  And for those who are interested in some of the lore of law and philosophy, the issue has some other treats, in addition to some of the usual pap one expects in law porn at its finest, including several pictures of New York's Most Beautiful Brainiac.   Upon finding out his newest title, Noah had a good quip: it's like being the "tallest mountain in Missouri."

Prawfsblawg: where we really read law porn for the articles, so you don't have to.

Posted by Administrators on October 20, 2005 at 02:00 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I think anon's comment is correct, ie., that Dworkin was regarded highly by Hand, but the Liptak article also noted that Hand referred to Ronald D as Roland, not Ronald. That could simply be a fact of an 87 year old' aging mind, of course.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Oct 23, 2005 6:47:30 PM

Dworkin's description of interacting with Hand fits with the description of Hand's working methods in Gunther's Hand biography. Hand appreciated clerks who could argue with him, but he wasn't malicious.

Unsurprisingly, Gunther quotes Hand as writing that Dworkin was "the clerk to beat all clerks."

Posted by: anon | Oct 21, 2005 4:22:48 PM

I, along with some hiring partners and recruiting coordinators from other Silicon Valley law firms, met with Sexton several years back, when he was riding the circuit to promote his NYU law students. It was a grand performance. He began by ridiculing the entire notion of rankings as phony, hype-inspired nonsense -- saving espcially pointed criticism for the USN&WR rankings. He decried the obsessive attention to those utterly useless listings, tiers, and ranks. Then he flattered us by adding that he was sure that no one in the room had been fooled by the rankings hoopla and propaganda. To the contrary, he assured us that we knew the reality: Yale, NYU, Harvard and Stanford stood alone, and after a measurable drop there were some other law schools that weren't half bad.

He said it all with a straight face -- but also somehow managed to have a twinkle in his eye for those in the audience who got the in-joke. Even though it was all blue smoke and colored bubbles, I found it quite entertaining. He was a charming guy. I imagine he is a fantastic fund raiser.

Posted by: John Steele | Oct 20, 2005 12:15:16 PM

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