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Thursday, June 01, 2017

On John Manning and Debts Past Repaying

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 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.      

Posted by Paul Horwitz on June 1, 2017 at 11:58 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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