Harper Lee, R.I.P.

Writer Harper Lee died today in Monroeville, Alabama.  She was 89.

gty_harper_lee_tk_131016_16x9_992I’d be willing to bet good money that most obituaries about Ms. Lee will begin with the words:  “Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, . . ..”  She was, and always will be, associated with that one book.  Why not?  It is indisputably one of the greatest works of fiction by an American writer, and also a book that captured a moment in history, and a time and place, so vividly, and sketched characters so indelibly memorable, that it is one of those books that you would gladly read over and over again.  No one who has read that book will ever forget the adventurous Scout, the thoughtful Jem, the quiet dignity of falsely accused Tom Robinson, the mysterious Boo Radley, and the noble Atticus Finch.

And, of course, To Kill A Mockingbird is one of those books that did far more than what most books ever even aspire to do:  it helped to change the world.  By quietly telling a story of one instance of rank and sickening racial injustice in a small town in Alabama, To Kill A Mockingbird illuminated the dark underbelly of the American Dream and the blindered perspective of 1950s America.  The book, published in 1960, was one of the cultural elements that forced America to deal with the Jim Crow South and the heinous mistreatment of African-Americans in the states of the old Confederacy, and in the rest of the country as well.  What other novels have accomplished so much?  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, perhaps — but the list is not a long one.

Rest in peace, Harper Lee.  You have made your mark, left a legacy that will endure, and served your conscience and your country well.

GULC Storm

I graduated from the Georgetown University Law Center — known to students as GULC — in 1985.  In those days, it was a law school that taught traditional courses, like Contracts, and Property, and Civil Procedure, through the traditional Socratic method, where professors posed questions to specific students who were expected to be able to explain and analyze the rules of law set forth in particular cases.  Our professors were of different political persuasions, no doubt, and one professor advocated Critical Legal Studies, but the school was not politicized, or politically divided, in any meaningful sense.

Things apparently have changed over 30 years.  Now GULC is home to an internal political storm provoked by the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

scalia702a_1Justice Scalia was a regular visitor to the campus, most recently in November when he came to speak to first-year law students.  When he died, GULC issued a public statement describing Scalia as “a giant in the history of the law, a brilliant jurist whose opinions and scholarship profoundly transformed the law.”  The current dean, William Treanor, added that “I am deeply grateful for his remarkably generous involvement with our community, including his frequent appearances in classes and his memorable lecture to our first year students this past November,” and concluded:  “We will all miss him.”

Some GULC professors objected to the release.  One professor wrote to the entire campus community, and said: “I am not suggesting that J. Scalia should have been criticized on the day of his death, nor that the ‘community’  should not be thankful for his willingness to meet with our students. But he was not a legal figure to be lionized or emulated by our students. He bullied lawyers, trafficked in personal humiliation of advocates, and openly sided with the party of intolerance in the ‘culture wars’ he often invoked. In my mind, he was not a giant in any good sense.”  That professor also said:  “I imagine many other faculty, students and staff, particularly people of color, women and sexual minorities, cringed at headline and at the unmitigated praise with which the press release described a jurist that many of us believe was a defender of privilege, oppression and bigotry, one whose intellectual positions were not brilliant but simplistic and formalistic.”

These comments provoked a response from the two “conservative” professors at the law school, who said the comments of the other professors said “in effect, your hero was a stupid bigot and we are not sad that he is dead.”  The professors added:  “The problem is that the center of gravity of legal academia is so far to the left edge of the political spectrum that some have lost the ability to tell the difference.  Only on a faculty with just two identifiably right-of-center professors out of 125, could a professor harbor such vitriol for a conservative Justice that even Justice Ginsburg adored.  Only on a faculty this unbalanced could a professor willfully or knowingly choose to “hurt … those with affection for J. Scalia,” including countless students, just days after the Justice’s death.”

The dispute has been covered by the Washington Post, in the story linked above,  by the Above the Law website — which refers to the dust-up as “Scaliagate” — and by other media outlets.  It’s probably the most news coverage GULC has received in years.  It’s not exactly what I would call favorable publicity.

It’s sad, for me, on several levels.  First, I am sad that notions of civility and simple decency appear to be leaching out of our society, to the point where people feel the need to blast out their own negative views about a public servant who has died, rather than doing the proper thing and holding their tongue so that others may mourn.  Surely the professor who depicted Justice Scalia as a defender of “oppression and bigotry” whose intellectual positions were “simplistic and formalistic” knew that others would disagree with those statements and be hurt by them.  So, why say them in the first place, so soon after Justice Scalia’s death — rather than, say, writing a law review article critiquing Justice Scalia’s opinions on their merits, which is what law professors used to do?

And second, I am sad that law schools seemingly have become political hotbeds, where “liberals” and “conservatives” joust in an apparently lopsided battle.  When I went to GULC, it and other respected law schools were viewed as scholarly intellectual bastions, where cases were reviewed with analytical rigor and rules of law divined, in order to help students develop judgment and prepare them for a career in the law.  Sharp political exchanges and name-calling are antithetical to intellectual rigor — but perhaps intellectual rigor is not what law schools are looking for in their professors these days.

As I said, things apparently have changed a lot in 30 years, and not for the better.