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.

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Death Drivers Of The Orient

It sounds like a bad urban legend, but apparently it isn’t:  in China, there are recorded instances of a driver striking a pedestrian, then backing up to run over the fallen victim again and again to make sure they are dead.  In two of the more appalling cases, drivers ran over a little girl, and a grandmother, multiple times.

Why?  Because the tort and criminal system in China provides a financial incentive to make sure that the victim of a hit-skip incident is dead.  The one-time compensation to be paid to the family of a deceased victim typically ranges between $30,000 and $50,000.  If the victim is seriously injured and requires ongoing care, however, the driver has to pay for the care for the rest of the victim’s lifetime — which obviously could run into considerably larger sums.

Hence, the death driver scenario.  In the split-second after an accident, Chinese drivers have to decide between their pocketbook and their humanity and decency — and for a number of drivers, the pocketbook wins out.

It’s discouraging to think that money could turn a distressingly large percentage of drivers into cold-blooded killers, but perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.  The historical record consistently demonstrates that people respond to economic incentives and disincentives — just ask anyone who lived in the old Soviet Union.  The Chinese death driver example simply shows how far economic incentives can go in influencing decision-making and behavior.  It isn’t a pretty picture.

Recognizing And Celebrating A Good Deed

We hear so much about people behaving like jackasses.  How about a little story that shows that human beings — even important, powerful, wealthy ones — can still show decency, and kindness?

The setting was Washington, D.C.  A harried Mom was having a nightmarish travel day and thought that she had missed the last flight to Atlanta, where she was to pick up her daughter from summer camp.  She was the next name on the standby list and the jetway doors were ready to close when she miraculously got a seat.  The Good Samaritan was Richard Anderson, the CEO of Delta.  He gave up his cabin seat and sat in a jump seat in the cockpit so the Mom could make it home.  The grateful Mom, Jessie Frank, wrote about the story on her Facebook page; Delta confirmed it but hasn’t tried to capitalize on the good publicity.

Sure, I know — the cynics may wonder why the Delta flight was overbooked in the first place, and will point out that the CEO, unlike other passengers, had the means to use a cockpit seat that otherwise would be unavailable.  So what?  The fact is the man could have played the accustomed CEO/hyper-important person/Master of the Universe role, ignored the woman’s predicament, and kept his seat.  The world would have been none the wiser.  The fact that he did what he did says something good about him as a person, and the fact that Delta hasn’t tried to publicize the story says something good about Delta as a company.

If we want to encourage decent behavior we should recognize it.  So here’s to Mr. Richard Anderson and the folks at Delta who helped out a Mom in need.  A small gesture, perhaps, but one that brought a smile to my face.