Posted: August 15, 2019
or the first half of the 20th century, Harvard Law School, founded in 1817, was the ne plus ultra of legal training, its professors larger than life, its graduates the most famous advocates and judges. Professor Charles Kingsfield of The Paper Chase embodied Harvard: brilliant but aloof, demanding to the point of cruelty, devoted to the law as a mystical ideal.
In the older view, regnant at Harvard before the 1960s, law was an intellectual discipline devoted to discerning objective truths. There were correct answers to legal questions, ascertainable to all jurists who sought them by using the correct procedures. Just as any mathematician who calculated rightly would arrive at the same answer to an equation, any jurist who reasoned correctly, Democrat or Republican, would reach the same interpretation of the law.
Largely of necessity, Yale Law School, founded in 1824, constructed an identity as the anti-Harvard. It appears, over the second half of the 20th century, to have been a historic success. In 1987, just over a decade after I graduated from Yale, it gained what seems to be a permanent place at the top of the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings.
Yale in the 1970s was engaging, intellectually stimulating, full of talented and preternaturally accomplished students, and comparatively relaxed. I think most of us fully enjoyed our experience there. We could sense, however, that a reconceptualization of law was taking root. The old-fashioned “legal liberalism” that still held sway—what historian Laura Kalman calls trust in the potential of courts to bring about nationwide social reform via policy change—was gradually giving way. Though legal liberalism was liberal in being identified with political liberalism, nonetheless it was legal in that it presupposed a legal process built upon reason and a common set of assumptions about discerning the law in a constitutional republic, including the idea that it was both rules-based and could have a substantial degree of objectivity. Taking its place was a more relativistic, results-oriented jurisprudence, flavored with Marxism and postmodernism. It is now clear that the musings in New Haven’s ivory tower have come to dominate mainstream American legal and political thought.
Law or Politics
Since 1974, for the entire period of its ascendency, Owen Fiss has been a professor at Yale Law. After clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, working in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and teaching six years at the University of Chicago, he came to Yale and rose to Sterling Professor of Law (now emeritus), the school’s highest professorial rank. His lengthy record of scholarly work has made him one of the most influential legal academics of the past 45 years. In Pillars of Justice: Lawyers and the Liberal Tradition (2017), he pays generous tribute to mentors and colleagues, most of whom served with him on the Yale faculty. Legal liberals such as Fiss have had a long romance with radicalism. Thus, Fiss’s “pillars” include several lawyers who are far more radical than liberal, such as Catharine MacKinnon, a classmate of mine who became a leading theoretician of feminist jurisprudence.
Fiss credits Eugene Rostow, dean from 1955 to 1965, for Yale Law’s displacement of Harvard. Himself a Harvard Law graduate, Fiss believes that under Rostow “the Law School emerged as a great national institution, a bastion of the liberal tradition.” For Fiss, the hinge of American legal history was the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 under Chief Justice Earl Warren.
It may seem surprising now, but the Brown decision generated considerable angst in the legal academy, particularly at Harvard. Fiss writes, “Harvard’s intellectual milieu was defined by Herbert Wechsler’s 1959 article on neutral principles, in which he announced that he had come to the conclusion that Brown…was wrongly decided, or at least not adequately justified.” Although Wechsler taught at Columbia, the article originated as a lecture at Harvard before being published in the Harvard Law Review. Sixty-five years later, it remains one of the most cited law review articles and continues to spark debate.
Because Brown was understood by the Court as a pivotal decision with far-reaching social and political consequences, Chief Justice Earl Warren crafted a unanimous opinion that was able to bridge differences among the Justices, citing social science research in order to conclude that state-mandated segregation is inherently unequal under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Wechsler’s article tentatively criticizes the decision for glossing over problems with its use of factual findings and its failure to grapple with issues relating to freedom of association. Brown was about cutting the Gordian Knot created by prior inability to disentangle racial animus from the law. But the things at issue are not Brown’s result or the civil rights struggle in general (and the reason that the idea of neutral principles has lived on while Wechsler’s critique of Brown is largely forgotten); rather they are fundamental questions about the nature of law and the judiciary’s role in a constitutional republic. Such questions have been at the heart of political debates about law and the courts ever since.
Fiss recalls that in contrast to Harvard, “Yale had a very different stance on Brown—it embraced the decision.” Two prominent faculty members, Charles Black and Louis Pollak, had assisted on the briefs, and Rostow praised the decision eloquently. While Fiss, the Harvard product, was writing an article to show that Brown and neutral principles could be reconciled, Rostow advised him that trying to fashion this synthesis was a waste of time. Fiss now attributes Rostow’s comment to a belief in Yale’s “pride of place” and unhappiness that he was allowing Harvard to “dictate the terms of [the] inquiry.”
The stakes, however, involved much more than institutional pride. Fiss saw himself as fundamentally different from most of his Yale faculty colleagues, believing that his view of law could be reconciled with the traditional emphasis on neutral principles over policy outcomes. For Fiss, it is possible to believe that: a) law can be objective and principled; and b) the arc of justice must always bend in a liberal direction, because the more “pure” the law becomes, the more it furthers the ideals of Brown: bringing about a more just result through the patient exploitation of the raw material of the law. But very few cases have the unique characteristics of Brown. Although Fiss would deny the truth of it, viewing every case through this special lens leaves him open to the charge that, ultimately, his conception of law regards it as nothing more than a tool to impose certain political values. Unlike younger legal progressives who are candid about achieving their political goals “by any means necessary,” Fiss is “old school.” With full confidence in his own sense of fairness, powers of reason, and the desirability of using courts to advance progressive policy, Fiss wields the legal tools ascribed to legal traditionalists: the appeal to the mystery and majesty of the law—with its resort to peculiar terms (such as “penumbras”), its analogical leaps, and rhetorical method—to reach his conception of a just result.
Fiss was not the first Yale professor to wrestle with the dilemma of whether to secure liberal goals through law or politics. Alexander Bickel’s extremely influential The Least Dangerous Branch: The Supreme Court at the Bar of Politics (1962) examined the “counter-majoritarian difficulty”: why should unelected, unaccountable justices, appointed for life, be entrusted with the ability to override decisions made by democratically elected legislatures and executives? Bickel’s answer—judges should remain aware of the counter-majoritarian difficulty and voluntarily wield their power cautiously instead of boldly—was far too modest to settle the fundamental question he posed.
Bickel’s work added enormously to Yale’s prestige and reputation in the 1960s, but his prudent liberalism was in tension with the law school’s dominant cast of mind. This tension is recounted in the work of Laura Kalman, who has centered much of her scholarship on the developments at Yale: Legal Realism at Yale, 1927–1960 (1986), The Strange Career of Legal Liberalism (1996; in which the writings of Fiss and other Yale professors receive significant attention), and Yale Law School and the Sixties (2005). The earliest of these books tells how Yale came to reject the objective or scientific study of law, dominant at Harvard and elsewhere in the first half of the 20th century. The legal realists, such as Charles Clark and Thurman Arnold, radicals of their time, saw gaps between the theory of law and its practice, dismissed the idea that legal results could be predicted with rigorous logic and formal rules, and favored legal analysis that incorporated the social sciences’ empirical findings.
The period beginning in the 1920s was also when some prominent Yale faculty embraced both public law—the emphasis on statutory and common law as tools of public policy—and an interdisciplinary approach as essential, distinctive parts of the school’s mission. Professor William O. Douglas, future New Dealer and Supreme Court justice, as well as the paradigmatic liberal jurist, was this view’s leading exponent. The combination of legal realism, public law, and interdisciplinary studies eventually became the essence of the law school’s reputation. Nonetheless, Kalman concludes that the changes in teaching and curriculum promised by these developments largely failed, and the actual substance of legal education at Yale was not terribly different from that at Harvard or elsewhere.
Nevertheless, as Kalman writes in Yale Law School and the Sixties, the realists “imbued Yale with a mystique that…has endured to this day.” Kalman, like Fiss, is a legal liberal with a romantic attachment to its more radical offshoots, candidly stating that she is deeply sympathetic to the ’60s student radicals. She summarizes the main line of scholarship at Yale during the ’70s and ’80s as “New Legal Process”—in essence, an effort to find principled ways to justify the Warren Court’s liberal decisions while rejecting the Burger and Rehnquist Courts’ conservative ones. It was also to distinguish itself from the “old” legal process at Harvard. This is the species of what both Kalman and Fiss call “legal liberalism,” of which Fiss was a prime exponent.
While Brown and Warren Court jurisprudence remained an essential touchstone, after 1973 the real problem for legal liberalism was Roe v Wade. Their residual commitment to neutral principles led a number of legal liberals to concede that Roe was, at a minimum, exceedingly difficult to justify, depending instead on a concept they had spent their careers vilifying, “substantive due process.” Yale graduate and onetime Yale professor John Hart Ely said as much in what became a famous Yale Law Journal article, “The Wages of Crying Wolf.” Future dean Guido Calabresi conceded that Roe was not justifiable under any principled legal analysis. Another dean, Harry Wellington, did his best to prove otherwise in another Yale Law Journal article, with unpersuasive results.
The difficulty, however, was that Yale’s community of legal liberals, including Ely, Calabresi, and Wellington, firmly supported the abortion policy created by Roe. Like Fiss, they were convinced that if only they tried hard enough they could justify the result. Because proper liberal outcomes were always to be found at the end of the law’s appropriate path, with enough effort these justifications would support the inevitable process of American law becoming pure.
In many ways the unresolved tensions starting with Brown, continuing through the subsequent Warren Court decisions, and culminating in Roe v. Wade, came to the fore in the 1987 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings over Supreme Court nominee and former Yale Law Professor Robert Bork. Though Bork was, like his Yale colleagues, a defender of Brown, he did so on the basis of an originalist interpretation of the 14th Amendment. At that time, most of the liberal academy disdained originalism. This was not surprising, as conservative politicians and writers had denounced the Warren Court for creative innovations that could not be justified as fair readings of the Constitution. Several of his former Yale colleagues, including Fiss, testified against Bork. These were not to be the last Supreme Court confirmation hearings where Yale played a starring role.
Given a legal liberal consensus that stressed outcome over justification, Yale was becoming increasingly radical. Kalman argues that the law school emerged stronger from the turmoil of the late ’60s and early ’70s. The traditionally liberal faculty, who embraced free speech and reform causes but strongly opposed tactics and demands challenging their view of the legal academy’s mission, compromised with the student body’s radical elements. The resulting relaxed grading system made the school a less stressful place, but with the greater congeniality came a changed intellectual atmosphere.
Yale’s offspring were pushing the school’s heritage to an extreme. The understanding that outcomes came first, and explanations would be found thereafter, moved from being implicit to explicit. Although rationales were a practical necessity, it was easy for students to conclude that those were largely a matter of finding and manipulating whatever facts or arguments proved serviceable.
Consequently, Yale law graduates of the 1960s and ’70s were at the heart of the Critical Legal Studies movement, academic radicalism’s new frontier. One did not need to be a “crit” to move well to the left of Fiss. Pillars of Justice tells the stories of two young Yale faculty colleagues, Robert Cover and Arthur Leff, who shared the view that law was not objective, and that legal results were about power, not neutral rules.
By this point the influence of Yale in legal academia had come to reflect its dominant U.S. News ranking. As growing numbers of professors holding both J.D.s and Ph.D.s joined the law faculty, often with joint appointments in one of the university’s other schools, Yale led the way in merging legal thought with other academic disciplines. For a school where policy science and legal realism had long been central, the notion of “law and…” was natural.
In particular, the growing influence of postmodernism, multiculturalism, and race- and gender-studies had an impact on how law was understood and taught. In Kalman’s The Strange Career of Legal Liberalism, where Fiss plays a major part, legal liberalism was becoming a relic, beloved only by the oldest faculty who, like Fiss, still revered the Warren Court. Left-wing academics had moved on. It is no wonder that so many of Fiss’s pillars of legal liberalism are not legal liberals. His was a dying breed.
For example, Catharine MacKinnon was a doctoral student in political science while also enrolled in law school. As Fiss relates, she began working on a paper that became Sexual Harassment of Working Women (1976), ushering in both enormous legal and cultural change. Her debt to Karl Marx was clear to classmates and, subsequently, her readers. As MacKinnon wrote in 1982, “Sexuality is to feminism what work is to Marxism: that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away.”
MacKinnon played a significant part in the evolution of workplace standards. Ironically, her work on sexual harassment and gender brought Yale Law School into the national spotlight again and again. Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill were both Yale Law alumni, as were many of the witnesses who figured in Thomas’s 1991 Supreme Court nomination hearings, such as Guido Calabresi and John N. Doggett III, as well as Judiciary Committee member Arlen Specter. MacKinnon’s concept of sexual harassment in the workplace created the drama’s legal framework, with allegations about sexual innuendo between a supervisor and a subordinate.
As Fiss points out in Pillars of Justice, Yale did not offer MacKinnon a tenured position after a stint as a visiting law professor in 1990, despite her consequential innovations. She ended up on the Michigan Law School faculty, and also became a long-time visiting professor at Harvard Law. (She is, however, on the board of the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism.) Yale had no class on law and gender until Fiss started a seminar on feminist legal theory. He was aided by a student, Reva Siegel, who later ended up a faculty member and a collaborator in subsequent books by MacKinnon. Although Fiss makes clear his sympathies with MacKinnon, he continues to disagree with her on the fundamental theoretical question of whether law can be objective, fair, and impartial. MacKinnon, who has devoted her career to action, with theory always in support of the desired result, is unabashedly interested in making the law work toward outcomes. When you believe that relationships, including sexual ones, are all about power, what matters is putting the force of law on the side of those who suffer for having too little of it.
MacKinnon loomed large over the law school in other ways. Its two most famous graduates, Bill and Hillary Clinton, both class of 1973, became the ultimate Yale Law power couple. Clinton was not the first president with a Yale J.D.; Gerald Ford had received one in 1941, and former president William Howard Taft became a law professor there in 1913. The Clintons, however, embodied the school’s emerging blend of legal liberalism, social science, and ’60s radicalism. The problem is that this blend included MacKinnon’s work on sexual harassment, the crux of Bill Clinton’s legal and political difficulties involving Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky.
Here again, results took precedence over rules. Some of Clinton’s most ardent defenders were feminists who had no doubts that Clarence Thomas had harassed Anita Hill, and that his conduct was unforgiveable. But because Thomas held the wrong view about Roe, and Clinton the right one, it became imperative for feminists to tolerate actions they would otherwise denounce as intolerable.
This awkward moral flexibility continued for 16 years, until Hillary Clinton’s astounding loss to Donald Trump. The diminishment of the Clintons’ usefulness to feminism and other progressive causes, combined with the rise of the #MeToo movement, coincided with a rapid reversion to deploring sexual misconduct when the circumstances were more politically accommodating. In 2018, dramatic accusations and denials about sexual assault dominated the hearings over yet another Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, who graduated from Yale Law in 1990. In the back-and-forth over his treatment of women, Kavanaugh pointed to the many female clerks who had worked for him as a judge on the D.C. Circuit, a number of whom expressed their support for him.
In response, a sizeable part of the Yale law community took the position that men “credibly” accused of sexual misconduct should—at least until determined otherwise—be passed over for consideration for vital public office (a fine distinction from guilty until proven innocent). This “rule,” a hazy standard, was deemed sufficient to effect the desired result: denying Kavanaugh, a conservative and Roe skeptic, a seat on the Supreme Court. Once again, Yale Law was at the forefront of both the cultural moment and the evolving legal arguments. The journalist famous for igniting #MeToo, Ronan Farrow, was a Yale Law grad, as was New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, prominent among the Judiciary Committee members attacking Kavanaugh.
A Choice to Make
The ascendency of Yale Law tracks deeper philosophical tensions. The legal liberalism at Yale, so beloved by Owen Fiss, was constantly at war with itself. On the one hand, it cultivated a careful, craftsmanlike devotion to understanding the legal decision-making process, and the value of adhering to that process. On the other hand, the hearts of the great majority of the faculty and most of the students longed to pursue whatever policy avenues and other methods were most favorable to enacting the Left’s evolving policy agenda.
One Yale Law professor, Samuel Moyn, has come full circle on the counter-majoritarian difficulty. Harking back to the days of Yale’s legal realists in the 1930s, he has recently written in the Boston Review that conservatives “stole the originally progressive talking point that we are experiencing ‘government by judiciary.’” The confirmation of Kavanaugh, he contends, created an “imperial judiciary” under “hard right-wing control.” Accordingly, he concludes, it is time “to stand up for reforms that will take the last word” from the Court, so that it might someday “evolve into an advisory body.” As the maelstrom generated at Yale over the Kavanaugh nomination shows, the ascendant belief is that law is the tool of powerful groups and classes. It is both fair and necessary for their victims to use it in whatever way will end their own subjugation.
Now the question is whether Yale Law School will allow political dispositions shared by most of its faculty and students to overwhelm completely its ability to entertain all points of view, including a willingness to deal honestly with complex, divisive issues. Despite its strong identification with legal liberalism, Yale has been a place that accommodated students with other viewpoints. It produced conservative Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Brett Kavanaugh, a slew of right-of-center lower court judges, and the Federalist Society’s first chapter. Ominously, current Yale Law student Aaron Haviland, writing in the Federalist about the school’s decision to disallow stipends for students working at conservative public-interest firms, argues, “Progressive students are attempting to shrink the Overton Window of reasonable public discourse, and Yale seems all too willing to comply.”
Upon Kavanaugh’s nomination the current dean, Heather Gerken, admitted her admiration for him as a friend, teacher, student mentor, and for hiring a “diverse set of clerks.” She has sought to maintain the school’s equilibrium, appealing to its deeply held principles. The question, of course, is which of those principles will ultimately prevail. Fiss has argued for decades, ever since he was a young professor and I was one of his students, that no one had to choose between advancing the progressive cause and respecting the traditional understanding of the law. This choice cannot be evaded indefinitely. Sadly, it is becoming increasingly doubtful whether Yale will continue to see a distinction between law and policy—and respect the views of those who do.