Politics in, and of, Law Schools

That legal education is tied up with politics is no excuse for indoctrination or ideological homogeneity

In an op-ed in The Globe and Mail Lisa Kerr and Lisa Kelly criticize “[c]alls for a return to … a legal education free of politics”, which they say amounts to “[s]tripping law of context”. Legal education, they insist, is necessarily, and properly, political. It is not just about legal doctrine, but also about “the complex relationship between legal principles and societal values”, as well as “history, culture, economics, and political economy”. I do not disagree with most of what they say on this point, so far as it goes. But I have a strong impression that Professors Kerr and Kelly, as well as their enthusiastic supporters in the Canadian legal academic corner of the twitterverse, elide crucial distinctions, and fail to address important questions that arise is their claim about the relationship between law, and especially legal education, and politics is accepted.

One claim in Professors Kerr and Kelly’s op-ed which I would not endorse without qualificaion is “that law and politics are not distinct domains”. To be sure, as I argued in one of my early posts here, “legal theory … is different from scientific theory, because it is in some measure argument [that] involves values, and hence ideology”. (Some of the things I said in that post now strike me as overstated, but I stand by this claim, and the post’s general tenor.) And it’s not just theory. As I wrote elsewhere, while Canadian courts is sometimes contrasted with American law as being less ideological, this is a mistake; Canadian judges are ideological, though they tend to share an ideology, and observes of Canadian courts believe, or pretend, that it is no ideology at all. Yet for all that, I think it would be a mistake to conclude that law and politics are wholly indistinct. Politics (in the sense of ideology, not necessarily partisanship) influences law, but it is not all there is to law. Professors Kerr and Kelly disparage “formalism”, but the law’s forms and procedures are important and valuable. “Due process of law” is not the same thing as political process, or the court of public opinion. I am not sure whether Professors Kerr and Kelly mean to suggest otherwise, but it would have been better had their op-ed not been open to such an interpretation.

I am also quite skeptical of the claim that Canadian law professors teach students not only law but also “history, culture, economics, and political economy”. With respect to my colleagues, how many of them master these subjects at even an undergraduate level?How many regularly read even, say, blogs written by historians or economists ― let alone scholarship? As readers who have followed my occasional musings on the “empirical turn” in constitutional law will know, it’s not that I am against the law being informed by these ― and many other disciplines; quite the contrary. But I am also skeptical about the capacity of the legal profession ― including the academy, as well as the bar and the bench ― to carry out the immense work that the “empirical turn” requires. Canadian law schools are several hundred Richard Posners short of offering the sort of interdisciplinary teaching that Professors Kerr and Kelly claim for them.

Be that as it may, as I said above, what worries me more is what Professors Kerr and Kelly do not say. First, as Michael Plaxton points out, there is a difference ― which Professors Kerr and Kelly elide ― between “drawing attention to political values” that permeate the law, and “adopting any particular political view, or imposing one on students”. One can expose the law’s politics and explain its context without necessarily arguing that the law is good or bad as a result. Now, I think that this distinction can only be taken so far. Given the limits on the time available to teach any subject, the choice of readings one assigns, or issues one emphasizes, is in part influenced by what one finds interesting and important, and one’s politics help shape those perceptions. Still, that’s not an excuse for giving up on even-handedness, or on broadening the issues one raises beyond one’s own interests and preoccupations.

Another important distinction is that between the positions of individual educators and educational institutions vis-à-vis politics. Professors Kerr and Kelly elide this distinction too, speaking of the way “we … teach law” and “the role of a law school” as if they were the same. They are not. Individual professors will, unavoidably, bring their particular political orientations to their teaching. They have a responsibility to strive, nevertheless, to fairly present views and concerns with which they disagree, but there are limits to how well individuals can discharge this responsibility, both due to the imperfections of the human nature and to the practical constraints I have already mentioned. Professors’ duty to create an environment where students who disagree with them feel free to do so is more absolute, but again, I am afraid that there are limits to what one can do. Ultimately, the professor gets the last word in a classroom discussion ― though the last word should often be a reminder that disagreement is welcome.

Law schools, as institutions, are subject to different constraints. Unlike individual professors, they are not entitled to their own political agendas. Individuals can only go so far in resisting the influence of their pre-existing commitments on their teaching. But law schools should have no pre-existing political commitments to resist. On the contrary, given the inevitability of a certain politicization of the teaching of individual professors, law schools should try to counteract this politicization by ensuring a certain degree of ideological heterogeneity among their staff, so that students are exposed to a variety of perspectives during the course of their studies. As Emmett Macfarlane points out, concerns about the role of politics in legal education have to do with “homogenizing attitudes” at (some) law schools that present them as committed to specific political orientations, so that other views would be unwelcome or at best devalued there.

One response to this that I have seen is to say that professors do not really change their students views. I think this is beside the point. For one thing, I don’t think that it’s necessarily improper for professors to change their students’ minds. If the change results from the students’ free assessment of arguments on both sides of an issue fairly presented by the professor, it’s a good thing, not a bad one. But conversely, even if  professors who set out to indoctrinate their students, or take a one-sided or authoritarian approach out of sheer carelessness, do not succeed at changing the students’ opinions, they are still causing harm. As Ilya Somin observed in a recent discussion of Keith Whittington’s new book on freedom of expression in universities, and as Matt Harringon pointed out in response to Professors Kerr and Kelly, students respond to such professors by hiding their true opinions, which harms the quality of classroom discussion. As Jonathan Haidt often reminds us, this leaves the holders of the majority opinions quite unprepared to argue against contrary views when they are confronted with them ― as will inevitably happen in the legal world, in particular.

 

So while I take Professors Kerr and Kelly’s point that the teaching of law is inevitably political, it is only true in certain ways and to some extent. Good legal educators do not shy away from discussing values, but they try to present more than their own value-laden perspective on the law, and do not seek to impose their own on their students. And, knowing that these attempts are bound to succeed only imperfectly, good law schools try to ensure that students are given opportunities to learn from professors whose political commitments are not homogeneous. I hasten to add that I strongly suspect that any legislative remedies for real or alleged failures of law schools and their faculties to live up to these commitments would be worse than the disease. But that just means that legal educators have to work very hard at it ― no one else can help them.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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