Monday, May 10, 2010

The Chicago Connection

Today I'm wondering if it is even possible to understand this country's politics over the past 30 years without having some familiarity with the intellectual contributions of the University of Chicago.  When I graduated from what we refer to as "The" Law School in 1979,  the Reagan revolution was brewing, and it wasn't long before some of my professors and fellow graduates, e.g., Richard Posner, Frank Easterbrook, Ken Dam, Antonin Scalia, Michael McConnell, started heading to Washington or various federal appellate courts.  This represented the triumph of the generally conservative "Chicago School" of legal and economic thought, and the Law and Economics movement, which were certainly important parts of the U of C's influence.

Now a second wave of Chicagoans has been heading to Washington, spearheaded by Barack Obama, and also including appointees such as Cass Sunstein, and Elena Kagan, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School in the early 1990's when Barack Obama was also teaching there.  What President Obama said about Kagan in announcing her nomination to the Supreme Court, and what is also reflected in his own approach to government, introduces another equally important strand of the University of Chicago's contribution: 
Elena is respected and admired not just for her intellect and record of achievement, but also for her temperament, her openness to a broad array of viewpoints, her habit, to borrow a phrase from Justice Stevens, of understanding before disagreeing, her fair-mindedness and skill as a consensus-builder. 
One of the hallmarks of the University of Chicago, which I mentioned in a previous post, is an atmosphere of tolerance and respect for opposing points of view.   Arguments at the University of Chicago can be fiercely competitive, but the school as a whole is also known for encouraging faculty and students to listen to, understand, and respect one another's ideas, whether or not they agree with them.  Obviously this is a quality that the President wants to bring to the Supreme Court for strategic reasons, as he is known to have been looking for a Justice who can forge coalitions with the five conservatives on the Court, none of whom is known to be going anyplace anytime soon.  But it is also an approach he has attempted, not always successfully, to bring to government as a whole.  Certainly our political discourse, as well as our legal discourse, could do with more "understanding before disagreeing," in tribute to another Chicagoan, John Paul Stevens.  And with two former U of C Law faculty members, Antonin Scalia on the right, and Elena Kagan  on the left, we can look forward to vigorous but hopefully civil debate, and strong representation of all aspects of the University of Chicago tradition, in the United States Supreme Court.

(photo from Huffington Post)

UPDATE (5/11/10): For more on this issue from an ADR perspective, I posted a slightly more technical analysis of how Elena Kagan or anyone else could function as a mediator or consensus-builder on a Court on which she would sit as a member, on my mediation blog.

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