American Legal Thought in a Nutshell

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At first blush, Northwestern University law professor Stephen B. Presser’s just-released survey of legal education, Law Professors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law, seems to lack a clearly defined mission. Presser, a self-described paleoconservative who says he was influenced by the journal Chronicles, where he has long served as legal affairs editor, has produced a treatise-length book (with 473 pages of text and nearly 1,400 footnotes) on a subject—legal academia—that many people regard as a bastion of left-wing ideology. Published by a scholarly press (West Academic) at a relatively hefty ($48) cover price, the book is aimed, at least in part, at a lay audience: “the general American public.”

Equal parts legal history, biography, and primer on jurisprudence, Law Professors defies categorization. Is it a text book, a reference work, a tutorial for pre-law students, a compilation of biographical profiles, a cautionary tale about the modern legal culture, or a synthesis of all the foregoing? The author calls it “a love letter to the teaching of law,” his vocation for over 40 years.

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Time Magazine’s Bad Survey of the Worst Supreme Court Decisions


Time asked 16 law professors what they thought were the worst Supreme Court decisions since the 1960s. It is an illuminating enterprise, not because the answers are particularly interesting but because it perfectly illustrates the mindset of the traditional media and the legal academy today.

Begin with Time. While the academy leans about eleven to two to the left, Time managed to exacerbate that disparity, picking only one conservative to participate and what appear to be 15 professors on the left side of the American political spectrum. Then it gave the professors an absurdly small amount of space to explain their reasons—so small that it would be almost impossible to give a reasoned legal critique of any decision. Thus, Time encourages the view that what is important about a decision is whether the result accords with one’s preferences rather than if it is correctly reasoned.

But even given the poor structure for the assignment, the answers are often thoughtless and sometimes wrong even on their own terms.

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Causes and Consequences of the Legal Academy’s Lack of Political Diversity

The Harvard Crimson reports that 98 percent of political donations made by the Harvard Law School faculty goes to Democrats. This disproportion suggests that the lack of political diversity at elite law schools is no better than when I reported on it in my own study ten years ago. As the Anglican church was said to be the Tory party at prayer in nineteenth century England, the legal academy today remains the Democratic party at play.

Already comments dismissing the import of the study are to be found on the internet, such as the observation that the donations at Koch Industries may be similarly one-sided. That misses the point. The concern is not about the political donations per se, but that their distribution suggests that intellectual atmosphere at schools like HLS is politically insular. Lawyers, as  Alexis De Tocqueville said, are the political aristocrats of American society, and our elite law schools importantly shape their education. Moreover, law school professors play a large role in the production of new legal ideas and reforms.

There are, no doubt, many reasons for such gross ideological imbalance.  One that is little discussed is network effects.

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Friday Roundup, February 14th

In our February Liberty Law Forum Steven Grosby and Bill Dennis weigh in with their essays on the Institutions of American Liberty. Nick Capaldi's "To Make a Market" is our feature Books essay this week that reviews Lisa Herzog's Inventing the Market: Smith, Hegel, & Political Theory. Alberto Mingardi of Econ Lib: What consequences for the Swiss referendum? But is there a larger context at work here that the standard libertarian account misses? I think that's what Walter Russell Mead in Switzerland's primal scream is arguing. I suspect that to this return of borders, nation-state politics, thumbs in the eyes of transnational…

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