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Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Lawyer Comes Up Short on Obama on the U.S. Supreme Court

As president, Thomas Jefferson campaigned against the U.S. Supreme Court in the pivotal 1800 election after the court let the Alien and Sedition Acts stand. The law criminalized criticizing government officials of the U.S. Government. Lincoln announced during his 1860 campaign that he would not enforce the court’s Dred Scott decision upholding slavery in U.S. territories. In saying that invalidating the Affordable Healthcare Act would represent an unprecedented act of judicial activism, Obama was not going nearly that far. In other words, he was not saying he would ignore the decision. Nor did Obama announce anything like Roosevelt’s unsuccessful court-packing scheme.

Even so, a lawyer who teaches law at Samford University in Alabama opined, “It’s virtually unprecedented for a president to criticize the institutional powers of the Supreme Court. I don’t know of any other instance where a president has publically questioned the legitimacy of judicial review.” Apparently the lawyer had not heard of Lincoln’s announcement or Roosevelt’s court-packing.

This example of commentary by the lawyer illustrates why law schools hiring lawyers to teach law classes is fundamentally different than hiring legal scholars to be law professors. A lawyer can become an expert on the technical nuances of a statute or judicial opinion, as well as how to argue such points in a court of law. This is not the same as having scholarly expertise on jurisprudence, which includes constitutional philosophy and history. The difference can be expressed as that which exists between examining individual trees and grasping the contours of the forest. Ironically, as a graduate student in law progresses in the LLM and JSD degrees, the seminars become more specific in coverage (the dissertation of the doctoral candidate in a JSD program being incredibly specific), the level of abstraction increases so a wider perspective is proffered though the narrowing disciplinary focus.

Were law school deans in the U.S. republics to hire scholars as professors rather than lawyers as instructors, the students would benefit immensely from the standpoint of learning the knowledge of law, rather than simply how to practice it.


Richard Wolf, “Other Presidents Took on High Court before Obama,” USA Today, April 6, 2012.