Two professors at Georgetown University’s law school have made a very public protest after the school’s dean made a statement honoring deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Given that Scalia earned his bachelor’s degree from Georgetown, it would seem fitting for the school to honor such an illustrious alumnus after his passing. Georgetown University Law Center dean William Treanor thought the same way, and made a short public statement the day of Scalia’s death.
“Scalia was a giant in the history of the law, a brilliant jurist whose opinions and scholarship profoundly transformed the law,” Treanor said in his statement. “Like countless academics, I learned a great deal from his opinions and his scholarship. In the history of the Court, few Justices have had such influence on the way in which the law is understood. On a personal level, I am deeply grateful for his remarkably generous involvement with our community, including his frequent appearances in classes and his memorable lecture to our first year students this past November.”
But two Georgetown faculty members were deeply upset Treanor would honor Scalia in this manner. On Tuesday afternoon, three days after the statement went out, Professor Gary Peller sent an email to all of the law school’s students and staff complaining about it, incorporating statements from himself and fellow professor Mike Seidman.
Seidman’s part of the message was relatively short and to the point.
“Our norms of civility preclude criticizing public figures immediately after their death,” he said. “For now, then, all I’ll say is that I disagree with these sentiments and that expressions attributed to the “Georgetown Community” in the press release issued this evening do not reflect the views of the entire community.”
But Peller’s statement was longer and went much further, calling Scalia a defender of “oppression and bigotry” and suggesting that Scalia was barely deserving of respect, let alone honor.
“[I] was put-off by the invocation of the ‘Georgetown Community’ in the press release that Dean Treanor issued Saturday,” Peller said in his email. “I imagine many other faculty, students and staff, particularly people of color, women and sexual minorities, cringed at [the] headline and at the unmitigated praise with which the press release described a jurist that many of us believe was a defender of privilege, oppression and bigotry, one whose intellectual positions were not brilliant but simplistic and formalistic.”
“I am not suggesting that J. Scalia should have been criticized on the day of his death, nor that the ‘community’ should not be thankful for his willingness to meet with our students,” Peller continued. “But he was not a legal figure to be lionized or emulated by our students. He bullied lawyers, trafficked in personal humiliation of advocates, and openly sided with the party of intolerance in the ‘culture wars’ he often invoked. In my mind, he was not a “giant” in any good sense.”
Later in his email, Peller accused Georgetown of contributing to the “mystification” of public figures.
It’s hardly surprising that Peller cares little for Scalia. Peller’s own academic work is rooted in critical race theory and critical legal studies, two fields that can only be described as solidly on the political left. A major part of Peller’s work is denying the very existence of objective knowledge or the value of concepts like rationality, one the grounds that knowledge is just “a function of the ability of the powerful to impose their own views.”
A full copy of Peller’s email may be seen here (after a very lengthy editor’s note).
Peller’s harsh criticisms stand in noted contrast to another major ideological opponent of Scalia’s, fellow Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Despite anchoring the Court’s liberal wing, Ginsburg was known for her close friendship with Scalia, and after his death wrote a heartfelt tribute describing him as a “treasured friend.”
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