President Barack Obama, the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and senior lecturer in law at the University of Chicago Law School, has published a piece of legal scholarship for the first time.
The president’s first journal article appeared Thursday in the Harvard Law Review and concerned the role of the executive branch in advancing criminal justice reform.
Though supporters lavish praise on a man they call a constitutional scholar, Professor Obama left practically nothing by way of a paper trial at Harvard or the University of Chicago. The scant six pages unearthed by Politico in 2008 addressing whether an unborn child has standing to sue its mother appear to be the only scholarly piece Obama produced as a law student or a law professor.
It is exceedingly difficult to secure a teaching post absent an established record of published scholarship. He first arrived at the University of Chicago Law School in 1991 as a visiting law and government fellow, where he began work on the first of his two memoirs. He became lecturer in 1992, and senior lecturer in 1996, at the time of his election to the Illinois state legislature. His promotion to senior lecturer is itself unusual, as it placed a junior member of the adjunct faculty in the company of Judges Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook, two of the most prolific members of the federal bench.
By all accounts he was highly intelligent, admired by his colleagues, and kept a normal teaching schedule — he led classes in due process and equal protection, election law, and an original course called “Current Issues in Racism and the Law.” Nonetheless, in 14 years at the law school, he never published a single scholarly article in a peer-reviewed journal, an especially surprising development given the rigorous academic culture assiduously maintained by Chicago’s faculty.
His former colleague Richard Epstein, a renown libertarian legal scholar who holds faculty appointments at the University of Chicago and New York University, speculates that’s the president’s famed prudence is simply evasiveness, which keep his ideas safely ensconced in his “unbound confidence.”
“His entire life, as best I can tell, is one in which he’s always been a thoughtful listener and questioner,” he told the New York Times in 2008. “[B]ut he’s never stepped up to the plate and taken full swings.” The Times itself notes Obama tended to keep his colleagues guessing with regard to his precise views. (RELATED: California Hires Eric Holder To Resist Trump In The Courts)
Epstein elaborated two years later in a wide-ranging discussion with Reason’s Nick Gillespie.
“He is amazingly good at playing a sort of intellectual poker,” he said. “But that’s actually a disadvantage, because if you don’t put your ideas out there to be shot down, you’re never going to figure out what kind of revision you want.”
Other scholars suggest Obama was nursing political ambitions throughout the 1990s, and sought to avoid having his own record of scholarship marshaled against him, as often happens when professors leave the sunny uplands of academe for the harsh din of politics.
“Perhaps then-Professor Obama’s observation of the way other legal scholars such as Robert Bork and Lani Gunier had had their work distorted for partisan political purposes counseled him against publication of his scholarly views,” wrote John Eastman, professor at Chapman University Fowler School of Law.
On a call with members of the press, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said the president hopes the article will generate continued commitment to the work of criminal justice reform.
“It is my hope, and indeed the hope of all of us who work on these issues, that by publishing a piece of this scope in the Harvard Law Review, that the President can educate the next generation of lawyers about why these issues are so important, how they interact with the powers and limitations of the Executive Branch, and what we have done, and most importantly, what work there is left to do.”
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