Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Celebrity Culture in the Legal Academy (and Beyond)

Chief Justice John Roberts, of the United States Supreme Court, is visiting the law school today. Along with him, of course, comes a big security presence and near hysteria among law school administrators and more than a few of my colleagues. Without doubt, Supreme Court justices are celebrities, and they are almost all really smart people. What's interesting though, is that sitting justices are more or less prohibited from saying anything interesting about the law, except in their written opinions. With the notable exception of Justice Scalia, who doesn't seem to care as much about perceptions of bias, and seemingly would never recuse himself from any case based on informal remarks he might have made, pretty much all sitting justices can do is recite pablum about the greatness of the constitution, the legal system, the rule of law, and the Supreme Court itself. We can all agree with them about that, but we don't really learn anything significant from attending a lecture by a sitting Supreme Court justice; all we do is bask in the glow of their black-robed stature. We can ask them tough questions, but they generally cannot (or will not) answer them. We certainly cannot contradict anything they say.

That last remark, by the way, is well-exemplified by an anecdote from a conference I attended several years ago, where a famous US appellate court judge made the following assertion (which I paraphrase): judges always successfully cabin their biases and preferences, so as to apply the legal rules neutrally to the facts. This assertion was not made to a group of 8th graders in Civics class, but to a room full of legal scholars and social scientists, including at least one Nobel laureate. The social scientists squirmed uncomfortably at the judge's remark; a couple even began to smirk, but quickly stopped when they noticed the dead silence throughout the rest of the room. No one - least of all the legal scholars - dared to challenge the judge's patently absurd statement. It's simply a status issue - the academic version of "The Emperor's New Clothes."

Stature, of course, is a very big deal in the academia - perhaps even a bigger deal in the legal academy and economics departments than most others. What schools you graduated from determine the limits of your mobility, pretty much regardless of the quality of your work. Where you teach largely controls which journals will be willing to publish your scholarship, and can affect the quality of conference invitations you receive. Likewise, Justice Robert's talk here today enthralls us and, probably, the local media as well almost entirely because of his professional stature. Much less (that is to say, virtually no) excitement would attend a similar visit from any lower federal court judge (where a lot more real legal work is done than on the Supreme Court), let alone a state-court judge.

I was thinking about all this today, as I was leafing through my daily e-mail update from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which is filled with many fascinating and significant scientific and social-scientific work by scholars and scientists I have never heard of, and who have never heard of me. For all our celebrity culture, it is useful to recall, at least once in a while, that most of the heavy lifting in science and social-science is not being done by the small number of "stars" in each discipline - which is not to diminish the quality or importance of their contributions - but by a multitude of dedicated, hard-working individuals, most of whom never receive great accolades for their contributions to the stock of useful knowledge.

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