Following the Georgetown University Law Center Dean William Treanor’s public statement regarding late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (CAS ’57) on Feb. 13, which sparked an emotionally charged debate between liberals and conservatives, the Georgetown Black Law Students Association issued an open letter Feb. 19 regarding the treatment it has received from the law center.
Scalia graduated summa cum laude from Georgetown before obtaining his law degree from Harvard University. He served as associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1986 until his death and acted as a member of the court’s conservative majority. Scalia adhered to a judicial philosophy known as originalism, which asserts that the U.S. Constitution is interpreted in terms of its meaning at the time it was written.
In his statement published on the GULC’s website, Treanor highlighted Scalia’s involvement in the Georgetown community and his impact on the way law is practiced across the country.
“Scalia was a giant in the history of the law, a brilliant jurist whose opinions and scholarship profoundly transformed the law,” Treanor wrote. “Few Justices have had such an 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.”
Following the release of the statement, GULC professors Gary Peller and Louis Seidman each responded with emails to the law center community voicing their concerns with the dean speaking on behalf of the law center, stating that members may not have agreed with the sentiments that were expressed.
In his email, Peller outlined his personal opinions on Scalia’s legacy as a legal figure.
“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 wrote. “But he was not a legal figure to be lionized or emulated by our students.”
Seidman similarly expressed his disagreement with the view of Scalia included in Treanor’s statement.
“Our norms of civility preclude criticizing public figures immediately after their death,” Seidman said in an email to The Hoya. “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.”
This, in turn, prompted an email response from GULC professors Randy Barnett and Nick Rosenkranz expressing grief for Scalia’s passing and pain at the specifics of the initial messages sent to the community.
“To hear from one’s colleagues, within hours of the death of a hero, mentor, and friend, that they resent any implication that they might mourn his death — that, in effect, they are glad he is dead — is simply cruel beyond words,” Barnett and Rosenkraz wrote.
Both professors also shared personal stories about Scalia and expressed concern for the students mourning the late justice’s passing.
“Leaders of the Federalist Society chapter and of the student Republicans reached out to us to tell us how traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry, were their fellow students,” Barnett and Rosenkranz wrote.
The Black Law Students Association echoed the original email’s wording in its open letter to the community, listing issues affecting black and minority communities at the law center.
“Many Black students were also ‘traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry,’ when fact patterns on a practice exam directly referenced the facts of the Trayvon Martin tragedy,” the BLSA wrote in an open letter on Facebook. “Many Black students are also ‘traumatized, hurt, shaken, and angry’ as real progress on institutional anti-racism and administrative equity and inclusion is constantly delayed.”
The BLSA acknowledged the grief of fellow GULC members but took issue with the way mourning could potentially affect others in the community.
“While we support an individual student’s choice to mourn, it must also be acknowledged that Justice Scalia’s legacy affects us in vastly different ways,” the BLSA wrote in the letter. “As a result, some of the viewpoints expressed in the email exchange were disheartening for many in our membership.”
The BLSA continued by questioning the treatment of students of color by the law center and students’ lack of comfort in expressing these concerns.
“If this one email exchange exacerbated frustrations of conservative or libertarian students, imagine the impact of continuous antagonistic classroom lectures and insensitive remarks about issues that directly affect the lives of the Black students here at the Law Center,” the BLSA wrote. “If our community can empathize with the hostile environment conservative students will reportedly enter as the result of the comments made by a two liberal professors in an email, then they cannot turn a blind eye to the calls for sensitivity training and a concerted effort to make faculty aware of the issues that face minority students.”
In an interview with The Hoya, Peller emphasized that he had not meant to remark on the content of Treanor’s statement. Rather, he objected to Treanor’s comments being issued on behalf of the entire community.
“I didn’t write specifically to comment at that time on Justice Scalia’s legacy or his place in our political culture or anything like that,” Peller said. “I was responding to what I thought was the insensitivity on the part of the dean to speak for the entire community, many of whom felt great pain from Justice Scalia’s decisions regarding issues that are central to their identity.”
Seidman agreed with Peller that Treanor’s statement should not have been issued on behalf of the entire community. However, he emphasized the importance of demonstrating respect for the recently deceased.
“With respect to my views about Justice Scalia, I think that the norms of civil discourse are that you don’t criticize somebody within a week of their dying,” Seidman said. “I have a lot of views about Justice Scalia, but I don’t think that this is the time for talking about that.”
Although Seidman did not sign Peller’s response to the dean’s statement, he said he did not have any problem with it and also emphasized the predictability of the reactions toward the statement. Seidman also mentioned that he received emails of support from multiple students and that Peller received similar messages from over 200 students.
Peller expressed hope that the issue would be resolved within the law center community.
“I feel very bad that the issues have become so polarized and bitter, and I hope that people will calm down and come together in peace,” Peller said.
Seidman echoed Peller’s desire for unity within the community, adding his view that discourse is the way to achieve this.
“I think on both sides people ought to stop complaining about being hurt and start engaging in the kind of debate that universities were meant for,” Seidman said.