Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Dear Mr. Whelan of the National Review:

Wow.  Our faculty letter and our Dean's letter must have really struck a nerve with you.  (See also here and here.)

Before I respond to you, here's some background on me:  I'm a moderate--not liberal, not conservative.  Moderate.  I married into a military family (husband/father-in-law/brother-in-law are former Marines; sister-in-law was career Air Force; late mother-in-law was Army).  I interviewed for a Rehnquist clerkship.  I'm probably not what you envision when you think about liberal faculty members in law schools. 

I signed the faculty letter because I believe that it's important to remind the profession that we can have meaningful conversations about controversial issues--issues about which good-hearted and smart people can disagree--in a civil manner. Here's what our letter said:

As members of the faculty and staff of UNLV’s William S. Boyd School of Law, we were dismayed to read the May 2014 Nevada Lawyer column by Alan J. Lefebvre, written in his capacity as President of the State Bar of Nevada. We fear that the tone of Mr. Lefebvre’s undignified column brings disrespect on the Bar and undermines principles of professionalism that we endeavor to instill in our students.

Mr. Lefebvre’s ostensible subject was Nevada’s prohibition on same-sex marriage. He disparaged the conclusion by Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and endorsed by Governor Brian Sandoval that the ban cannot be defended in federal court. There are reasonable debates to be had about how our state’s officials should respond to a rapidly shifting legal landscape. But such debates require a climate of mutual respect. The mission of the State Bar of Nevada is, in part, to “elevate the standard of honor, integrity, and courtesy in the legal profession” and “to promote a spirit of cordiality” among lawyers. In our roles as faculty and staff at Nevada’s only law school, we want to pass these values on to our graduates. It is thus regrettable that Mr. Lefebvre’s essay consists largely of insults, ad hominem attacks, sarcasm, and sectarian references that are simply inappropriate for the leader of an important institution in a vibrant and diverse state.

We recognize that issues like marriage equality naturally inspire passionate responses. But in the legal profession passion must be expressed with dignity and thoughtful analysis. Mr. Lefebvre’s column was lacking in the civility that should guide the behavior of every Nevada attorney. It is a serious disappointment for such indignity to emanate from the leader of the state bar.
What we were trying to convey in the letter is that it is perfectly legitimate to express disagreement--passionately but still politely--with our attorney general's position, but that we wanted to keep the discourse civil.  Our dean's letter, too, was respectful in its approach.  Your column?  Not so much, frankly, with its sneer about us being a "fourth-tier school" (not true, and also not very nice of you).

I'm not a "delicate flower," as your column suggests.  I'm happy to engage with you on this issue, publicly or privately.  Maybe we could come away from a conversation with a better appreciation of each other's point of view.

Oh, and your reference to "one well-informed source [who conveyed to you that]: 'Even by the standards of the modern American law school, the Boyd School of Law’s faculty is remarkably intolerant of dissent. Opponents to the Orthodoxy are either evil or ignorant, take your pick'"?  That's not been my experience.  I've found my colleagues to be exceptionally civil in their discourse, even when they disagree with each other (and including when they disagree with me).  So we have your anonymous person who blasted our school, and we have me, with a completely different take on Boyd's atmosphere.  That's an n of two, which is too small a sample size for an outsider to form an opinion. 

Let's see if you and I can engage in a sincere conversation that rests on a basic assumption:  you've thought long and hard about your views, and you have good reasons for holding them, and I've thought long and hard about mine, and I have good reasons for holding them, too.  Maybe a conversation might give each of us more fodder for thought.


Hank Roberts said...

I bet he never answered you.

I'd also bet his anonymous source was himself, though that would be harder to check.

Good work on your part.

Unknown said...

Actually, he was really courteous when he responded, and we had a good off-line conversation.