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Ivy League Professors make the most of US Constitutional Crisis

By Kirsten Edwards - posted Wednesday, 15 November 2000

One would think from newspaper reports that the US is a pretty terrible place to be right now. Trapped in electoral impasse; beset by legal challenges; and drifting leaderless into an inevitable economic recession. And to be sure there are some pretty unhappy people around – blacks who have been disenfranchised; Hispanics intimidated from the polls; legions of elderly people so weakened by their lack of access to prescriptions drugs that they are apparently unable to punch a hole through a perforated piece of paper. Most people are fed up, they just want an end to all the politics and challenges and to find out who is President. And spare a thought for the candidates – they try to maintain calm but the sorry sight of the Bush family trying to put on a brave face as the results see-sawed throughout election night almost made me feel sorry for the bloodthirsty crew.

But to every cloud there is a silver lining and I file my report from one of the happiest places on the planet – a prominent Ivy League Law School. Oh no I don’t mean the students. The poor souls were in a frenzy of excitement on election night, the auditorium going up in deafening cheers as Gore won Florida, then Michigan, then Pennsylvania. Elation turned to dismay then to horror as events took their nasty turn. The next day students staggered about like zombies, most had stayed up all night hoping for resolution and closure to the nightmare the election had become.

Some students jumped on the outrage bandwagon – demanding popular protests against the Palm Beach ballot and the failure of the popular vote winner to ascend to the Presidency. Of course these students would have been wiser to keep their mouths shut – given that just the day before they had been arguing that the candidates were much of a muchness as they threw their support behind one Ralph Nader. The leader of the Nader faction threatened to leave the law school in protest at the Dean’s public support of a speedy resolution of the ongoing legal challenges. Few of the Democrat supporters would be sorry to him go.


But no, I am talking about the Professors. They are the proverbial pigs in mud right now. Most of them have spent their entire life waiting for a time when the whole nation actually cares about constitutional law and they are making sure they don’t miss their chance in the spotlight. The day after election night the Dean convened an "emergency panel" of Professors to discuss the issue. It was very helpful – first one of them read a passage from a book he had written ten years ago. Yes you guessed it – he had predicted the whole thing. Then, of course came the recommendation that the only way to solve the problem was to convene a commission of constitutional experts – I was moved by the selflessness displayed as our Professors did not hesitate to offer their services. One even co-ordinated an advertisement, oops I mean open letter, in the New York Times just to make sure every one knew they were available.

Of course they were a few broken hearts when Harvard’s Larry Tribe got the most coveted gig – legal advocate for the Democrats in Florida – he even got on TV. But the bruised professorial egos were quick to brush themselves off and get on with the biggest game in town – who can get themselves the most quotes in the New York Times and Washington Post – articles, interviews, op-ed columns, letters to the editor, even advertisements, it’s all fair game.

Inevitably there has been some petty law student grumbling – a few wet blankets have muttered about Professors telling them they are far too busy with media commitments to actually read their papers and I am beginning to suspect some students are starting to wary of the tactic (happily used by yours truly) of Professors abandoning lesson preparation in favour of announcing "since it is so topical and on all our minds I think we could all benefit from a discussion of the legal implications of the ongoing election situation". But the students shouldn’t be so selfish – they’ll go on to earn more than tenured senior professors in their first year of legal practice. The tantalizing possibility of 15 minutes of talking-head fame is the only thing that keeps these Professors going through their gruelling 30-hour week.

The best thing is, for a change, there’s plenty of fame to go around. Take this e-mail sent to the Faculty today from the public affairs office:

"My office has received quite a few calls from members of the media (including networks and cable outlets such as CNN) who are interested in speaking with law professors who can comment on the events surrounding the presidential election and the disputed votes in Florida. As you know, several faculty members have already taken part on news shows or been interviewed for radio, television, and print. The volume of media requests remains quite high, however, and we would be happy to provide other faculty names for media consideration in order to keep up with the demand. If you are interested in commenting on any aspects of the election, please let me know. Please also let me know what topics you would like to be considered for; the best way to reach you; and any restrictions you have on the types of media with whom you would like to speak (e.g. national only; no television; and so forth)."

So what do you think – "Australian. Will speak to media (national TV only) on criminal justice aspects of election"? But it gets even better, another public affairs e-mail:


"Several professors have recently expressed surprise (and delight) to learn that [name of school] has a functioning television broadcast studio on campus. This means no more travelling to NYC or Hartford for on-camera interviews. The studio is available on a first-come, first-served basis, with every effort made to accommodate those who need live access."

What a relief – I should be able to squeeze in at least 10 CNN interviews a day. Sure I know nothing about what is going on but it is only fair to the viewers after all I am blonde and under 30. I mean, what has been more stressful – pondering the results of the hand count or worrying if Warren Christopher will survive the process. That dude may be a great lawyer but he is real old and thus has no right at all to be on TV.

I think in the end the whole situation has reminded me about what is really great about this country – no matter how bad it gets out there, no matter what the suffering, somewhere, out there, a lawyer is very very happy.

God Bless America

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About the Author

Kirsten Edwards is a Fulbright Scholar currently researching and teaching law at an American university. She also works as a volunteer lawyer at a soup kitchen and a domestic violence service and as a law teacher at a juvenile detention centre but all the community service in the world can’t seem to get her a boyfriend.

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