Dean's Blog - Senator Edward Kennedy

Dean's Blog - Senator Edward Kennedy

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Dean Donald Lewis


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Hi.  I thought I’d devote my blog today to lessons from a lawyer who made history.
Recently, Senator Edward Kennedy died at the age of 77.  He served 46 years in the U.S. Senate.  He was once a law student.

I assume that most of you-as did I-watched some of the media coverage of his death: the personal tributes and the celebration of his extraordinary political career.  I wondered how much a difference law school made in his life.

Ted Kennedy was a 1959 graduate of the University of Virginia Law School.  His older brother Robert was also a UVA graduate, class of 1951.  Years earlier, Ted Kennedy had been expelled from Harvard College for cheating.  But he managed to get into UVA Law.  Ted Kennedy was after all a Kennedy, and although UVA was an institution steeped in tradition and honor, it was also steeped in the culture of privilege.
I do find it very ironic that the two Kennedy brothers attended UVA.  It is a very fine law school.  But Virginia during the Jim Crow era was not a place known for leadership in civil rights or religious tolerance.  How could UVA produce two icons of liberal political thought, leaders of the fight for racial equality and economic justice?

At UVA, Kennedy was known as "Cadillac Eddie," and he lived more the life of a Virginia country gentleman than a typical law student.  On paper academically, Kennedy was an average law student with one notable exception: he was the best oralist in the UVA moot court competition.  His moot court partner was his friend and roommate John Tunney, who himself was elected to the U.S. Senator from California in the 1970s. 

The moot court competition at UVA involved 50 teams.  The panel for the final round included the lord chancellor of England, Supreme Court Justice Stanley Reed, and a federal appeals court judge named Clement Haynesworth, whose nomination to the Supreme Court by President Nixon 10 years later was rejected by the Senate, with Ted Kennedy voting against him.

At the final argument, most of the Kennedy family sat in the hall.  As described by a Kennedy biographer, "Teddy’s voice soared above the words and logic of all the others, and he and Tunney won the competition."

Kennedy’s time at UVA was busy in other respects.  He was president of the Student Legal Forum and brought prominent legal figures-including his brothers-to speak on campus.  In 1958, his brother John was running for reelection to the Senate from Massachusetts, and Ted was his campaign manager.  And Ted Kennedy also married his first wife Joan later that year.

I offer three observations inspired by Ted Kennedy, the law student.

1.  First, lawyers have been, and continue to be at the core of American government and political discourse.  At the time of his death, the clear majority of U.S. senators are lawyers.  Ted Kennedy’s life reminds us that lawyers bear a tremendous responsibility to sustain our political life.

2.  One of the frequent criticisms of legal education is that it reinforces "conservative" values of individual property rights and entitlement.  Kennedy himself is the poster child of property and privilege, but over time he transcended his background to become one of the most eloquent and outspoken advocates for the disadvantaged. 

3.  Finally, Kennedy is a wonderful example of someone who re-invented himself throughout his career.  His life is replete with episodes of self-indulgence, recklessness and moral lapses-and, of course, enormous family tragedy.  But his game got better over time, and he will be remembered as one of America’s greatest legislators.  And part of his re-invention began in law school.

So, that’s the lesson for this week.  I’ll see ya’ again soon.


Posted by Zoe Miron at 08/25/2010 11:20:21 AM