Georgetown Law Professor Gary Peller was not happy about the dean's press release expressing sorrow over the passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. In order to make his outrage known, Professor Peller sent out a complaint to faculty and students expressing his displeasure with what he described as "lionizing" a man "many of us believe was a defender of privilege, oppression and bigotry" and who "bullied lawyers, trafficked in personal humiliation of advocates, and openly sided with the party of intolerance in the 'culture wars' he often invoked."

Scalia earned his bachelor's degree at Georgetown, a fact which the university is, of course, generally proud. Dean William Treanor made that sentiment clear in his brief statement issued shortly after Scalia's death.

"Scalia was a giant in the history of the law, a brilliant jurist whose opinions and scholarship profoundly transformed the law," said Dean Treanor. "Like countless academics, I learned a great deal from his opinions and his scholarship. In the history of the Court, few Justices have had such 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, including his frequent appearances in classes and his memorable lecture to our first year students this past November."

But at least two faculty members could not countenance such a positive public response to Justice Scalia's passing. In his campus-wide statement, Peller made clear that he was not a member of the "community" that respected the conservative justice.

"I imagine many other faculty, students and staff, particularly people of color, women and sexual minorities, cringed at headline and at the unmitigated praise with which the press release described a jurist that many of us believe was a defender of privilege, oppression and bigotry, one whose intellectual positions were not brilliant but simplistic and formalistic," wrote Peller.

"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. But he was not a legal figure to be lionized or emulated by our students. He bullied lawyers, trafficked in personal humiliation of advocates, and openly sided with the party of intolerance in the "culture wars" he often invoked. In my mind, he was not a 'giant' in any good sense."

Here's Peller's full letter emailed to students and faculty:

Dear Students:

After Dean Treanor issued a press release announcing that our community mourns the loss of Justice Scalia and praising him, Mike Seidman and I sent responses that are reproduced below. I've changed mine to be addressed to our entire community. I'm sending them to you now because I don't think you should be excluded from this conversation, but faculty are not permitted to communicate directly with the student body without prior authorization.

Gary Peller

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Mike Seidman to Dean Treanor and faculty:

Our norms of civility preclude criticizing public figures immediately after their death. 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..

Gary Peller, originally to Dean Treanor and faculty:

Dean Treanor, Staff, Students, and Colleagues:

Like Mike Seidman, I also was put-off by the invocation of the "Georgetown Community" in the press release that Dean Treanor issued Saturday. I imagine many other faculty, students and staff, particularly people of color, women and sexual minorities, cringed at headline and at the unmitigated praise with which the press release described a jurist that many of us believe was a defender of privilege, oppression and bigotry, one whose intellectual positions were not brilliant but simplistic and formalistic.

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. But he was not a legal figure to be lionized or emulated by our students. He bullied lawyers, trafficked in personal humiliation of advocates, and openly sided with the party of intolerance in the "culture wars" he often invoked. In my mind, he was not a "giant" in any good sense.

It is tricky knowing what to say when a public figure like Scalia, or the late Robert Byrd, or other voices of intolerance, meet their death. But as an academic institution, I believe that we should be wary of contributing to the mystification of people because of the lofty official positions they achieved. I don't want to teach our students to hold someone like Scalia in reverence because he's a "Supreme Court Justice." Our proximity to official Washington provides an opportunity to see many public officials close-up, and to learn that there is nothing special that titles bestow--even a Supreme Court Justice can be a bigot, and there is no reason to be intimidated by the purported "brilliance" that others describe because, when you have a chance to see and hear such people close-up, the empowering effect is often, as it should be, de-mystification. (I was happy to meet Warren Burger as a law student for this very reason). We should never teach our students to be obsequious to those with power.

The "Georgetown Community" could mean many things. In one sense, it is simply a legally constituted set of formal relations, and in that sense perhaps "the Dean," duly appointed by "the President," speaks for that "institution" of formal legal relations.

But there is also a lived community that we inhabit, within the interstices of the formal and contractually defined roles, a community that exists in our relations with each other and with our co-workers and our students, a community that is constituted in our hallways and class rooms and lunch rooms, and in our affection for and commitment to one another, and, for many of us, a vision of how we could all be together in the law school, disagreeing often but always trying to be sensitive and empathic to all members of our community.

That is the "Georgetown Community" that I feel a part of, a lived community of tolerance, affection, and care that so many have built for so long here. That "community" would never have claimed that our entire community mourns the loss of J. Scalia, nor contributed to his mystification without regard for the harm and hurt he inflicted. That community teaches critique, not deference, and empowerment, not obseqiuosness.

Sometimes the two senses of community might merge--the formal, legal institution might be so at one with the lived community that its legitimacy to speak for the "community" flows organically. But that is not our situation.

Sincerely,

Gary