The great civil-rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson tells a story of his grandmother warning him, upon finding young Bryan hanging out with some of the neighborhood’s less savory characters, that he will be judged “by the company you keep.” In Pillars of Justice, Owen Fiss, a legendary Yale law professor, reflects on the company he has kept, offering discerning profiles of the lawyers and scholars he’s worked with and admired over the course of his 50-year career. Some were mentors, others colleagues, one a student—all close friends. From these spare and elegant profiles emerges a collective portrait of greatness in the law and, more particularly, of Fiss’s conception of what makes law great. In an era when lawyers are often condemned as hired guns, and law is often dismissed as little more than politics in disguise, Fiss’s collection provides a welcome counterpoint by reminding us that law, pursued in the interests of justice rather than material interest or self-aggrandizement, can be a noble profession.
Some of those profiled here are household names: US Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, Israeli Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak. Others are widely known in the legal academy, if not outside: Harry Kalven, a First Amendment scholar at the University of Chicago; Morton Horwitz, a legal historian at Harvard Law School; Joseph Goldstein, a Yale law professor who pioneered the field of law and psychoanalysis; and Catharine MacKinnon, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School who introduced the concept of sexual harassment to the law (and, much less successfully, sought to give women the right to sue pornographers for their objectified depictions of women’s bodies). Others are civil-rights and human-rights lawyers, including Burke Marshall and John Doar, both of whom worked in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and Carlos Nino, an Argentine lawyer who helped bring military leaders to justice for “disappearing” thousands of people in that country’s “dirty war” in the 1970s.
The essays reflect Fiss’s deep appreciation for what these people offered him, intellectually and emotionally. Some focus on the lawyers’ work or the scholars’ substantive areas of inquiry. Some are both personal and political; the chapter on MacKinnon, for example, canvasses her enormous influence on the law of sex discrimination, but also her influence on Fiss himself. Inspired by MacKinnon, Fiss began teaching a course on law and feminism, the only one on the subject that was offered by Yale in the 1980s.
Taken together, these essays offer readers a view of constitutional and civil-rights law as a forum for articulating the nation’s most fundamental values; for enforcing those ideals when the political branches are not up to doing so; and for pursuing justice through the application of reasoned judgment. Today, too many lawyers—professors and practitioners alike—reject this approach as naive and overly idealistic; they view law more cynically as just a tool of political action, no different from any other. In this book, Fiss offers concrete evidence, drawn from the lives of others, that this cynicism is not warranted.
Fiss’s career, like his book, has been defined by a commitment to civil rights and to the role of the courts in advancing social justice. He was born and raised in the Bronx, and his legal and academic work has always focused on how constitutional law can bring equality to the disadvantaged. Fiss’s interest in law and the part it can play in furthering liberal causes developed early: On a trip to Washington as a high-school student in the 1950s, he recalls seeing Thurgood Marshall arguing Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark school-desegregation case. After attending Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Harvard Law School, Fiss clerked for both Marshall and Brennan, probably the two greatest civil-rights justices on the Supreme Court. As a young lawyer, he turned to the Justice Department, where he worked on civil-rights enforcement, before becoming a law professor, first at the University of Chicago in 1968 and then at Yale in 1974. In his many years at Yale, he has defended a robust role for the courts in giving public meaning to constitutional rights and in imposing structural reform on bureaucracies that infringe on the most basic of these: liberty, privacy, autonomy, and—above all—equality.