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Best Paragraphs In Sunday Newspaper About Obama Supreme Court Pick

May 3, 2009

Great article.

“His nominee will not create the proverbial shock and awe,” said Charles J. Ogletree, a Harvard professor who has known the president since his days as a student.

Mr. Obama believes the court must never get too far ahead of or behind public sentiment, they say. He may have a mandate for change, and Senate confirmation odds in his favor. But he has almost always disappointed those who expected someone in his position — he was Harvard’s first black law review president and one of the few minority members of the University of Chicago’s law faculty — to side consistently with liberals.

Former students and colleagues describe Mr. Obama as a minimalist (skeptical of court-led efforts at social change) and a structuralist (interested in how the law metes out power in society). And more than anything else, he is a pragmatist who urged those around him to be more keenly attuned to the real-life impact of decisions. This may be his distinguishing quality as a legal thinker: an unwillingness to deal in abstraction, a constant desire to know how court decisions affect people’s lives.

“The University of Chicago was and is full of eminent theorizers who wrap up huge areas of the law by applying some magic key,” said David Franklin, a former student. “He didn’t do any of that; he wasn’t interested in high theory at all.”

Though Mr. Obama rarely spoke of his own views, students say they sensed his disdain for formalism, the idea — often espoused by Justices Scalia and Clarence Thomas, but sometimes by liberals as well — that law can be decided independent of the political and social context in which it is applied. To make his point, Mr. Obama, then a state senator, took students with him to Springfield, Ill., the capital, to watch hearings and see him hash out legislation.

And he asked constant questions about consequences of laws: What would happen if a mother’s welfare grant did not increase with the birth of additional children? As a state legislator, how much could he be influenced by a donor’s contribution?

Former students say that Mr. Obama does not particularly prize consistency or broad principle. Adam Bonin arrived in Mr. Obama’s class with the firm belief that drawing districts to ensure minority representation should be illegal. “It struck me as wrong that the legislature should pick and choose what interests should be represented in the legislature,” Mr. Bonin said.

“What I took from the class and the reading materials was the reality that unless these voices are physically present in a legislature, they won’t be heard,” he said. “As long as everyone is grabbing for power, members of racial minority groups ought to do the same.”

But when it came to sentencing laws, Mr. Obama led Mr. Bonin in a more conservative direction than the student had expected. The primary victims of black criminals were fellow blacks — and so minority neighborhoods had an interest in keeping sentencing laws tough, he taught.

Pragmatism has its detractors, and in a confirmation battle, Mr. Obama’s nominee could face charges that he or she does not give enough weight to formal law. But although Mr. Obama is results-oriented, he retained an overall skepticism for what courts can accomplish, said David Strauss, a former colleague at University of Chicago. In Mr. Obama’s due process and voting right classes, he showed students the broad failures of Reconstruction-era amendments that tried to establish equality for blacks.

“He sees the political process as the place that a lot of these large, difficult public policy questions ought to be resolved,” said Richard Pildes, a professor at New York University law school whom Mr. Obama met through their mutual interest in election law.

Even as law review president, Mr. Obama de-emphasized his own views and instead made himself a channel for those of others. His decision making was “about the group sentiment and what the group majority might agree to,” said Nancy McCullough, a fellow editor.

In class and in conversation, Mr. Obama talked about judges all the time, but in heterodox terms that gave no clear sense of whose work he most prized.

“I would imagine that if Barack had a free hand to appoint judges without having to worry about confirmations, about politics, that his idea of a great justice would be someone like a Thurgood Marshall,” said Geoffrey Stone, a former dean of the University of Chicago law school.

One Comment
  1. Marion permalink
    May 4, 2009 10:00 AM

    What’s really interesting is that Obama is a student of Constitutional Law with a law degree.

    Bush was a student in do as I say not as I do and not a law student or a student with exceptional grades who thought that the words trust me were law enough for anyone and was a “law unto himself” or so he was told by Rove and Cheney.

    Obama has more degrees under his belt than either of those 2 or 3. Sad when the Repub. want to rely on the uneducated idiots of the world.

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