Prof. Van Alstyne to deliver Currie Memorial Lecture

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"Clashing Visions of a Living Constituition"

12:10 pm
Room 3043

Prof. PhotoProfessor William Van Alstyne, Lee Professor of Law at The College of William and Mary’s Marshall-Wythe School of Law, will deliver the Brainerd Currie Memorial Lecture at Duke Law School on November 14. A renowned constitutional scholar who held the Perkins chair at Duke Law School from 1974 to 2004, Professor Van Alstyne’s lecture entitled “Clashing Visions of a Living Constitution” will offer an appraisal of those who sit on the U.S. Supreme Court and those who teach and write about constitutional law. The justices of the Supreme Court, as well as their critics, he says, however great their other differences, can nevertheless be most usefully placed within one or the other of just two broad categories. These two categories reflect quite sharply different ideas (or “visions”) of what makes a “Living” Constitution. Each of these visions has its own very strong adherents and its own attractions. They are also very distinct and frequently utterly at odds.

One vision of the Living Constitution, Van Alstyne will suggest, strongly reflects what many—and maybe most--people say that they want and frankly hope for, in the work of the Supreme Court. They want it to uphold laws that may--in their view--contribute to the happiness, prosperity, and overall well-being of the nation. With the same firmness, they likewise want it to hold unconstitutional those laws that fail to do any of these things, and they want it to do so, moreover, whether the laws in question may come from Congress or whether they come from the States. In keeping with this well-integrated, comprehensive view, they judge the Court—and its several judges, just by how well their decisions in particular cases discharge these tasks, neither more nor less.

Professor Van Alstyne will also present a competing vision of the Living Constitution, and of what those who hold this different view frankly want from the Supreme Court. They want it “to apply the Constitution in all cases alike” and in doing so, consistent with that view, to sustain just those Acts of Congress that Congress is in fact given the constitutional power to enact , and so, too, to do the same, neither more nor less, in respect to the States. The guiding principles of this second vision, he will attempt to show, are at bottom quite different from the guiding principles of the first. His presentation will involve audience participation–each member will receive a copy of the Constitution among other materials–to see how the distinctions tend quite concretely to work.

A graduate of the University of Southern California ( magna cum laude in philosophy), Professor Van Alstyne received his J.D. from Stanford where he was Articles and Book Review editor of the Stanford Law Review and a member of the Order of the Coif. From public law practice in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, he went on to teach at more than a dozen law schools in the United States and to lecture internationally, in Chile, China, Germany, the former USSR, Japan, Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands. From 1972 to 1976, he served on the National Board of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union. From 1974 to l976, he served as National President of the American Association of University Professors. Inducted as a Fellow into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994, Professor Van Alstyne joined the Marshall-Wythe law faculty in the fall of 2004.