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Celebrating William Stuntz

A gentleman-scholar at Harvard Law School.

Apr 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 29 • By ERIN SHELEY
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Especially striking at the conference was the question of what it is that makes Stuntz’s work so compelling to vastly disparate camps in the legal academy. David Sklansky of Berkeley, citing Orwell on Dickens, observed that “everyone wants to claim him.” Stuntz’s ideas resonate with Burkean skeptics who admire his acknowledgment of systemic complexity; with traditional liberals who appreciate his concern for over-incarceration and racial disparity in the criminal justice system; with “law & economics” scholars who value the empirical foundations of his work; and with law-and-order conservatives for his support of strong policing. McAdams says, “It is difficult to get academics to agree on anything, especially on politically charged matters such as criminal law and procedure. [Stuntz’s] work is just so good—original, empirically grounded, and large-scale—that it defies preexisting categories and compels respect.” 

During his presentation Sklansky noted that Stuntz’s work builds a bridge between the religious and the secular, the pragmatic and the evangelical, with his intellectual commitments both rooted in faith and insistent on reasoned evidence. In the world of criminal legal discourse, this is an invaluable contribution. Stuntz himself described the conference as dispelling a common misconception about the scholarly life as isolated. Scholarship, he says, is “actually done in the company of other people who have written; there is a conversation going on.” The Harvard conference provided “a rare treat to have that conversation take place out loud.”

Beyond Stuntz the scholar, however, the gathering was a homage to Stuntz the human being. It is significant that every single person invited came. After the three sessions on criminal law, a final session was devoted to reflections by mentors, colleagues, and students. Dana Mulhauser—an attorney at the Department of Justice and a former student of Stuntz’s—noted the beauty of one of his famous phrases: “I hadn’t thought of that.” 

“Think of how much he accomplishes with using that one phrase in the classroom,” she said. “It manages to validate the person who had the unconventional idea, while at the same time conveying to the rest of the class, ‘You don’t have to put that in your outline.’ Somehow, his students managed to come out of every conversation with him feeling like we were tenured Harvard professors, or could be, someday.”

At the dinner for speakers on the first day of the event, U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, former dean of Harvard Law School, ended her toast to Stuntz by saying, “Bill, I’m sorry for taking up so much of your time,” a reference to his standard modest farewell to a colleague with whom he has initiated a conversation. When contacted for this article, Stuntz responded in character: “I am a little embarrassed because I don’t believe my work merits this much attention, but I took a lot of pleasure in it as it allowed me to see and interact with old friends.” 

Not as much pleasure as they took in honoring so remarkable a man.

Erin Sheley is a writer and attorney in Washington and a former student of William Stuntz.

Articles by William Stuntz in THE WEEKLY STANDARD:

Will We Choose to Win in Iraq
September 4, 2006

Doubling Down in Iraq
November 20, 2006

Is the Era of Big Government Back?
October 27, 2008

Law and Disorder
February 23, 2009

Look to Lincoln
April 6, 2009 

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