Tag Archives: Tenure

With or Without Yoo

Two interesting quotations from Ruth Marcus’s Washington Post column–One pro John Yoo, tortured torture memo writer, one contra.  The first one, from Columbia University law Professor Scott Horton, addresses someone (Elder) who does not find Yoo’s legal work grounds for discipline or revocation of his tenure at Berkeley.  He says that Elder

"is appropriately concerned about freedom of expression for his
faculty. But he should be much more concerned about the message that
all of this sends to his students. Lawyers who act on the public stage
can have an enormous impact on their society and the world around them.
. . . Does Dean Edley really imagine that their work is subject to no
principle of accountability because they are mere drones dispensing
legal analysis
?"

There’s a wide gulf between "not punishable in this instance by the University" and "subject to no principle of accountability."  Horton sets up a false dichotomy–accountable or not.

On the pro-Yoo side:

The most useful analogy I’ve read on this subject comes from Princeton
professor Deborah Pearlstein, who asked what Berkeley would do if a
molecular biology professor "had written a medical opinion while in
government employ disclaiming the truth of evolution," and continued to
dispute the theory of evolution once he resumed teaching.

Pearlstein,
a human rights lawyer, found Yoo’s memo "blatantly, embarrassingly
wrong under the law," but she conceded that legal conclusions lack the
hard certainty of scientific truth. Yoo should no more be removed from
a teaching job than a Supreme Court justice who writes a despicable
opinion — upholding slavery, allowing separate but equal facilities,
permitting the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II —
should be impeached.

I’m confused by the analogy in the first paragraph.  If that’s the case, then indeed Yoo ought to be fired for not having competence in his subject matter.  Academic freedom ought not be a cover for incompetence.  But I doubt he would have gotten that far anyway. 

The second paragraph rings odd.  And it hardly makes the point that Yoo ought to be protected from firing.  Any Supreme Court judge who argues for slavery ought to be impeached–now (and probably back then as well).  Even though legal opinions lack the "hard certainty" of scientific truth (whatever that means), it doesn’t mean that some legal opinions are simply beyond the pale.  

By most accounts–even friendly ones–Yoo’s opinions were beyond the pale.  The fact is, however, that was a different job.  This seems to me to be the key difference that’s being overlooked here.  Berkeley was dumb enough to hire him and give him tenure.  They ought to be ashamed.  But it’s too late now. 

Of course, if he broke the law and is found to have committed war crimes, then indeed, he ought to be fired.  But that’s a matter for, er, the law.