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Stanford Professor Jokes About Life on the Short List

By Robert Barnes
Stanford University law professor Pamela Karlan is a favorite of law professors and Supreme Court experts who are pondering President Obama’s choice of a Supreme court nominee, even if her spot on the White House’s list is unclear.

A constitutional scholar and founding director of Stanford’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, the 50-year-old Karlan is a prolific writer, an outspoken critic of the court’s growing conservatism and probably to the left of every current justice. She is also a funny and witty writer, which is why some liberal activists would like to see her go head-to-head with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Antonin Scalia.

A commencement address she gave earlier this month to the law school is a good example. She began this way:

“Members of the graduating class, spouses, partners, children, and friends of the graduates, parents of the graduates and also their in-laws, members of OUTLaw, people who are bisexual and people who are bilingual and people who are biracial, people of color, people in the minority, other dissenters, people who want to do justice and people who plan to be a justice, people who represent the convicted and people with convictions, people with backbone, people with six-pack abs, people with staggering figures and people who owe staggering figures, well-paid people, underpaid people, members of the faculty, people with citations in the Stanford Law Review or from the Stanford Police Department, and people who are just plain out of sight ... Welcome to Stanford Law School’s graduation.”

She used Dante’s Divine Comedy as her inspiration, but told the grads even a sample of her attempt to deliver the address in the poem’s terza rima, or three-line stanzas, was enough to show why it was not a good idea.

Karlan acknowledged that she liked being on various lists of potential nominees -- “My fingers hurt from Googling myself” -- but acknowledged she has not led the life that would lead to an easy confirmation. That is a good thing, she said.

“Would I like to be on the Supreme Court? You bet I would,” she said. “But not enough to have trimmed my sails for half a lifetime.”

Karlan said she regrets plenty of things, but “the things I regret aren’t the things that keep someone from being nominated or getting confirmed . . . . I don’t regret taking sides on questions involving the Voting Rights Act. I don’t regret helping to defend the constitutional rights of criminal defendants. I don’t regret litigating cases on behalf of gay people. I don’t even regret being sort of snarky.”

Karlan told the graduates that in the real world, they will not always know when they are being tested, or whether they passed or failed.

“There’s a well-known book about a high school basketball team called ‘In These Girls, Hope Is A Muscle,’” she said. “Well, in a lawyer, courage is a muscle. You develop courage by exercising it. Sitting on the fence is not practice for standing up.”

By Paul Volpe  |  May 21, 2009; 11:19 AM ET
Categories:  Short List , Supreme Court  
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