While attending University of Chicago in 2018, I had the good fortune to have a part-time job as a community outreach coordinator for the soon-to-be-released “RBG” documentary. On premiere night at the Chicago Gold Coast theater the Chicagoans I had come to know turned out in force. The gray-haired justice book group was followed by some little girls with their mothers. Film buffs, law students, elected officials, and a church group were all present and excited to learn more about this notorious intellectual giant. Everyone was moved by her story. The little girl who went in wearing an RBG costume came out standing a little taller in her black robe and jabot. This was the power of her transcendent appeal.
More recently, as a CNN Associate Producer covering the Supreme Court, I was assigned a retrospective story about Justice Ginsburg’s most impactful decisions during her long career. I wrote the story factually and objectively, with no fanfare, and placed it in reserve for what I hoped would be a very long time.
But she deserved fanfare.
Today I’m very pleased to be able to host a guest blog from the Hon. James V. Menno ‘86, who recently retired after more than two decades of service as an associate justice of the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court.
Despite the number of people sitting on the hard benches in this sunlit courtroom, there is a respectful silence. An ordinary person is sitting in the witness box. She has taken an oath to tell the truth. Her descriptive answers to her attorney’s questions begin to weave together a story. It is a deeply personal story that provides unique insight into her and the children of her fractured family. She tells this story to another ordinary person, me, who also happens to be the judge. We are separated by a bench, a black robe and the roles we play. But we are joined together as co-participants in the daily unfolding of the actual Rule of Law.
Her role is to honestly tell the difficult story that has led to this moment. Tomorrow, her husband will sit in the same chair and do the same. My role is to listen to them as unique individuals, determine which facts are true, and (utilizing the applicable law) make a decision that will allow them and their children to transition from one family to two single-parent families. Whew! What a daunting task this is for both of us, the storyteller and the listener.
American legal history and culture distinguishes itself both by its respect for the Constitution and its eagerness to heatedly debate its interpretation. There are those who believe in a “living Constitution,” constructed by the Framers to be flexible and changing with the mores and demands of the progressing society it serves. Others are “textualists,” prominent among them the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who believe that the Framers designed the Constitution to be a stable bedrock of fundamental law with specific avenues for amendment, to serve as a foundation upon which legislative action can build a legal edifice. They see the Constitution as concrete in what it says, and wish to leave anything it does not say to the legislative authority of the Congress and States, rather than the courts.
A shockwave disrupted the country on the afternoon of February 13, 2016, when we learned that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had passed away unexpectedly at the age of 79. The fascinating political and legal ramifications of Justice Scalia’s sudden death are yet to unfold, but what is certain is that American law students have lost a brilliant and consequential legal instructor. Continue reading