Supreme Court connections to gifted people

by Rob Tiller

This week I signed a letter in support of the nomination of Elena Kagan that was written by Peter Keisler and Harry Litman and signed by most of the Supreme Court clerks from the year (OT ’86) our group worked for the Court.  I always liked and respected Elena.  She was bright and friendly, and I was happy to guard her in our clerk basketball games, where I was fortunate to have a meaningful height advantage (she could shoot).   I find it reassuring that in a world where Tea Party whack jobs are sometimes taken seriously that Elena with such old-fashioned and relatively unexciting qualities as intelligence, balance, and decency has quietly risen to the apex of the legal profession.

I made another Supreme Court connection this week when I caught up with Larry Lessig.  Lessig clerked for Justice Scalia a few years after I did.  Now a law professor at Harvard, he’s distinguished himself as a constitutional and intellectual property law scholar and reformer.  His work on copyright law, including Free Culture and Remix, challenges the received wisdom that more copyright protection promotes greater creativity and shows that the opposite may be the result.  In this area, he’s a true rock star.

Lessig’s current project is focusing on the corrosive role of money in our political system.  On Tuesday Mel Chernoff and I attended the talk he gave at Campbell Law School promoting public financing of elections.  He’s well known for his extraordinary slide shows, which use super quick cuts to press points, and this was a good one.  We’d corresponded by email previously, and it was good to make a face-to-face connection after the event.  In addition to being brilliant, he seemed like a warm and sincere guy.

When I have personal encounters with really gifted people, I generally find it unsettling.  It’s inspiring, and I find myself thinking so much more is possible, but also being more-than-usually aware of my personal limits.  As John McPhee once noted in the context of great tennis players, there are many levels of the game.   It’s a privilege to play with higher level players, and rewarding. If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.  But it does not promote calm and tranquility.

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