Sunday, November 08, 2015

Honoring Jesse Choper

Last night, I attended a retirement party for Jesse Choper, the Earl Warren Professor of Public Law at UC-Berkeley. Jesse has been an active teacher for a remarkable 54 years, starting at the University of Minnesota in 1961. He moved to Berkeley in 1965 and has been here ever since (including a stint as Dean from 1982 - 1992). So while Jesse is known around the country as one of America's preeminent constitutional law scholars, it is no surprise that here in the Bay Area he is known more simply as "Mr. Boalt".

Of the literally hundreds of people who came out for Jesse's retirement party, it is probable that each of us could have given a meaningful personal toast. Of course, in that group of luminaries I rank pretty low in the pecking order. But here on the internet I can give my own toast, which while probably just a drop in the bucket of accolades Jesse has received throughout his career, is nonetheless the very least I can do.

Of all of Jesse's colleagues, I think I can say with a fair amount of certainty that I am the latest. I arrived a Boalt last year as the inaugural Darling Foundation Fellow in Public Law, and I had the tremendous privilege of being the coordinator for Jesse's final class -- a workshop in Public Law that focused on the Roberts Court. I got to know Jesse throughout the term as we selected the list of invitees and later attended the weekly talks, and so was able to experience first hand many of his noteworthy quirks. Not only does he drink white wine on the rocks, but he does so with such regularity that -- upon arriving at Saul's (our local Jewish deli) -- he need not say a word before a glass has already reached his table. I can also verify that he is a singularly happy figure -- on his daily strolls to the faculty lounge for coffee, I do not believe I've ever seen him without a smile on his face.

Since this was to be Jesse's last class, and since I had known him all of a few months, it would have been easy and understandable if I had faded into the woodwork of the thousands of students, staffers, and colleagues Jesse has worked with over his career. But that did not happen. Jesse took an immediate interest in my work and my career, offering to read and comment on drafts and put in calls whenever one of us spotted an open position. Perhaps more meaningful, he also asked me to read and comment on his work. Admittedly, this was quite intimidating, given that I was not even on the tenure-track and Jesse has literally 50x my experience in constitutional law. But it was also quite important to me. Many senior faculty members are aware of and cheerfully fulfill their obligation to comment on their junior colleague's work, but it doesn't always occur to them to run their own ideas past the juniors. Yet an important part of growing into this role and no longer seeing yourself as an impostor whose law school grades and mastery of big words duped a few people into giving you a faculty office is getting the sense that others value your opinion too. That Jesse Choper -- author of Constitutional Law: Cases, Comments & Questions and Judicial Review and the National Political Process -- wanted my opinion on his work was possibly the most important thing he could have done to make me feel like a true colleague.

Even having been here for barely over a year, it is difficult to imagine Berkeley without Mr. Boalt. There is a part of me that is very skeptical that we'll see much of a drop in Jesse's frequent strolls to the faculty lounge. But regardless of whether he's in the building or not, it is evident that his spirit has penetrated the law school deeply. I was privileged to have worked with him, I am privileged to know him, and I look forward to continuing as his colleague and friend well into the future.

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