Flinn Scholars meet former dean of Stanford Law

December 21, 2005

By hammersmith

Flinn Scholars discussed legal issues over lunch Nov. 19 with Kathleen Sullivan, a law professor and former dean of Stanford Law School.

“It’s a real privilege and treat for me to be with the Flinn Scholars,” Sullivan said at the opening of the luncheon, the last event on her calendar as Arizona State University’s 2005 Centennial Lecturer.

A 1985 endowment from the Flinn Foundation established the lecture series, which brings a noted speaker to ASU’s Tempe campus each fall to give a public lecture and interact with students.

Sullivan began by telling the Scholars that the Watergate scandal, which had demonstrated the importance and value of the rule of law, sparked her interest in constitutional law. She said that she originally intended to practice, but not to teach, the subject.

“Little did I know, life is full of serendipity,” she said.

After she worked with professor Larry Tribe, one of the foremost constitutional law experts in the nation, he offered her a job at Harvard Law School. She taught at Harvard for nine years before joining the faculty of Stanford Law School, where she served as dean from 1999 to 2004. Since leaving her post as dean, Sullivan has continued to practice law.

She spoke with the Flinn Scholars just 10 days before arguing a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Sullivan represented a California ink manufacturer in an antitrust case(Illinois Tool Works v. Independent Ink)that involved law outside of her usual area of emphasis.

“I do need to study a lot over the next two weeks,” Sullivan told the scholars.

She said arguing a case before the Supreme Court involves “the highest level of intellectual rigor” and said the present-day court “may well be the best court we’ve ever had.”

Anne Roethel (’04) asked Sullivan how important she considered an extensive judicial background for Supreme Court nominees.

Sullivan said a nominee without a long judicial history may bring to the court “knowledge from the crucible of experience.”

“I think someone who has been an attorney general and seen his own zealousness for executive power might be in a better position to limit executive power,” she said.

In October, then-nominee Harriet Miers faced criticism for her lack of experience as a judge.

“We think of everyone on the Supreme Court now as professional judges but that’s not typical in our history,” Sullivan said. “Brown v. Board of Education [the 1954 decision that outlawed racially segregated public schools] was decided unanimously by a court with no former judges on it.”

When Kirsten Pickering (’05) asked about the questioning nominees face during confirmation hearings, Sullivan said questions should probe a nominee’s judicial philosophy as opposed to his or her personal beliefs.

Sullivan also said she considers judges “heroes” when they put aside their own personal feelings to rule on a case.

“I think that the moments in the law that most move me are when a judge makes a decision that’s against his or her own personal feelings because it’s essential to the rule of law,” she said.

The students and Sullivan also discussed the USA Patriot Act, states’ rights, wiretap laws, and the legal issues facing a Web site that asks users to rate pictures of women photographed on an ASU campus walkway.

Even the interruption of a ringing cell phone led to a discussion of law. The ringing phone belonged to Sullivan, who quickly said she has had trouble mastering the new technology. After the phone was silenced, Sullivan referenced a court decision that outlawed sending obscene material over the Internet if the material would be accessible to minors.

“Well, I thought, ‘Most stuff [on] the Internet is only accessible to people under 18,'” she quipped.

A few days before sitting down with the Flinn Scholars, Sullivan delivered the Flinn Foundation Centennial Lecture, “Civil Liberties in a Time of National Crisis,” at ASU’s Gammage Auditorium. ASU Flinn Scholars showed up to the free lecture in full force.