Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

R.I.P., Charles Reich, Justice Alito’s Con Law Prof

The Washington Post’s obituary of onetime Yale law professor, and 1960s counterculture guru, Charles Reich reminded me that Reich was assigned to teach Samuel Alito constitutional law at Yale. Not that he actually did. It would seem that Reich was eager to put the con in con law.

Here’s Alito’s memorable account (from an interview with Bill Kristol):

My Constitutional Law course was taught by someone you may, whose name you may remember, most people today may not remember, Charles Reich….

By the time, he taught me he was experiencing, I think, some personal turmoil and it was a most bizarre course…. I had him for Constitutional Law, and I kept notes of any Supreme Court or any other case that was even mentioned during the course of the term, and at the end of the term, there was exactly one that had been mentioned….

[H]e began by saying that his thesis was there were no livable lives to be lived in the law. That was his phrase. So he went around the room and he’d say, “Why did you come to law school?” And in those days nobody would say, “I came to law school because I want to become a partner at a Wall Street firm and make a million dollars,” so everyone would say, “I came to law school because I think it’s a way of achieving social reform or helping society” or something like that. And then he would engage in a long debate with each student to try to prove that this was not a good reason for going to law school. Basically, he was telling us you really shouldn’t be here. And this went on for weeks. And then he went on to other subjects. That was my ConLaw course.

The professor who taught the big section that term on Constitutional Law was somebody who wasn’t that well-known at the time, Robert Bork. And I went to – as soon as I saw that I had been assigned to Charlie Reich’s class – I had read The Greening of America, and I really was not interested in being in this class. I went to the Assistant Dean and said, “Can’t you possibly switch me so I can be in the regular Constitutional Law class?” Never in the history of Yale Law School has anyone ever switched a class….

I was consigned to this experience. It was bizarre, and he told us that he could never tell when he would have to go to San Francisco, but he always had a ticket to San Francisco in his desk and at some point in his term, it was possible that there would be a note on the bulletin board that he had gone to San Francisco and the course would then be over. And I came back to school after Thanksgiving and I looked at the bulletin board and there was a note that said, “I’ve gone to San Francisco, that’s the end of classes.” And that was the end of the classes.


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