Defending Democracy Requires a Collaborative Spirit

 By Mark C. Alexander, AALS President and Dean, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law

As my AALS presidency nears its conclusion, I have been reflecting on the theme I selected for this honor and opportunity: Defending Democracy. As a constitutional law and election law scholar, democracy and the rule of law have guided my career. While this is a year-long theme for the AALS, the call to defend our democracy has been central to my thinking for quite some time. It has motivated my work from my earliest days through the present. At the same time, there is an urgency of now given the January 6, 2021 Insurrection on the U.S. Capitol. 

Mark Alexander speaking to a group outside of a building

In response to that event, I joined with 14 other law school deans to co-author Beyond Imagination. The book explores, from a legal perspective, what led us to the events of January 6 and how we might move forward as a nation. Purposefully, the book was released on January 6, 2022—the first anniversary of that terrible day in our history.

Fast forward one year to January 2023: many of you were present when I gave my speech as the incoming AALS President. I asked all of us to think about how we can defend democracy, because we as legal educators have a greater role to play in ensuring the foundational tenets and norms of a civil democracy. When we raise our collective voice, leaders listen, media listen, and so do our students and our universities. 

Of the entire U.S. population, less than one-half of one percent are lawyers. And yet, our outsized influence touches nearly every aspect of government, the economy and society. Lawyers have shaped and will continue to shape our democracy. We as educators of lawyers have a distinct responsibility to this country in ensuring that our democracy endures. 

I encouraged you all to think about this work in your schools with three fundamental pillars in mind: curriculum, scholarship, and culture. Collectively, we are teaching the courses, writing the scholarship, and shaping the cultures that shape legal education and, therefore, lawyers. 

There are many recent examples as to why this work matters, such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent historic decisions on affirmative action in higher education. Also, we are still working through the legal ramifications of last year’s historic Dobbs decision. Further, we cannot ignore that we have seen several government officials, present and past—including a former president—indicted on serious charges that implicate our democracy. At times, it seems we are continuously crossing uncharted waters—and it can be daunting.

Yet, throughout the past year, I have been encouraged by the ways we—as the AALS—have taken defending democracy to heart. I am proud to say that we have done a lot. For example, last month, I participated in the “Power of Speech: Creating Environments in Which Free Speech Civil Discourse Thrive” symposium, hosted in collaboration with the AALS Section on Leadership (chaired by April Barton, Dean of the Thomas R. Kline School of Law of Duquesne University) and Baylor Law Review

In July, I was pleased to join Erwin Chemerinsky (AALS Immediate Past President and Dean of University of California, Berkeley School of Law) and others at the AALS Conference on Affirmative Action as we discussed, in real time, the implications of the SCOTUS decision that had been handed down days prior. We were not there to debate the merits of those decisions. We were there to discuss the meaning of the decisions and the ramifications for us, as legal educators—whether or not we agree with the Court’s analysis. We are committed to the rule of law. Compliance matters. It is up to us to continue moving forward, together. We owe that to each other, to the world of legal education, to our country. 

Of course, we also owe this collaborative spirit to our students. They are living through challenging, difficult times in the law while they are simultaneously learning about the law, our legal norms and institutions. Part of our work as legal educators is acknowledging these shifts and reminding our students that it is part of the process, even if unsettling and unstable. 

I want to share an example from my own experience as a dean that has stayed with me. I was in my office on campus on the day last summer that the Court decided Dobbs. Given that it was summer, the building was fairly quiet, but many recent graduates were studying for the bar. You know the scene, heads down, surrounded by books and papers. As I made my way out of the building for the evening, I encountered two young women—newly-minted Villanova Law alumnae—who studied for the bar in the law library every day. On a normal day, I would typically just wish them luck with their studies. On this day, I paused and asked how they were doing. They said were quite upset by the news about Dobbs. It was apparent on their faces as well. While I could not change that news or their feelings, I could (and did) tell them this:

“If my faculty and I have done our jobs right, then we have trained you to advocate. We have trained you how to present a different point of view and propose new ideas. We have trained you to be a part of this great system of laws in our country. If you do not agree with a law or a decision, you have the ability to help create a different path. That is important work.”

And I believe that in some way, this conversation helped them reframe the events of that day, even slightly. To understand that as lawyers, they are uniquely well-positioned to act.

I have always cherished that we train our students to be the change they want to see in the world. I know that as law professors, scholars, and human beings, we do not all take the same positions on these types of major decisions. But we work collaboratively to make our profession stronger and to equip our students to fight for what matters to them. I believe this is our greatest contribution as lawyers who have chosen to serve as legal educators. We do not know where our students will go or what they will accomplish after they graduate. Whatever their perspectives, and whatever the issue, I am proud that we in legal academia help prepare our students to be engaged in our democracy in important ways.

As we approach January 2024, I am excited to gather with you in Washington, D.C.—my hometown and the center of our nation’s democracy. I know that many of our colleagues and the dedicated staff at AALS have been hard at work to plan another imaginative, interesting, and insightful program. I look forward to our discussions as we continue to define our role in defending democracy. See you there.