2014 Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching
Professor Gillian E. Metzger ’96, a leading expert on constitutional law, administrative law, and federalism, has been selected to receive the 2014 Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching by this year’s graduating class. Metzger, Columbia Law School’s Stanley H. Fuld Professor of Law, serves as vice dean for intellectual life and is the faculty director for the Law School’s Center for Constitutional Governance. Introductory remarks by Miguel A. Gradilla '14 and Metzger's acceptance remarks follow.
Introduction by Miguel A. Gradilla '14
Good afternoon fellow graduates, administrators, faculty, staff, family, and friends. My name is Miguel Gradilla, and today I have the pleasure and privilege of presenting the 2014 Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching to Professor Gillian Metzger.
The Class of 2014 is fortunate to have had many classes with Professor Metzger. If you’re like me, you’ve taken each one. After taking Constitutional Law, Administrative Law, Federal Courts, and Public Law Workshop with Professor Metzger, two things come to my mind. First, I think I can be forgiven for thinking admin law is the most important area of law, period. And second, Columbia should really award me a certificate in Public Law . . . according to Gillian Metzger. Dean Schizer, I’ll be expecting that some point today.
Now, you must be wondering one of two things. One, what on earth is he talking about? Or two, for the legally trained among you, that sounds like a really fun schedule of classes, right? Academic masochistic tendencies aside, I thoroughly enjoyed law school. The lasting bonds we forged amidst late nights, frustrations, challenges, and triumphs—all the messiness and opportunity—have been worth the struggle.
Yet, having the privilege of learning from Professor Metzger, or even standing here today, was not predestined for me. You see, I, like so many of my classmates, charted an unlikely path to Columbia Law. I proudly come from a working-class immigrant family. My parents, like so many, emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. with little more than elementary school educations, tremendous work ethics, and their dreams, and never looked back. So if you’ll allow me a personal moment, I’d like to say a few words to my parents:
Mamá, papá, gracias por todo lo que han hecho por mi, mi hermano, y hermanas. Todo lo que hemos logrado y lograremos en el futuro ha sido y será gracias a ustedes. Los quiero mucho mucho.
My family’s experience provides me with perspective, is a source of deep pride, and helped lead me to this day. However, I would not be fulfilling a lifelong dream today but for the many people in my life who have pushed me to fulfill my potential and grow into the person I am meant to become. At Columbia, Professor Metzger has been one of those people.
Like many, it took me some time to adjust to law school. Frankly, early on, I really doubted myself. Our first year did little to silence those doubts. Professor Metzger’s Constitutional Law class was no exception. I remember being immediately struck by her fierce intellect, challenging us, whether intentionally or not, to get on her level. I have distinct memories of searching online for the definitions to words she uses in order to follow along. In those early days, most of us carried a healthy dose of fear of being called on. One really never forgets those first cold calls. Luckily for me, in Con Law, that involved Youngstown. So if anyone needs a primer on executive power, just let me know.
Professor Metzger’s teaching challenges her students to engage deeply with the material, to master the doctrine, question its logic, consider its normative implications, contemplate how the doctrine could have otherwise progressed, and imagine what it might yet become.
Under her tutelage and with her unflagging support, I grew from a 1L with a vague understanding of public law into a graduate armed with a confident grasp of it, chomping at the bit to make my mark.
Not only does Professor Metzger impart her vast knowledge, she also models how to use it for the public good. Before coming to Columbia, she worked for the Brennan Center for Justice working on issues like felon disenfranchisement. Today, she continues to impact the real world as a public intellectual, as she did during the legal battle over the Affordable Care Act.
She is also the consummate mentor. Whether by working to increase faculty-student interaction—through, for example, reading groups and the “professors and popcorn” series—or by mentoring students seeking to chart a path to impactful careers, she invests in others’ success. And, I have it on good authority, that she does not limit her mentoring to students. Faculty members who have come to Columbia after her credit her with helping them adjust and thrive.
As if that were not enough, her influential scholarship is second to none.
In short, whether as a mentor, scholar, teacher, or publicly engaged intellectual, Professor Metzger is an example to us all. Having grown up here at Columbia, where her father was a professor of history for many years, and studied law within JG’s walls, Professor Metzger has come home to help train the next generation of leaders in the legal profession and beyond. And what a tremendous job she has done and will continue to do.
Professor Metzger, if you'll join me up here.
For this and so much more, we recognize you today. You are an invaluable asset to Columbia Law School, an institution you have and will continue to shape for the better. Professor Metzger, the Class of 2014 is truly indebted to you. We are equipped to engage with and impact a world in desperate need of repair because of what you have taught and modeled for us. May we learn from your example and find the courage to be able to live up to the promise that you have helped develop in us. We hope that this award can begin to thank you for all that you’ve done for this institution and for us.
Please join me in honoring Professor Gillian Metzger.
Remarks by Professor Gillian E. Metzger
Thank you, Miguel, and thank you to the Class of 2014 for awarding me the Reese Prize. I really cannot think of an award that means more to me.
And it is particularly wonderful to receive the Reese Prize from this amazing class. As Miguel mentioned, I have taught many of you in several courses over these last three years and I have taught a number of LL.M.s, as well. I have seen you grow from smart 1Ls just beginning your legal studies into the impressive young lawyers you have become. It has been a real privilege and a real pleasure to be part of that transformation.
Not surprisingly, therefore, my first thought was that I should spend my time today putting you all on call. It seemed a very appropriate commemoration—a few pointed questions on constitutional law, federal courts, some administrative law thrown in for good measure so you can show off to your families all that you know. So Miguel, since you raised. . . .
But then I decided that would be a step too far. And I have to confess, I envisioned the Above the Law headline that would result: “Professor tortures students with Socratic method at graduation.”
So instead, as a second best to cold calling, let me invoke Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Several years before he became a Supreme Court Justice, Holmes wrote an essay titled “The Path of the Law.” In it, Holmes famously described the law as no more than a prediction about what courts will do in response to a proposed course of action. As he put it, in typically unromantic Holmesian fashion: “If you want to know the law and nothing else, you must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge allows him to predict, not as a good one, who finds . . . reasons for conduct . . . in the vaguer sanctions of conscience.”
My hope is that you will ignore Holmes’ advice.
To be sure, predicting consequences is a critical part of being a good lawyer. The predictions lawyers make today are highly complex and encompass a wide array of actors—not just courts, but legislatures, administrative agencies, international bodies, associations, private parties, and the like.
That complexity makes good predictions harder, but all of you are well up to the job. You have tremendous ability to understand different legal regimes and dissect difficult legal puzzles. As important is your capacity for good judgment—your ability to zero in on what really matters and to be honest about your limits. And yes, good judgment requires clear-sightedness to recognize when the legal consequences you think should result are not the consequences that are likely to result.
Being a good lawyer, however, requires more than prediction. It also entails construction. Law is not just the rules regarding application of legal force that the Holmesian bad man seeks to know. Law is also the embodiment of our aspirations and our fundamental values—values such as the rejection of arbitrary rule, or a commitment to justice, fairness, and equality.
Your role as lawyers is not just to predict, but, even more, to construct the law. Indeed, Holmes himself—pronounced skeptic that he was—insisted that the law was not static and urged its improvement as a pressing task. As lawyers, that task of improving the law now falls to you.
In the immortal words of Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, often invoked by our own amazing Dean Magic: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Actually, these words can be traced back even further to a truly fitting source: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as Arjun mentioned, himself a product of Columbia Law School, who uttered them in a speech he was to give in April 1945, but never delivered because of his untimely death the day before.
World War II was drawing to a close and Roosevelt was looking to shape a new world order, but his words still ring true today. He wrote: “[W]e have learned in the agony of war that great power involves great responsibility. . . . [A]s we go forward toward the greatest contribution that any generation of human beings can make in this world, the contribution of lasting peace—I ask you to keep up your faith. . . . [T]o you . . . I say: The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today.”
As lawyers, and as Columbia Law School graduates, you have great power. You have the ability to wield the instruments of legal persuasion in service of those who lack such a voice. You have the intelligence, the skill, and the access to improve legal institutions and rectify the failures of the law.
In short, you have the capacity to achieve law’s promise, to be leaders in making the law better and more just. I hope you will feel a responsibility to play that role. To paraphrase Roosevelt, I ask you to have faith in, and a commitment to, the realization of law’s tomorrow.
In so doing, you will construct the path of the law for generations to come. You will also construct your own paths in the law.
I remember that when I was graduating from Columbia, a little shy of 20 years ago, the question that kept running through my head was “Now what?” At that point, I had spent a very long time as a student—my father used to joke that the only degree I had failed to get was a master’s in pharmacology.
I’m sure many of you can’t wait to leave the life of a student. But, for me, being a student had a lot of advantages. In particular, it was pretty clear what hoops you were expected to jump through, and you could avoid responsibility for tough life choices by claiming uncommitted status.
With the end of law school, the path forward became hazier and more fraught. There were lots of different hoops, and the choice about which ones to jump through—and about what kind of lawyer I was going to be—was up to me.
I expect that sense of uncertainty may be even greater today. Law and legal practice are changing, and preset paths are disappearing. Increasingly, your lives as lawyers will be self-built.
That can be a daunting prospect, but it is a tremendously exciting one, as well. And, having watched you grow over the last three years, I know—as do my colleagues behind me—that you are all supremely up to the challenge.
Thank you, again, for this marvelous prize. I hope you will stay in touch as you go forward so that we can be delighted and awed by the paths in and for the law that you build.
Congratulations to the Class of 2014!
1. Oliver Wendell Homes, The Path of the Law, 10 Harv. L. Rev. 457, 459 (1897)
2. Citation: Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Undelivered Address Prepared for Jefferson Day.," April 13, 1945. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=16602.