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Annual Survey Honors Dworkin

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Some were friends and colleagues; others were intellectual adversaries of one of the most noteworthy and frequently cited legal philosophers of the past century. All came together to honor Ronald Dworkin when the 63rd volume of the Annual Survey of American Law was dedicated to him on April 17. With this award for his exceptional role in the study and practice of law in the United States, Dworkin, the Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law, joins the ranks of honorees such as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (2005), Judge Richard Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (2004), Attorney General Janet Reno (1998) and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (1983).

During the dedication ceremony, hosted by Annual Survey editor-in-chief Malachi Boyuls ’06, Dworkin’s colleagues—University Professor Thomas Nagel; Judge Posner; Professor Lawrence Sager, who has since become dean of the University of Texas School of Law; Professor Thomas Scanlon of Harvard University; Lord Hoffmann of the House of Lords; Robert B. Silvers, coeditor of the New York Review of Books; and then-Columbia, now-NYU University Professor Jeremy Waldron—reminisced about “Ronnie’s” long and illustrious career. The portrait that emerged was of a man as intellectually relentless as he is charming. “He is a person single-handedly swimming against the tide to keep up and raise the standards of our collective political life,” commented Scanlon.

Jeremy Waldron, Thomas Nagel, and Richard PosnerOne of the ways Dworkin, who is also the Jeremy Bentham Professor of Law and Philosophy at University College in London, has challenged the intellectual community is by creating the ground-breaking Colloquium in Legal, Political and Social Philosophy, which he has run since 1987 with Nagel. Sager described it as a rare, sometimes masochistic opportunity for scholarly assistance. He recalled one academic who, after a take-no-prisoners analysis, responded to the colloquium’s attentions by turning his back and crouching in a fetal position. “Ronald has a dogged insistence to get to the bottom of things,” Nagel said. “His is a ruthlessness of ideas.”

There has been pain, but also gain. “I believe that everything that I have written bears the improving mark of those rigorous sessions, and if there is an ounce of egalitarian good sense in my book on property and my subsequent writings, it is Ronald Dworkin’s responsibility,” says Dworkin’s former student Waldron, a frequent colloquium visitor, who will coteach the series this year, his first as an NYU professor.

For his part, Nagel confessed that he learned something new about Dworkin when he read the Law School cover story about his old friend last fall. After his federal appeals court clerkship with Judge Learned Hand, Dworkin opted to work for Sullivan & Cromwell rather than clerk for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Nagel imagined an alternate reality, in which Dworkin had pursued a different path. “I’d like to thank Sullivan & Cromwell,” said Nagel, getting a big laugh, “for enriching our philosophical lives and for giving me the friend and colleague with whom it has been such a joy to work.”

Hoffmann was equally appreciative of Dworkin’s contributions. He described how Law’s Empire (Harvard University Press, 1986), Dworkin’s masterwork on the judgment of particularly difficult cases, “offered the best explanation for what I was trying to do.” Dworkin’s latest book, Justice in Robes, breaks new ground and deals with the balance between judges’ personal morality and their legal reasoning.

Silvers, Dworkin’s longtime editor at the New York Review of Books, needed only to list some of the most impressive of Dworkin’s 57 articles—“The Jurisprudence of Nixon,” “Women and Pornography” and “The Threat to Patriotism”—from the past 38 years to show how the works provide a “skeletal history of the times.”

The audience chuckled when Posner, whose relationship with Dworkin has been characterized by what he called “antagonism and antipathy,” said, “To be an invited skunk at a garden party is an unusual experience; one that argues generosity on Professor Dworkin’s part, or perhaps a spirit of mischief on the part of the editors.”

“The editors have shown great wisdom in choosing Dworkin,” noted Dean Richard Revesz. “I was so pleased when they asked, ‘Do you think this would be okay?’ I thought, this is more than just okay, this is great!”