Stanford Law heckling signals latest trouble for legal profession: ‘Institutional rot’

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Stanford, California, USA – March 17, 2019: Aerial view of Stanford University in Stanford California. Stanford is a private university founded in 1885 by Leland and Jane Stanford. JasonDoiy/Getty Images
Jeremiah Poff

March 19, 07:00 AM March 19, 07:01 AM

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The shout-down of a Trump-appointed federal judge as he was set to deliver a lecture at Stanford Law School has raised fresh concerns about the caliber of lawyers graduating from the nation’s top law schools.

Last week, a group of students and Tirian Steinbach, the Stanford Law School dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion, heckled 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kyle Duncan as he was supposed to deliver a lecture on the judiciary’s approach to COVID-19 restrictions and gun laws.


The incident is the latest in a string of high-profile protests at law schools. In 2022, students at Yale Law School heckled and disrupted a panel discussion featuring Kristen Waggoner of the Alliance Defending Freedom. In response, at least two federal judges, James Ho and Elizabeth Branch, vowed to shut out Yale graduates from clerkships.

For Gabriel Nadales, the national director of Our America and a former antifa activist, the incident at Stanford Law School proved to be par for the course for academia in 2023.

“The fact that a federal judge, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, was shouted down by [an] administrator [and students], it just shows you how hostile academia has become to free inquiry and the pursuit of truth,” Nadales told the Washington Examiner.

Nadales said DEI departments like the one led by Steinbach “stand strongly in opposition to freedom of expression [and] freedom of inquiry” and that her presence and participation in the disruption of Duncan’s lecture “just shows you the status of academia.”

The behavior of Steinbach, who was seen on video berating Duncan for his judicial opinions, has prompted calls for the law school to fire her.

On Tuesday, the campus free speech watchdog group Speech First launched a petition that called on the law school to dismiss Steinbach. Cherise Trump, the executive director of the group and who bears no relation to former President Donald Trump, blasted Stanford, saying, “This is not a campus that stands for free expression.”

“If there is one thing that is abundantly clear about Stanford University, it’s that they have a very skewed understanding of what ‘free expression’ actually means and they impart this skewed understanding onto their students,” Cherise Trump said in a statement. “Stanford suffers from institutional rot that starts with its administrators; personnel is policy. And if Stanford Law School has any intention of rising back to a level of prestige, the first step is to fire Dean Steinbach.”

Jenny Martinez, the dean of the law school, apologized to Duncan for the disruption two days after the incident, but her apology was met with more anger from the school’s students, who staged a protest in her classroom on Monday.

The inability of the students to show respect and decorum toward a federal judge worried Stephen Raiola, a Pittsburgh-based attorney, who said if the students could not listen to a lecture by the judge, they would be hard-pressed to represent their future clients effectively.

“[These students] might one day go represent a client in front of that judge that [they] were calling names and now has negative associations with [them],” Raiola said. “That’s not something I’ve seen before, just a total absence of decorum in front of a decision-maker.”

The “absence of decorum” prompted Trump-appointed judges Ho and Branch to publish a joint op-ed this week that accused law schools of “failing in their basic mission to teach students how to become good citizens — let alone good lawyers” and contended that graduates from such schools could be shut out of clerkships and other professional opportunities.

“More and more employers may start to reach the same conclusion that we did last fall — that we have no choice but to stop hiring from these schools in the future,” Ho and Branch wrote. “At the end of the day, that may be the only way to send a message that will resonate with law schools — judges and other employers imposing consequences on law schools who refuse to impose consequences on their own. No one is required to hire students who aren’t taught to live under the rule of law.”

Raiola, who graduated from Georgetown’s law school in 2015, said the legal profession is becoming increasingly siloed into echo chambers, and the incident at Stanford only further exemplified the “troubling” trend.

Georgetown Law has had its own recent snags with freedom of speech. Last year, the school suspended newly hired professor Ilya Shapiro for a tweet critical of President Joe Biden’s pledge to nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court. Shapiro was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing but resigned his post without ever teaching a class.

Earlier this month, students at the law school published an open letter condemning the Federalist Society for hosting Erin Hawley, the wife of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom.

“You’re seeing a fracturing where now a lot of conservative lawyers go to particular firms,” Raiola explained, “and a lot of lawyers that identify with another political party will go to an entirely different firm. You’re seeing, at a broader level, this fracturing of the legal profession into echo chambers.”

Raiola explained that a good lawyer will study a judge’s opinions and thinking in order to craft legal arguments that would appeal to that judge’s legal philosophy, so by refusing to listen to a judge like Duncan, law students are doing themselves a disservice.

“It’s a totally fine reaction as an individual to say, ‘I don’t like how a composition of a court has changed, the decisions that they’re issuing are, I think wrong or different with my value system,’ you can feel that way,” Raiola said. “But your role as a lawyer is to put those personal feelings aside and accept that that is what the court is doing and how do I make the best argument for my client.”

“The culture of a lot of these law schools right now are so slanted in one way of thinking that it fosters this way of discourse of ‘Let’s dismiss these cases because the people who are writing them don’t have any principles behind them and they’re not good,’” Raiola added. “It’s troubling.”

© 2023 Washington Examiner

Stanford Law heckling signals latest trouble for legal profession: ‘Institutional rot’

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