IN MEMORIUM: PROFESSOR RONALD DWORKIN

Dworkin

Professor Ronald Dworkin passed away on February 14, 2013 after battling with leukemia. His admirers reckon him to be perhaps the most important legal philosopher of his generation. The pre-eminence of a scholar is not inferred from the frequency of right answers (ironically) but from the influence s/he has had on the discourse. In that sense, in my view, he ought to occupy the pantheon. I would hesitate to include the impact on readers as a criterion here inasmuch as what is not covered of it in the previous criterion would be too subjective and diverse to be stated generally. I can only present my case here.

Having had only a little idea of law before joining NALSAR, I was actually scared of the term ‘jurisprudence’ when I first saw it in the Prospectus. Frankly, the name intimidated me. I must confess that I never was an avid reader and only began to take some interest in reading when I was in the second year of law school. When I gave law school entrance exams, I said that the only positive outcome of my failure in these exams would be that I would not have to study jurisprudence! Anyways, I cleared the exam and started with my undergrad legal education. I liked reading sociology. Professor Kannabiran was superb. I scored well in that and this gave me some confidence. I scored well in Law and Poverty surprise test and that gave me a big boost. That was my first course with Professor Dhanda, who was and still is inspirational. The second year got over and third year came knocking and came with it ‘Jurisprudence’. I wasn’t as scared as I was two years before but deep inside, I still found the name intimidating. Jurisprudence. I reassured myself that this too shall pass like previous courses. I liked the course, got a fair idea of various major schools in jurisprudence, read my readings diligently, did a decent project, wrote well in exam got a good grade and I was happy. Next, semester we had Jurisprudence II. I was looking forward to this course. This was supposed to be primarily about legal capacity and rights jurisprudence. We got our reading modules. I read all of it, relished most of it, but one reading stuck with me. I read it once to understand and make notes. I read it again, now to only soak its beauty. It was magnificent yet meticulous. I highlighted some paragraphs and went to my friends saying: “Wow! What a passage, what a line, what expression! Isn’t this brilliant?” I read it again before going to bed. Didn’t Keats say “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: Its loveliness increases; it will never/Pass into nothingness; but still will keep/A bower quiet for us, and a sleep/Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

A transformation was taking place. I realized that Jurisprudence as not merely a course but a way of life, potentially a religion. This reading was a chapter entitled Taking Rights Seriously from Dworkin’s first book Taking Rights Seriously. I procured a copy from the library and started reading it. I read Hard CasesModel of Rules I & II, and so on. By the end of this semester, two things became clear to me. First, I shall make a career in academia. Second, I shall study Jurisprudence in post-graduation. Quite a transformation indeed!

Next semester, new course ‘Judicial Process and Interpretation of Statutes’ fixed a meeting with Hercules J. and now I was reading Dworkin’s masterpiece, ‘Law’s Empire’. ‘Law as Integrity’ seemed to me an art of making things possible. Dworkin expertly defended his thesis against the towering forces of the day, legal positivism and legal realism. You may not agree with him. I do not for one agree entirely. But when has beauty been an artifice of perfection?

I filled up the LL.M. forms of reputed universities and could only get through NYU. This was a big moment because my idol Professor Dworkin taught there. But this was only half the battle. To get oneself enrolled with Dworkin’s seminar, one needs to fill up a separate personal statement, which he reads to select eligible students for his seminar. My application got rejected. I was distraught. I went to New York nonetheless, saying to myself, in a typically ‘sour-grapes’ fashion: “In a way it is good that I don’t have this 5-credit seminar, I can study two courses in the bargain. And then his colloquium is open for public where the presenter presents her paper, so I would attend that and what I lose is only his classes where he would discuss these papers with the students.”

I reached Mercer Residence, opened my computer and checked the seats available in different courses. Dworkin’s seminar showed ‘7 available’. I wrote an e-mail to his assistant, Lavinia Barbu inquiring whether in light of this fact, could I still bid for the course? She replied:

“Hi Ajey,

I am really sorry. All seats are taken.  Students from the philosophy department and other NYU departments do not register through ABRA so you cannot see all of them. As I said before a lot of candidates were qualified and it was a particularly difficult selection choice this year.

Best regards,

Lavinia Barbu”

I wrote a mail back to her requesting whether I could have only a brief appointment with Professor Dworkin since I have been his admirer for most part my law school life in India and I would just like to meet him once. I promised that this would be a brief meeting and would not be about the seminar. She replied that he was quite busy and she could fix my appointment only later in the semester. That ended there.

Classes began. On Thursday, 4 PM to 6 PM I was at the Lester Pollock Center attended the colloquium’s public meeting, to catch a glimpse of him and see him speak. The colloquium got over. I came back to my residence. Routinely, I opened my laptop to check for mails. It had a mail from Lavinia. With my heart filled with anticipation, I opened it. It said:

“Hi Ajey,

One student has dropped out today, and Professor Dworkin would like to admit you to his class.

Today ends the add/drop class.

Let me know if you are still interested and I will work this out with the academic services.

I will be in Lester Pollock for most of the Colloquium this afternoon.

Best,

Lavinia”

And this was my Archimedes moment. I ran all the way from Mercer Residence to Furman Hall (Law School Building, about 500 metres away). Since, I had been at the Colloquium whole of afternoon, I must not miss her. I flung past the door, the guards called me, asked for my I-card. I did not have that. The lady was sweet asked me for my name and matched it with the records, allowed me in, and asked who I was looking for. Gasping for breath, I told her the story. She said: “Relax”. She informed me that Lavinia had left. I asked her if she could tell me where Professor Dworkin’s office was. It was VH 413F. I walked across the road, reached Vanderbilt Hall, climbed four floors up, took some turns and found his room. There was his name plate. “Should I knock the door?” I asked myself. “No, no. He must be busy.” I walked back a few paces, when I turned again towards his office. “Should I knock the door?” I asked myself, again. “Naah. He would be busy. It would be improper to disturb him.” I walked back. “Should I click a photograph of that door, of that name plate?” I did not do that. I think, wisely.

I met Lavinia the next day. The administrative issues were sorted out. I dropped two courses and added the Seminar on Legal, Political and Social Philosophy instead. Next week, Wednesday, I sat with other students of the course and in came gingerly (he had hurt his right foot), Professor Ronald Dworkin. “Was it for real?” I think I would have pinched myself once to come to terms with it! That moment, I thanked God, my Parents, my teachers and friends, all at once. The point of preparing for post-graduation in law, doing LL.M. in Legal Theory at NYU, borrowing big fat loans for that, using up my parents’ years of savings, travelling for the first time out of India, living meal after meal and day after day on falafel, seemed to have got fulfilled. I read Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist once and I remembered: “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” The discussion got underway and for 10 minutes, I had no idea who was speaking what. I was too awestruck. From next class onwards, I used to sit on the chair next to him. We would exchange smiles before the discussion would begin and end the class in the same fashion. But I began to participate actively, henceforth.

I made some decent points too. I vividly remember our seminar discussion when we were discussing Professor Lewis Kornhauser’s paper. It argued that ‘law as integrity’ when analysed in light of real life institutional constraints, it was neither feasible nor desirable. Towards the end of the discussion after demolishing that argument and explaining ‘law as integrity’ himself, Dworkin asked if there is anything that may still support the argument of the paper. I replied, “Perhaps, the existence of de minimus rule.” He said, “This is interesting. Let’s discuss de minimus.” He devoted 10 minutes of discussion time on that day. After that, he said, looking at me, “I think I will suggest it to Lewis tomorrow that his paper would be strengthened if he discusses the de minimus rule.” Could there be a bigger reward than this? For me – there is none. I came out of the room with a feeling unsurpassed.

At some later point in the semester, I requested him for an appointment. He granted me one. I met him in his office. He sat beside me on his sofa. I tried explaining him what sitting in his class meant to me. I said all that looking straight at the wall and when I turned my face towards him, he smiled and said warmly, “Thank you. I am grateful.” I had also bought a copy of his last book “Justice for Hedgehogs“, the final spell of the magician where he lays all his tricks out with majesty and mastery. I took the book out and requested him to sign it for me. He did it, gleefully. This book will remain my prized possession.

Professor Dworkin did not take the seminar the following year. I cannot believe that we were the final batch of students, he offered his seminar. While in a small corner of my heart, I consider myself lucky and eternally thankful to my parents and Almighty. Simultaneously, however, the light began to fade, a nauseating stillness ensued. I pressed one hand against my forehead. My eyes were wide open. I do not know for what because I wasn’t seeing anything. I stood motionless and grief enveloped me. I will miss him. He was a generous teacher. He allowed me to make points that in comparison with some others seemed juvenile. Yet, they got ‘equal concern and respect.’ A motto he coined – A philosophy he lived and stood by.

Interestingly, his last work was entitled “Religion without God“. I can imagine him having a passionate discussion about it with the Gods in heaven (though I think he was an atheist), exhorting them to make sense of things and show the right answer to all those derailed souls who made a complete bloody mess of this solemn quest.

That completes the Pantheon. RIP Professor Ronald Dworkin.

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