A ‘dream team’ rises at UCI’s law school

Times Staff Writer

After liberal constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky was hired, fired and then rehired as dean of the fledgling UC Irvine School of Law last year, some said the politically charged controversy meant Orange County had missed its shot at a nationally renowned law school.

At the time, university officials acknowledged that the hiring debacle, which erupted into a battle over academic freedom, could put such a blemish on the institution that it would be difficult to assemble a top-tier team of legal scholars.

But this month, Chemerinsky officially started as dean and proved many of those dire predictions wrong, announcing an 18-member “dream team” of founding faculty and administrators that observers in legal and higher education circles praised as an impressive lineup. The first class of 60 students is scheduled to start in fall 2009.


Chemerinsky, who left his post at Duke University to head the UC Irvine law school, is considered one of the nation’s foremost experts on constitutional law, though his left-leaning positions have drawn fire from conservatives.

The list of founding faculty was seen as an important milestone after UCI Chancellor Michael V. Drake’s decision in September to abruptly fire Chemerinsky as founding dean, only to offer him the job again five days later after a national outcry.

Chemerinsky contended that Drake bowed to pressure from conservatives and sacked him because of his outspoken liberal positions. Drake later admitted he “bungled” the appointment but denied outside influence.

The assortment of professors brought on staff has dispelled concerns that Chemerinsky’s hiring fracas would undermine the school’s ability to recruit top faculty, and to do so quickly, said Robert Pushaw, a politically conservative constitutional law professor at Pepperdine University.

“It’s very difficult to persuade top law professors to leave their schools to join an upstart operation, but he’s hired some very high-profile people,” Pushaw said. “I’m guessing there won’t be a whole lot of McCain bumper stickers in the parking lot there, but that’s true of academia in general.”

The incoming professors include specialists in intellectual property, labor, clinical education, civil rights and dispute resolution.


Among the well-known names are civil rights and education expert Rachel Moran from UC Berkeley, who is the incoming president of the Assn. of American Law Schools; Dan Burk, a cyber law and biotechnology expert from the University of Minnesota; Chemerinsky’s wife, Catherine Fisk, a noted Duke University labor law professor; and former Times reporter Henry Weinstein.

The university also named four administrators and four current UCI professors who will teach interdisciplinary courses.

“These choices are indicative of Erwin’s pledge to make this not the typical law school,” said John Eastman, dean of Chapman University’s law school.

Eastman, whose school is known for its conservative bent, said the lineup was “a bit eclectic” and overall appeared to be slightly left of center, with several well-known liberals but no staunch conservatives.

The qualifications of the hires, he said, were “par for the course in higher legal education.”

Chemerinsky, who taught at USC’s law school for 21 years before moving to Duke in 2004, has deliberately courted prominent right-wing thinkers for hire at UCI -- so far unsuccessfully -- said Elizabeth Loftus, a UCI psychology professor who will teach courses at the law school and has been involved in recruiting.


“He is not afraid to be in a place where there’s people who disagree,” she said. “He was working for Valerie Plame and I’m Scooter Libby’s expert witness, and we’re getting along.”

Chemerinsky said he went after a faculty with diverse political views but, more important, sought professors who were in the top of their field.

“It’s always been my goal that our law school will have no ideology. I don’t want to make a liberal law school or a conservative law school,” he said. “To the extent that conservatives had doubts about me, all I want is for them to give me a chance.”

The hires prompted tempered reactions from conservatives, who said the new staff did not appear to skew too heavily to the left.

Individual professors are bound to be less controversial than Chemerinsky, said Scott Baugh, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party, who took issue with the way the appointment was handled because Chemerinsky was “not vetted out properly” and because he was a “polarizing figure.”

“Very few people expect higher educational systems to be dominated by conservative lecturers, so there are no surprises here,” Baugh said.


In the weeks before Drake rescinded the offer to Chemerinsky, prominent conservatives, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich and former state Republican Party Chairman Michael Schroeder, one of Orange County’s most powerful GOP political players, sought to derail his appointment through e-mails and phone calls to the university.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George also criticized Chemerinsky’s grasp of death penalty appeals.

Judges and lawyers were among those who contacted UCI, questioning Chemerinsky’s fundraising abilities and whether he was a good fit for traditionally right-wing Orange County.

But when Chemerinsky’s ouster became public, most students, alumni, faculty and community members expressed outrage over Drake’s decision to fire the dean, calling it a violation of academic freedom.

Liberals said concerns about Chemerinsky being too divisive of a figure to amass a balanced, distinguished slate of professors have proved to be unfounded.

Pamela Karlan, a politically liberal law professor at Stanford University who serves on an advisory board to UCI law school, said the hires are best characterized by their interest in using law for public service.


“The people he has brought in are a fair cross section of top-tier legal academics, which means, of course, that they will tend to be moderate liberals,” she said. “But they’re not radicals.”

Tom Malcolm, a prominent Orange County attorney who helped orchestrate the deal to rehire Chemerinsky, said the county’s legal community has pushed aside the dispute in order to focus on the decades-long aspiration to open an esteemed law school, a goal of the Irvine campus since 1989.

“All of us are united to see that happen regardless of politics,” Malcolm said. Chemerinsky has “certainly vindicated all of the faith and confidence we’ve placed in him.”

Despite its rocky start, the school has several advantages: a high-profile dean; a $20-million donation from Newport Beach developer Donald Bren; and its association with the University of California, already home to two of the nation’s top 20 law schools -- Berkeley and UCLA.

The goal of officials is to see UC Irvine rise to the top 20 as soon as possible, and Chemerinsky said he will commit the next 10 years of his career to being dean.

A frequent commentator on constitutional law, Chemerinsky has argued in support of judicial review for detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; sat on a Los Angeles Police Commission panel that reviewed the department’s response to the Rampart Division corruption scandal; and most recently, in a Times op-ed piece criticized the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the Washington, D.C., handgun ban as conservative judicial activism.


He will not abandon that role, he said.

“I believe that all faculty have the obligation to be opinion leaders on the matter of law, and we have the duty to educate not just law students, lawyers and judges, but the public as well.”