In a breathtaking talk Friday afternoon, Guido Calabresi ’53 LAW ’58, a Yale Law School professor emeritus, former Law School dean and circuit court judge, spoke as part of Yale’s Tercentennial celebration in front of a large receptive crowd of alumni and students in Sprague Hall. As the keynote speaker in the “Leadership in the Courts” panel, Calabresi spoke for over an hour on the ethics of judging, sharing his experiences as a judge and as a clerk, and his views on the Supreme Court’s decision in the recent Bush v. Gore case.
At the outset, Calabresi told the audience, “I will show you, I think, what a judge can do and what a judge ought not to do.”
A self-described patriot to both the United States and Yale, Calabresi has spent 60 years involved in Yale’s life, having spent years here as an undergraduate and law student and returning to teach law. Since the event was a celebration of Yale’s Tercentennial, Calabresi described why he has as good a vantage point as any to view the University.
“[That’s] one-fifth of the life of Yale,” he said, referring to the tenure of his association with Yale.
Calabresi focused on the question of what to do as a judge when the law conflicts with one’s personal values. Calabresi said while the law dictates capital punishment in some instances, he personally does not believe it is ever right.
“What do I do,” Calabresi asked rhetorically, “when as a judge, I get a case of capital punishment before me?”
The answer, he said, can be one of three options. As a judge, one can accept the law and apply it mindlessly, resign out of principle or nullify the law, and instead substitute one’s own judgment as the guiding principle.
The best option, Calabresi said, is to struggle as a judge, continually searching for ways to work with the law to achieve the verdict that one believes is morally right. It is this struggle, he said, which keeps him pensive at night, working for those glorious moments when the law and the right coincide even in the most difficult cases.
“The essence of judging is waking up in the middle of the night and wrestling with a principle to try to justify what you believe is right,” he said.
Within the context of his ethical discussion of judging, Calabresi touched upon the recent Supreme Court ruling in Bush v. Gore, taking a harsh jab at what he felt was an unprincipled ruling.
“[The Supreme Court] said: ‘This case decides this situation and no other,'” said Calabresi. “An opinion that doesn’t stand for anything can only be criticized because it doesn’t stand for anything, and so it must be criticizable on those grounds.”
“I will be more principled than ever,” said Calabresi, in reaction to the ruling. “Otherwise it is a neverending spiral downward to the destruction of everything that judges stand for.”
Calabresi mixed humor with gravity during his speech.
“I tell people that you don’t put together a world class faculty on the basis of psychological stability,” Calabresi joked to laughter from the audience, about the tribulations he faced as Law School dean.
Calabresi, who told several stories, also humorously recounted his clerkship for former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, and imitated Black’s southern accent. Black, he said, called him Guy, “because he couldn’t pronounce Guido.”
“I submit to you that that is the art of judging,” he concluded, to a standing ovation of alumni and students.