By Harriet P. Gross
Alan Dershowitz blew into Dallas for one evening at the end of April. He did not enter like Yankee Doodle “riding on a pony,” but he just as well might have because he evoked that kind of stir among the legal community gathered to hear what he had to say.
The event was offered by SMU as part of its Roy R. Ray Endowed Lecture Series, which is devoted to legal matters. This most recent was held at the Belo Mansion downtown, where the Dallas Bar Association is headquartered. Start time was set at 6 p.m. for the convenience of the many attorneys officing nearby.
I’m no lawyer; I went to hear whatever Dershowitz had to say, no matter the topic. My husband is; he wanted to hear what Dershowitz had to say on the evening’s topic: Constitutional Law and Interpretation. The program was billed as a dialogue on this subject between Dershowitz, distinguished Harvard Law School professor, and Lackland Bloom, Jr., a similarly distinguished professor in SMU’s Dedman School of Law.
The bios of both men as described in the program booklet were filled with distinguishment. (No such word, you say? Well, now would be a good time to make it up!). But Dershowitz, as the “visiting fireman,” rated significantly more ink.
A notable excerpt referred to his receiving the ADL’s William O. Douglas First Amendment Award back in 1983 for “compassionate eloquent leadership and persistent advocacy in the struggle for civil and human rights.”
Elie Wiesel made that presentation with these words: “If there had been a few people like Alan Dershowitz during the 1930s and 1940s, the history of European Jewry might have been different.”
There was also a bit of humor: Dershowitz “has been the subject of two New Yorker cartoons, a New York Times crossword puzzle and a Trivial Pursuit question. And a sandwich at Boston’s Fenway Park has been named after him — pastrami, of course.”
One of the first things Dershowitz did was tear apart that old saw about sticks and stones hurting one’s bones, but names — never. There’s plenty of hate speech about today that hurts many people plenty, he said; but with the “N-word” and a few others virtually already banished from the American English vocabulary, and with growing intolerance of vocal Holocaust deniers, there’s now enough common law to invite some real legislation.
Although he didn’t overemphasize either his Judaism or Israel, one of the main items Dershowitz hit home about was Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s attitude on matters of religion.
Reminding the audience that Scalia has said he would leave the Court if his vital Catholicism should come into serious conflict with a matter before it, Dershowitz spoke against him on a subject that has already been considered by the High Court: when, if ever, should a criminal’s death sentence, handed down after a fair jury trail, be reconsidered.
On this subject, Scalia had quoted St. Thomas Aquinas, who declared that it was not a sin to execute an innocent man if he had been found guilty through proper procedures; Dershowitz stressed that Aquinas said it was not a sin to execute a guilty man ONLY if it was not known at the time of execution that the man might be innocent. (Let’s pause at this juncture to remind ourselves that the word “catholic,” with a small initial “c,” means being all-inclusive, useful and fair to everyone…)
I do wish Dershowitz’s appearance here in Dallas had come a bit later than April 28. I would love to have heard him render in person his opinion of the May 5 Greece versus Galloway decision that will now allow sectarian prayers at public meetings — as long as such prayers don’t coerce participation from those in attendance who are not adherents to the faith of those who offer them. The Court’s vote was a tight 5-4, with Justice Scalia on the razor-thin majority side.