I began law school in the fall of 1977 at UMKC. At that time, the law school was at 52nd and Rockhill Road. It was an antiquated building, but I have many good memories of that old building.
In the first year of law school, we had a class in constitutional law. Our professor was a Harvard graduate, Robert Popper. It was my first exposure to liberalism as Professor Popper wore his liberal tag proudly. He was an outstanding teacher and was well-liked by everyone in the class.
In my section were many conservatives. One is now teaching law school at Liberty University and was appointed to the appeals court in Kansas City by Gov. John Ashcroft. Paul Spinden was probably my best friend in law school although I still have many friends today from my years at the school. Paul was open-minded and was an outstanding appellate judge. We roomed together at the Ramada Inn in Jefferson City when we took the bar exam in February 1980. He was the one who called me to tell me I passed the bar exam.
My last argument in the appeals court was in front of him and two other judges. I was trying to change the law on the issue before the court, and he grilled me like Professor Popper would have done in law school. He was smiling as he did it, and I did not take it personally. He ruled in my favor ultimately, which of course was the right thing to do.
If you ever watched the movie “Paper Chase,” John Houseman’s character, Professor Kingsfield at Harvard, was notorious for his use of the Socratic method. It is a form of argumentative dialogue between the teacher and students, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions. It is the classic method used to teach us how to “think like a lawyer.”
At one moment in the movie, he commanded a student to come to the front of the class after he failed to provide adequate answers to the professor’s questions, and Kingsfield handed him a dime and told him to go call his mother and tell her that there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer. Professor Popper was not that harsh, but we learned constitutional law from him through the Socratic method. He was certainly one of my favorite teachers.
When we were studying constitutional law, we became familiar with another Harvard professor, Laurence Tribe. Professor Tribe began teaching at Harvard when he was 27 years old in 1968 after serving as a clerk in the United States Supreme Court. Among his students were President Barack Obama, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Elena Kagan and Senator Ted Cruz. In 1978, he published one of the core texts on constitutional law, “American Constitutional Law.” He has argued over 30 cases before the United States Supreme Court.
Although he is no longer teaching at Harvard, he is still very active at 78 years of age. He has been a harsh critic of President Trump and is involved in many of the legal challenges that have been filed challenging the president’s authority. President Trump has declared war on Twitter after publishing a controversial tweet and Professor Tribe wrote an op ed recently in the Washington Post educating the president of the First Amendment. He recently submitted a brief to the court on the pending issue involving Michael Flynn’s attempt to reverse his guilty plea for lying about his communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition.
Professor Tribe tweets almost as much as the president does. I follow him on Twitter as he is clearly one of the premier constitutional law scholars in American history. He has written over 100 books and articles. He is one of the founders of the American Constitutional Society, a law and policy organization started to counter the conservative Federalist Society. Although he is often criticized for his liberal positions, he is widely respected for his intellect. He helped write the constitutions of South Africa and the Czech Republic.
Professor Popper was a fan of Professor Tribe and we knew who he was. Professor Popper was one of two Ivy League professors on the UMKC law faculty, and we were blessed to have him as a teacher.
There are many important constitutional issues yet to be decided. I suspect many voted for President Trump in the last election because of their desire to reverse Roe v. Wade, or at least greatly restrict the right to abortion. It will be interesting to watch the court in the coming years. Undoubtedly, Professor Tribe will continue to tweet and advocate against changing longstanding precedents. He has had a profound influence on the law during my entire career. I suspect his work is not finished.
Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence, www.wagblaw.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.