Norman Dorsen, Frederick I. and Grace A. Stokes Professor of Law, received an honorary doctorate from the University of Buenos Aires School of Law on November 13 in recognition of a half-century career devoted to human rights, civil liberties, academic scholarship, government service, and leadership in numerous high-profile organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union.

Norman DorsenIn his commencement speech, “Seeking Civil Liberties,” Dorsen spoke about the nature of judicial review in the U.S., first explaining the notion of civil liberties and then laying out the complexities of judicial deference balanced against mutual checking of powers among the branches of government. He pointed out the challenge judges face in attempting to render impartial verdicts, and used three Supreme Court cases as examples: Perez v. Brownell (1958), in which a natural-born U.S. citizen had his citizenship revoked after voting in a Mexican election, decided while Dorsen was a Supreme Court clerk; Levy v. Louisiana (1968), a case in which a woman’s illegitimate children were deemed ineligible to recover money damages for their mother’s wrongful death because they were born out of wedlock, with Dorsen having argued the case on behalf of the offspring; and United States v. Alvarez (2012), a challenge to the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a crime when a man falsely claimed to have received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

“When a case cannot be disposed of easily, when the usual legal materials do not light a clear path, a judge must nevertheless decide, and such a decision is to some degree subjective,” said Dorsen. “Does that mean it is ‘political,’ ‘ideological,’ or a ‘personal preference’? Yes, to some degree. Judges must judge; they were put on the bench for that purpose. They all have core values—in other words, the place where ‘they came in.’ I do not mean to suggest that they are free of legal restraints. They have a duty to use the tools of the judging trade honestly and as far as they can go. In other words, the judicial creation or application of a civil liberty is part of ‘the law,’ but to get there or not often requires more than conventional legal analysis. Is this way of looking at the problem of judging good or bad? I suggest that it is neither; it seems to me merely to be inevitable.”

Dorsen is one of two NYU Law professors to receive an honorary law doctorate from the University of Buenos Aires in as many years. In 2011, Ronald Dworkin, Frank Henry Sommer Professor of Law, was also awarded a doctorate and delivered a lecture in Buenos Aires.

Posted on December 5, 2012