Legal luminaries honor Norman Dorsen at memorial celebration

The depth of the legacy left by Norman Dorsen, the late Frederick I. and Grace A. Stokes Professor of Law and, until his death in July, co-director of the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program, was evident at a September 18 memorial celebration held at the Law School in his honor. Nine leading figures in the law appeared in person—and others spoke via video—to eulogize the civil liberties champion who devoted his entire 56-year academic career to NYU Law even while serving numerous other organizations, including as both general counsel and president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“We can, even with the wonderful array of speakers that you’ll hear from tonight, really only gesture in the direction of Norman’s influence across decades here at this law school, in American law and life more broadly, and internationally as well,” said Dean Trevor Morrison in his introductory remarks.

John Sexton, a former NYU Law dean and past president of NYU, recalled Dorsen’s close friendship and continuous counsel over more than three decades. “Early in life, Norman chose the instrument of law for his formidable talent,” said Sexton. “He threw himself into using it to shape society. Along the way he inspired personally literally thousands of us deep in the core of our beings, creating an army of disciples that will carry his life’s work and his values forward and pass them on to others.”

One such disciple, Professor Nadine Strossen of New York Law School, was Dorsen’s immediate successor as president of the ACLU. “He mentored so many women at a time when that was extremely rare,” Strossen observed.

The ACLU’s current executive director, Anthony Romero, also weighed in during the memorial celebration regarding Dorsen’s crucial role in the ACLU’s history. “An optimist, an idealist often hidden behind a skeptic’s cloak, Norman believed in the power of change,” said Romero. “And while he may have said that there cannot be certainty about the constitutional course of the country, he was certain about the role of the ACLU and the other institutions he helped build.”

A third ACLU connection, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appeared by video to offer her own tribute: “He was instrumental in making NYU Law School the great institution it is, attracting students and faculty who care about the public good. The works of his fine hand and his tenacity in advancing our nation’s highest values will continue to guide and inspire generations of jurists, lawyers, and law students.”

Fellow faculty member Sylvia Law ’68, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law, Medicine and Psychiatry, whom Dorsen once taught, considered his generosity toward his students, for whom Dorsen “opened life-changing opportunities for thousands who shared his core values and met his high expectations.” Law added that, in Dorsen’s broader civil liberties work, “he reached across boundaries to bridge divides of generation, of gender, of race, of class in its many forms, sexual orientation, and even ideology. Because of these skills, many institutions thrive.”

Additional video tributes conveyed the powerful ripple effects of Dorsen’s activities. US Senator Chris Murphy said, “I don’t know that I would be in the United States Senate if it wasn’t for Norman Dorsen.” When Dorsen offered Murphy early support, the senator added, it “lent credibility to my long-shot campaign to have somebody with Norman’s intellectual heft standing by me as I was running for Congress in northwest Connecticut.” Professor William Eskridge Jr. of Yale Law School remembered co-teaching constitutional law with Dorsen while visiting NYU Law as “kind of like being a co-president with Abraham Lincoln.”

Dorsen’s daughters, Jennifer, Caroline, and Annie, attended the celebration along with Dorsen’s younger brother, David. Caroline Dorsen spoke on behalf of the family, sharing childhood memories of her father and expressing appreciation to his colleagues.

Speaking last, Burt Neuborne, Norman Dorsen Professor of Civil Liberties and Dorsen’s friend for half a century, described their bond as that of “intellectual soulmates. I don’t think I had an idea during that period or wrote a piece that I didn’t talk with Norman about and have Norman give me the benefit of his remarkable generosity and his steely truth.”

Neuborne also gave the quintessential example of carrying on Dorsen’s legacy. As a major political gerrymandering case, Gill v. Whitford, wended its way to the Supreme Court, Dorsen persuaded Neuborne to think about it through a First Amendment lens rather than as an equal protection issue. Two months to the day after Dorsen’s death, an amicus brief written by Neuborne and many other close colleagues of Dorsen was filed with the court.

Reflecting on working with Dorsen at both the ACLU and NYU Law, Neuborne concluded, “I can say this: that I lived my life in houses that Norman built, and the roof never leaked.”

Posted October 2, 2017