John Marshall Harlan Lecture Series created
The newly created John Marshall Harlan Lecture Series at Transylvania University, honoring one of the most distinguished graduates of Transylvania’s nineteenth-century law department, will bring to campus prominent figures in law for free public lectures in the fall and spring.
The series will launch September 26 with William Wiecek, legal and constitutional historian and professor of public law at Syracuse University. The spring lecture will be delivered by Akhil Reed Amar, professor of law and political science at Yale University.
“We created this lecture series to showcase highly esteemed legal figures of national or international prominence who have distinguished themselves in constitutional law or history,” said President R. Owen Williams. “We are delighted to have William Wiecek and Akhil Amar as our first two speakers.”
John Marshall Harlan earned his law degree from Transylvania in 1852 and served as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1877-1911. He is highly regarded as an early champion of civil rights. Harlan was the lone dissenter in two important cases that were setbacks for the cause of civil rights: the Civil Rights Cases (1883), which struck down as unconstitutional federal anti-discrimination legislation, and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which upheld Southern segregation statutes.
Harlan’s ringing dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson is his most famous and is often sourced for quotes, as in: “Our Constitution is color-blind....In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.” This courageous dissent was referenced a half-century later by Thurgood Marshall, an attorney arguing for the plaintiffs before the Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and struck down the separate-but-equal principle in the case of public education. Marshall went on to become a Supreme Court justice, serving from 1967-91.
Williams was familiar with Harlan before becoming president of Transylvania in 2010 because of his Yale University dissertation entitled “Unequal Justice Under Law: The Supreme Court and the First Civil Rights Movement, 1857-1883.”
“John Marshall Harlan is my hero and the central figure in my dissertation,” Williams said. “So I felt as if there were a spiritual connection between Transylvania and me even before coming here.”
Wiecek, the first speaker, is currently the Lassiter Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Kentucky Law School and is the author of numerous books. His most recent, The Birth of the Modern Constitution: The United States Supreme Court, 1941-1953 (volume 12 of the Holmes Devise History of the Supreme Court of the United States), won the John Phillip Reid Prize awarded by the American Society for Legal History for the best book in legal history published in 2006.
Amar teaches constitutional law at both Yale and Yale Law School. His B.A. is from Yale and his J.D. from Yale Law School, where he was an editor of The Yale Law Journal. After clerking for Judge Stephen Breyer, U.S. Court of Appeals, 1st Circuit, Amar joined the Yale faculty in 1985. He is the co-editor of a leading constitutional law casebook, Processes of Constitutional Decisionmaking, and the author of several books, including The Constitution and Criminal Procedure: First Principles, The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction, and, most recently, America’s Constitution: A Biography.
“We are very grateful to our friends at McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland, PLLC, for making the John Marshall Harlan Lecture Series at Transylvania possible,” Williams said. “Their generosity reaches beyond the Transylvania campus. We know that many people in the Lexington community and surrounding areas will be interested in hearing some of the country’s brightest constitutional law historians, authors, and scholars.”