Freedom, Virtue, and Walter Berns by James Ceaser

James W. Ceaser, The Weekly Standard, January 26, 2015.


Walter Berns, a leading figure in the study of constitutional law for nearly half a century, enjoyed an advantage over most other scholars in this field: He never attended law school. Unburdened by this professional training, Berns brought to his subject the fresh perspective of an outsider who had studied political philosophy at the University of Chicago, earning his doctorate in 1953. This theoretical background helped prepare Berns to see not only differently but further than his more legalistic colleagues.

It was not that Berns did not know his case law backwards and forwards—he could summon Supreme Court holdings from the deep, and, yes, they would come. Nor was it that he did not demand, at least from his graduate students, the painful mastery of all relevant legal doctrines and prong tests. Yet important as he knew such subject matter to be for the teaching of constitutional law, Berns always viewed the field itself in its connection to a larger object of concern: maintaining America’s political system and sustaining its experiment in modern liberal democratic government. With this in mind, Berns once ventured the heretical counsel to law schools that they should begin their courses on constitutional law by studying the Constitution rather than the Fourteenth Amendment.

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