I've heard from various friends and acquaintances who had expected to see me on the Sunday morning (January 4, 2004) panel on "Motivations for Legal Scholarship: Why We Write?" at the annual meeting of the AALS in Atlanta. I was listed in the program, along with Yale Kamisar (Michigan/San Diego), Jonathan Macey (Cornell), Kimberly Yuracko (Northwestern) etc., but I had in fact withdrawn back in October, with the permission of Emily Sherwin at Cornell, who had kindly invited me in the first place.
Complaints about the AALS are legion among law professors: the organization's relentless political correctness (without regard to the diversity of views among its members), its inability to stage real scholarly conferences, and its intrusive, and again largely politically motivated (when not cartel-motivated!), regulation of law schools. On one important issue where the AALS might have made a difference--namely, the growing influence of the U.S. News law school rankings--the organization's response was to put its head in the sand and tell prospective students, incredibly, that they shouldn't look at law school rankings. (The AALS is endlessly ridiculed by prospective law students for this posture, as it should be: students understand full well that prestige and reputation are important factors to consider in choosing law schools. It's a shame US News does such a shabby job in measuring it.)
Complaints about the AALS annual meeting are particularly common, such as this one from a prolific young scholar about the recent meeting Atlanta:
"The panels were okay, though I think I'd prefer the format of real academic conferences. Trying to be timely produces pretty half-baked comments, in my opinion. I mean, is a four person, three hour discussion about Guantanamo Bay going to change any minds or shed significant light on the relevant constitutional issues? Hardly."
Panels in which speakers haven't prepared papers, and in which they appear to have only thought about the topic ten minutes earlier, are all too common.
But none of that had anything to do with my withdrawal this year, though the issue here will also resonate with many law professors.
On October 8, 2003, I sent the following letter to Jane La Barbera, the Associate Director of the AALS, in response to her letter "confirming" my participation on the panel noted above:
"I am writing in reply to your October 1 letter confirming my having agreed to participate in a session at the Annual Meeting for the section on Legal Scholarship. In your letter you state: “The AALS Executive Committee has asked the staff to remind each participant that by agreeing to speak at the Annual Meeting, you are also agreeing to pay the registration fee.”
"In agreeing to speak I explicitly did not agree to pay the outrageous registration fees that the AALS extracts from participants. I did agree to speak for free, but I’m not going to pay for that privilege. In my own case, I will be arriving late on the Saturday, am scheduled to speak on Sunday morning, and then will be leaving Atlanta that afternoon. I am not going to squander over $300 [Note: it's closer to $400] of my law school’s money for registration fees under these circumstances.
"The AALS Executive Committee has asked you to inform participants that they “agreed” to something they didn’t agree to no doubt because other participants in the past have resisted being exploited like this. There are many law professors who are angry both about the exorbitant fees the AALS charges and who are also in my situation, i.e., only attending the conference because they were asked to speak.
"Two years ago, I raised this issue with then–President Mary Kay Kane. I see, alas, that nothing has changed. I am cc’ing both the current and incoming President; perhaps they will take up the issue. Professor Tushnet wants to make the annual meeting a more scholarly event, a move I applaud; but one way to help achieve that goal is to stop ripping off the speakers. I am also cc’ing Professor Sherwin, who had kindly extended the invitation to me to speak at the Legal Scholarship session.
"In sum, I did not agree to pay, and I will not pay, the registration fee for a conference that I won’t be attending, except to participate as an invited speaker—not an attendee—at one session. If that is unacceptable to the AALS, please notify me in writing promptly, before I make any travel arrangements."
For my trouble, I was treated to an abusive reprimand by a senior officer of the AALS, who apparently thinks there is nothing wrong with charging $400 for the privilege of speaking at the AALS. This officer objected to the tone of my letter (what else is new?), and accused me of arrogance for acting as though I had nothing to gain from the AALS conference. Since I'd said nothing about my reasons for not attending more of the conference, this was pure churlishness. I pointed out to him the reason for my having to come and go so quickly was a family wedding. The reader will not be surprised to learn that no apology for his stupid ad hominem came from this high official of the organization to which my law school, sadly, has to belong. Anyway, I withdrew, Ted Eisenberg from Cornell kindly took my place, and you can read in a forthcoming issue of the San Diego Law Review about what motivates some distinguished legal scholars to write.
Meanwhile, I'll allocate the $400 from my Faculty Development Allowance that would have been wasted on the AALS to the purchase of additional law and philosophy books in the law library at UT.
ADDENDUM: There's one good thing about the AALS in my experience, namely, their section group newsletters. For example, the Evidence Section of the AALS produces an excellent and valuable newsletter, but this is entirely to the credit of the active members of that section, who discharge their task in a scholarly and responsible manner. I've heard similarly good things about other section newsletters as well.