Famed attorney criticizes White House for rhetoric, and defends its use of power

Civil liberties lawyer and Harvard Law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz, in a Distinguished Leadership Lecture at Elon University School of Law, said he believes a special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election might end with more criminal indictments - just not of President Donald J. Trump.

Alan Dershowitz speaks with Senior Scholar and Professor of Law Steve Friedland at the Elon University School of Law as part of the Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series presented by The Joseph M. Bryan Foundation.

There are some things that Alan Dershowitz wants you to know. In no particular order:

  • No, we are not in the midst of a constitutional crisis in the United States. There have been plenty of other “crises” over the years, from the internment of Japanese-Americans to McCarthyism to Watergate. We’ve always survived.
  • Yes, President Donald Trump needs to tone down his rhetoric to help restore a sense of decency and civility to American culture.
  • No, the Supreme Court is not as influential as Americans have been led to believe.
  • And, yes, there’s a problem with “fake news” and the consumption of information. However, “the only thing worse than fake news is the government telling us what ‘true’ news is.”

Dershowitz, who has been called “the nation’s most peripatetic civil liberties lawyer” and, more recently, has been a visible critic of the ongoing Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, visited Elon Law on Nov. 14, 2018, for the law school’s first Distinguished Leadership Lecture of the academic year.

In a wide-ranging conversation moderated by Elon Law Professor Steve Friedland, a former student of Dershowitz’s at Harvard Law, audience members were regaled with stories of a five-decade legal career and predictions for what might happen next in American politics at a time of intense political and cultural polarization.

Alan Dershowitz (left) with Elon Law Professor Steve Friedland

It didn’t take long for the topic of Robert Mueller and criminal indictments in the Trump Administration to surface. Dershowitz foresees a report from Mueller that will conclude with no criminal charges against Trump – but only because he’s a sitting president. Indictments against others are possible, he said, but a true political firestorm would certainly erupt if Trump were to pardon family members facing charges as a result of the probe.

“My own prediction is that Mueller will say that if Trump was not the sitting president he would have committed indictable obstruction of justice,” said Dershowitz, a prolific commentary in American media on the investigation. “It would be primarily the firing of (former FBI Director James) Comey, and I don’t think the president can be indicted simply for exercising his constitutional authority.”

The recent confirmation hearing over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh brought intense public attention to the nation’s highest court. Dershowitz offered a counter argument to the impact of Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

“The Supreme Court is not as important as we have been led to believe,” Dershowitz said, noting how some of the most pivotal in American history were unanimous or nearly unanimous. Others, however, didn’t have as big an effect as conventional wisdom argues. “Roe v. Wade I don’t think had a significant impact on American life because I think we were getting there.”

“Today, a woman has the right to choose in Ireland, and Italy, and in traditionally Catholic countries. It was a trend that had to happen. The Supreme Court speeds things up but it doesn’t change our lives as much as presidents or legislatures do.”

Not all of the conversation focused on the law or politics. Dershowitz was quick to praise Elon Law for its approach to legal education with a 2.5-year curriculum and emphasis on experiential learning. “Elon is on the right path, and having a law school in an important city, with a court on your premise? It’s like the medical school model,” Dershowitz said. “Ultimately, it’s going to be the future of legal education.”

He also assuaged law students who might feel pressure to pursue high-paying legal positions at the expense of personal satisfaction with their work.

“If you are the first person in your family to have gone to college and you have a family back home with no money or resources, you may feel a familial obligation to make money. That’s commendable and it’s wonderful. It’s important to have some wealth,” he said. “I’m a relatively wealthy person, and it’s easy for a wealthy person to preach, but you have to do what’s right for you and right for your family.

“Don’t ever feel guilty about making money for yourself or your family. It might not make you happy, but it might satisfy a deep obligation.”

The Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Emeritus at Harvard Law School has argued hundreds of appeals in courts throughout the nation throughout his career and he continues to consult actively on both transnational and domestic criminal and civil liberty cases, devoting half of his practice to pro bono cases and causes.

Dershowitz is the author of 35 fiction and nonfiction works with a worldwide audience, including the New York Times #1 bestseller “Chutzpah” and several other national bestsellers. His most recent books are “Trumped Up: How Criminalization of Political Differences Endangers Democracy” published in 2017, and “The Case Against BDS: Why Singling Out Israel for Boycott Is Anti-Semitic and Anti-Peace”, published in 2018.

He likewise has been named America’s most “public Jewish Defender” and “the Jewish state’s lead attorney in the court of public opinion.” The Yale Law School graduate joined the Harvard Law School faculty at age 25 – the youngest in the school’s history – and assumed emeritus status after 50 years of teaching more than 10,000 students.

The Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series presented by The Joseph M. Bryan Foundation is an integral part of Elon Law’s commitment to learning, lawyering and leadership. Endowed through a generous gift from The Joseph M. Bryan Foundation of Greensboro, N.C., the Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series brings accomplished leaders from a variety of disciplines to Elon to share their experiences and perspectives with students and faculty.

Dershowitz was originally scheduled to visit Elon Law in September. Hurricane Florence required the law school to postpone the program.

Dershowitz spent the hours before his lecture speaking with Elon Law students, North Carolina journalists, and civic and legal leaders who visited for a roundtable discussion. The interactions impressed upon students the opportunities that exist for shaping law while protecting the rights of unpopular people or groups.

“We are very appreciative of the foundation for its support,” Bierman said in welcoming remarks at the evening lecture. “We have been running the lecture since the school was founded, and we also appreciate the community’s support. We recognize what you do in helping us to educate our students. … And our guest has been very generous with his time and very generous with his ideas and thoughts.”