Law Professor/Politician

Is it just me, or is there something a little odd about the fact that having been a law professor , even briefly, appears to count as a qualification for high political office? President Bill Clinton briefly taught constitutional law at the University of Arkansas, Barack Obama did the same at the University of Chicago, and today came word that Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin's handpicked successor, was a law professor at St. Petersburg University in the 1990s.

Thus far, English language news reports about Medvedev (and I can't read the Russian ones, alas) emphasize two somewhat contradictory points: 1) Based on his prior writings and work, Medvedev appears to be a pragmatic moderate, someone with a technocratic bent, and probably the most liberal of the people Putin might have chosen as his successor; and 2) Medvedev is a person with no real political base or experience who will be utterly beholden to Putin, and thus essentially a puppet.

Medvedev's law professor past potentially complicates this picture. The law professors I have met from throughout the democratic world---whether liberal or conservative---tend to be independent thinkers. To be sure, there are notable exceptions. Now-Judge Jay Bybee was all too willing to do the Bush Administration's bidding when heading the Office of Legal Counsel. Some might say the same about John Yoo but I think this would be mistaken: Yoo's views about executive power were extreme before he became a government lawyer, and so he wasn't shading his own analysis to please his political masters. For all I know, this is true of Bybee too, but as a scholar Bybee wrote more about federalism and individual rights than about Presidential power. In any event, I think it fair to say (though I can hardly prove) that law professors who go into government are, on average, more likely to think and care about the constraining force of law on their actions than are non-law professors.

Yet even if that's true of law professors in broadly democratic countries, the point probably does not hold for law professors trained in authoritarian regimes. Medvedev may have served as a law professor in post-Communist Russia, but he went to law school during (the last years of) the Soviet Union. Moreover, it appears his parents were law professors, and that would have been true at a time when such posts usually (invariably?) went to party apparatchiks. If so, it would seem that the best that could be hoped for from Medvedev is that as someone whose intellectually formative years occurred during the Gorbachev era, he is a cautious moderate uninterested in the sort of Czarist/Soviet restoration that Putin sometimes seems to favor. In any event, perhaps the first task for Russia watchers should be translating Medvedev's scholarly writings into English.

Posted by Mike Dorf