Law Dean Serves As Conduit For International Dialogue
SMU Dedman School of Law Dean John B. Attanasio thinks locally but acts globally, a combination that is positioning the University as a magnet for international thought.
A rare specialist in both U.S. constitutional and international law, Attanasio has worked with legislative and judicial officials in emerging democracies in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He brings these real-life experiences to the law quad through regular conferences, international lecturers, and stimulating debates.
His efforts at SMU, he says, are aided greatly by the caliber of the faculty, which includes eminent scholars such as Joseph Jude Norton, recently awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Stockholm for his work with the International Monetary Fund.
Attanasio and Norton have edited a book, due out this spring, based on SMU’s 2002 Carrington Lecture on “Responding to Global Threats: The Cases for Unilateralism and Multilateralism” in trade, military, and judicial situations. Several SMU faculty members and students contributed to the book, with the dean writing a chapter on multilateralism, unilateralism, and leadership. “The issue is to what extent countries should be multilateral or unilateral,” Attanasio says. “All countries are both at given times and with different issues.”
He cites the Beslan tragedy in Russia as a specific example of how multilateralism and unilateralism affect the lives of average people. In reaction to terrorists who took over a school in the town of Beslan and killed more than 350 adults and children, the Russian president stated that his government would pursue terrorists wherever they are in the world, “basically on a unilateralist basis,” Attanasio says.
The tension between international cooperation and pursing one’s own national interest is a universal problem, and that is where the leadership comes in, he says. “If the United States is going to be a leader, how should it exercise that leadership? It seems to require a careful blend of cooperation with other nations and striking out on new paths of its own.”
Although some observers might define leadership as the ability to go against the flow, that is not necessarily a good thing, Attanasio says. “In many cases it can be in one’s national interest to cooperate. In the United States’ case, I discussed in the book the relationship of all that to leadership because we have the mantle of world leadership.”
Attanasio also observes how judicial leadership operates at the national level. He recalls the June 2003 Supreme Court decision on a case from the University of Michigan that essentially upheld affirmative action but stopped short of endorsing racial quotas, which will have a direct effect on leadership throughout the Southwest.
“Because universities like SMU play a role in training future leaders, if the Supreme Court ruling makes it easier to admit minority students, it means that the leadership of our society will be more diverse,” he says.
For many outside the field, the image of lawyers is one of adversaries. Attanasio’s approach, however, is to create an environment of trust in which people with different views can discuss new ideas.
“I’m part of a much larger process” he says. “I regard my role as academic. I’m not here to provide formulas or solutions, but to advance a discourse and an exchange of ideas with all people, not just academics. I like the give-and-take.”
Attanasio’s work at SMU has given him numerous opportunities for such exchanges. One of the programs he is most excited about is the Rule of Law Forum, a partnership with the U.S. Department of State, funded with three federal grants totaling $2.49 million, to foster international exchange between judicial, government, and business leaders from around the world and their U.S. counterparts. He credits U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) as the driving force behind bringing the program to SMU.
Other forums he has arranged include the first U.S. visit of five justices from the Russian Constitutional Court. Attanasio arranged meetings between them and justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, including Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy. With New York University School of Law Dean John Sexton, Attanasio arranged two summits that brought together members of the Supreme Court and constitutional courts of Russia, Germany, and Italy. In addition, he has brought distinguished visiting professors to Dedman Law School, including leading jurists such as Justices Yvonne Mokgoro and Pius Langa of the South African Constitutional Court.
The dean acknowledges that the Supreme Court has been criticized by some in this country for mentioning European court opinions in recent U.S. opinions, but Attanasio says he thinks doing so is part of exercising the world leadership mantle that has been thrust upon the United States.
“If you want to exercise a leadership role in the spreading of the rule of law to different parts of the world, it would be curious if we claimed that other countries should listen to us, but we shouldn’t listen to anyone else,” he says. “I think it would be difficult for us to sustain a leadership role if we take that attitude.”
Another subject near to Attanasio’s heart: providing support and dialogue to strengthen the U.S. judiciary. The dean was instrumental in the selection of SMU to serve as headquarters for the Appellate Judges Educational Institute, which organizes continuing education programs for appellate judges and lawyers.
“Judges in the United States are frightfully underpaid and these are not just federal judges, but state judges in particular,” he says, adding that some new SMU law school graduates make more than a justice on the Texas Supreme Court ($113,000 per year).
Added to the pay challenge is the problem of judicial independence with encroachments from both Democrats and Republicans, Attanasio says. On the federal level, politicians have tried to get judges to predecide cases as part of their selection process, while at the state level judicial elections have become more political.
The expected replacement of Chief Justice William Rehnquist also could take a toll on the judiciary, he says.
“The last few debates about the Supreme Court have been very intense. I think those debates are not costless. What it means is that a lot of very good people have left the judiciary of the United States, and that imposes real threats to the rule of law,” he says.
Attanasio traces his constitutional focus to a happy accident in his student days at New York University School of Law. He was scanning the bulletin board for job postings when Dean Norman Redlich asked if Attanasio would like to be considered for a stint as the dean’s research assistant.
“I thought, boy, would I. I was eager,” Attanasio recalls. The job involved helping Redlich complete a casebook, a tightly edited compilation of cases from the U.S. Supreme Court. Within 10 years Attanasio became a co-author of the casebook, now entering its fourth edition and used by law schools across the country.
After coursework at NYU and Yale, Attanasio earned a degree in comparative law from Oxford University. He taught courses on constitutional law in Russia as a Fulbright professor in 1990 and served as the John M. Regan Jr. professor of law and director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He was dean of the St. Louis University law school before coming to SMU, where he is also the William Hawley Atwell Professor of Constitutional Law.
“Dedman School of Law has the makings of the great global law schools that are able to focus debates on issues and events around the world,” he says. “Such an institution is a tremendous asset to SMU and the Dallas area.”