Professor Kent Greenawalt, longtime faculty member at Columbia Law School and eminent scholar in many areas–criminal law, jurisprudence, constitutional theory, free speech, and, of course, law and religion–has died. As this is a law and religion center, and as Kent was a very major figure in the discipline, that would be reason enough for an acknowledgement. And others will and should reflect on his greatly distinguished career, one combining service at high levels of government, projects of legal reform (particularly in criminal law), and great scholarly achievement in law and letters. I wanted to offer here some of my memories about Kent in my own life.

For me, Kent was a mentor and friend since I got to know him in the summer of 2006. In those days, he was the first and best advisor I had concerning subjects that I had just begun to study and learn about, someone who immediately invited me into his life when many others would not. He was reserved, gentle, patient, kind, but also deeply penetrating and critical (often of my work, and in the best ways) as we discussed ideas, projects, and papers together. I used to joke with him that my study at Columbia ought really to go by a separate degree name, Greenawalt Studies. That proved largely right. Some of the best teachers are the best because they make their students want to know about the teacher and their work–to learn through the mediating structure of the teacher. So it was for me with Kent. His interests became my interests, and I learned about criminal law and constitutional law through the medium of his articles, books, and our many conversations. I also learned and took from Kent a commitment to breadth and to writing in a variety of disciplines as inclination dictated.

One of Kent’s signature course offerings was a seminar, whether in legal interpretation or the religion clauses or something else, at his home. He would provide tea, coffee, and crumpets of various kinds (usually huge, powdered donuts), and we all would sit around his living room overlooking the Hudson River, hunched over various easy chairs, couches, rugs, and the like, and talk together. It was an experience akin to what 16th century Italian salon exchanges must once have been like. I am not the first to observe that among his many gifts, Kent’s particular excellence as a teacher was the capacity to listen exceptionally closely and deeply to what was being said. I think that one of the benefits of this virtue was the consequent capacity to slice the ideas being expressed into finer and finer shavings, so that each fragment could be examined and thought about on its own. In reflecting back on this way of thinking and teaching, it has occurred to me that it was particularly effective not only for understanding difficult ideas, but also for achieving mutual understanding and perhaps even partial agreement where there was initially only total disagreement–and even hostility. Kent reflected the virtues of keen listening in his scholarship and his scholarly exchanges as well. But I should add that it was also a different time in scholarship about subjects like the religion clauses than it now is, and I have wondered whether this method can work, or can work in the same way, today. 

As for his scholarly achievements, as I mentioned, I will leave that for others to reflect upon, with this one exception. It was an important part of Kent’s intellectual contribution, developed over his scholarly life and across several disciplines, that law is best understood in a kind of ongoing inductive process–not by drawing hard dividing lines between legal concepts and categories but instead by asking careful questions, revolving, deepening, and developing in a kind of concentric upward spiral that penetrated through to the truth, about how the law works itself out in the real world. “From the bottom up,” as the title of one of his books of essays puts it.

It was a humane, cultivated, fair-minded, decent, deeply civilized method of scholarly inquiry befitting a man of the same high qualities. I was always struck by this approach to scholarly inquiry, perhaps even to life, attempting in various poor ways to model its virtues as I could, but never as the master did. It’s a method of writing and public engagement that I’ve been delighted to see in other humane and highly literate scholars and friends—in Paul Horwitz’s thought, for example (Paul, also a student of Kent’s, offers his remembrances here some of which are similar to mine but some of which are different), and Steve Smith’s work as well, different as these scholars are from one another and, in turn, from Kent.

In later years, after I became an academic, it was a great joy for me to have Kent speak at the 2014 iteration of our Law and Religion Colloquium that I regularly co-teach with Mark (on that occasion, actually, the Colloquium was co-hosted and co-taught with Michael Moreland and his students at Villanova). Kent continued to show our students what a true scholar all’antica was like, passing on his example of that elegant and worthy tradition to them. I knew that he had fallen ill in more recent years and regretted that we had not seen one another as often as I would have liked. I will miss him.

May he rest in peace.


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