The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences


Elizabeth Wydra’s thoughts on Constitutional Accountability

Elizabeth Wydra is Constitutional Accountability Center (CAC)’s President. From 2008-2016, she served as CAC's Chief Counsel. A graduate of Claremont McKenna College and Yale Law School, Wydra joined CAC from private practice at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in San Francisco, where she was an attorney working with former Stanford Law School Dean Kathleen Sullivan in the firm’s Supreme Court/appellate practice. Wydra’s legal practice focuses on Supreme Court litigation and high-stakes cases in the federal courts of appeals. She has represented CAC as well as clients including congressional leaders, preeminent constitutional scholars and historians, state and local legislators and government organizations, and groups such as Justice at Stake, League of Women Voters, and AARP. Wydra appears frequently in print and on air as a legal expert for outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, NBC, ABC, CNN, FOX, BBC, and NPR.

2016 Constitution Day: Elizabeth Wydra

It is no secret that the 2016 presidential election cycle has been littered with tension, controversy, and surprises — not the least of which was the sudden passing of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. With this, a seat that once belonged to arguably the most conservative Supreme Court Justice in recent memory has opened up, heating up an already heated election cycle. With two current Justices in their 80’s, and a third trailing close behind, the president who wins the 2016 election may have an unparalleled opportunity to remake the Supreme Court in their image. Considering the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review, such an event would most certainly reverberate throughout the country, under not only the next president but also under the many presidents to come.

Celebrating Law Day at Dartmouth: Alumni Attorneys Discuss Capital Punishment

Today there seems to be no shortage of divisive issues that polarize the American people and the parties that represent them, and one such issue is capital punishment. The death penalty has existed in the United States since colonial times, but opposition to it has been mounting over the centuries, with polls showing that opposition to the practice has increased by 75% in just the last 17 years. This is a multi-faceted issue, and there are many arguments that those who discuss capital punishment — whether they support or oppose it — must contend with, including moral relativism, the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Eight Amendment, and the complexities of race, class, and gender and how they intersect with crime rates and sentencing. In this way, the discussion of capital punishment covers a wide range of topics, including philosophy, ethics, and law, and with the mounting opposition to capital punishment and the rising concerns regarding its constitutionality and even morality, it is a discussion that needs to be had.

Celebrating Law Day at Dartmouth with Stephen Bright

While the Civil Rights Movement led to much legislative advancement toward racial equality, the criminal courts in the U.S. judicial system remained largely unaffected. Although many consider legislation to represent one of the main drivers of racial oppression, criminal courts are often overlooked as a source of inequality. As court outcomes are shaped by many discretionary factors like the competence of a defendant’s lawyer, it may be the case that courts have played a role in the oppression of people of color.

As the President and Senior Counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, Stephen B. Bright made the argument that criminal courts are a source of racial oppression in his lecture titled “Rigged: When Race and Poverty Determine Outcomes in Death Penalty and Other Criminal Cases.” He discussed how the criminal courts have represented a primary driver of racial injustice throughout U.S. history, through institutions such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration of minorities. He spoke about how race and poverty are often dominant factors in the outcomes of criminal cases, and how discretionary discretions in cases are often influenced by race.

Yale Professor Daniel Markovits on Economic Equality and Inequality

In his pubic lecture titled “Meritocracy and Its Discontents,” Markovits sets out to discuss the interrelationship of meritocracy and aristocracy. As Markovits argued, both aristocracy and meritocracy foster the same ideological conceit that is an unjust allocation of advantage. Markovits’ argument constituted three points: (1) modern meritocracy has transformed the character of economic inequality; (2) the hyper-meritocracy that has developed in the United States today benefits no one; and (3) merit itself has become a sham.

During a lunch with Dartmouth students on the day of his lecture, Markovits started by describing the prevalence of economic equality in the U.S.

“Things I care about most at the moment include economic equality and inequality,” said Markovits. “Inequality in the market has increased dramatically since 1970 and may begin to happen elsewhere in the world. My intent is to describe the situation we find ourselves in, show why its unsuited to being addressed by traditional arguments about redistribution, and articulate new arguments in the face of changing circumstances.”

Has Merit Itself Become a Sham?

Aristocracy and meritocracy are commonly considered opposed, even opposite, ideals. According to the common view, aristocracy is entrenched in fixed accidents of birth, while meritocracy promotes equality of opportunity among all people. With respect to the workforce, the prevalence of aristocracy over meritocracy can lead to inequality of income and work opportunities. In today’s society, it may even be the case that what we perceive to be a meritocracy confers an unjust allocation of advantage upon those who are considered to have merit.

Yale Professor of Law Daniel Markovits spoke to this ideological tension in a lecture titled “Meritocracy and Its Discontents” on Thursday, April 21, 2016 at the Rockefeller Center. He addressed the concept of meritocratic achievement as it exists in contemporary society, and compared it to the virtue of aristocracy that was acclaimed in ancient times. He discussed how modern meritocracy has transformed the character of income inequality, and how the hyper-meritocracy that has developed in the United States has transformed the meaning of the concept of merit.

The Future of Privacy, Free Speech, and the Curse of Bigness

With the passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this month, a seat in the Supreme Court has opened up. The vacancy of his seat removes a critical voice in the contentious decisions that face the Justices of the Supreme Court. Thus, a monumental debate over who should and will succeed Justice Scalia ensues. Connecting current events to the timeless values of the Supreme Court, the Rockefeller Center hosted a lecture by Jeffrey Rosen on the 100th anniversary of the Supreme Court confirmation of Justice Louis D. Brandeis.

Why Do State Supreme Courts Matter to You?

Today the U.S. Supreme Court is undeniably one of the most important actors in our political landscape. Especially with major landmark cases last year dealing with issues from healthcare to LGBT rights, the Supreme Court has increasingly received a lot of attention from the public for both good and bad. Comparatively, however, state supreme courts often go unrecognized for the most part. Despite this relative lack of public attention, however, state supreme courts often play just as integral a role in their respective states as the U.S. Supreme Court does for the country.

On Wednesday, February 24, 2016 the Rockefeller Center hosted four Dartmouth alumni, the Hon. James Basset ’78, Hon. Robert Cordy ’71, Hon. Beth Robinson ’86 and Susan “Sue” Finegan ’85 to discuss the role that state supreme courts and supreme court justices play. Specifically, they discussed issues such as the difference between state and federal courts, how the role state supreme court justices play has evolved over time, and paths to becoming a state supreme court justice.

Law Careers: Four Alumni Share Their Paths to Law

On January 24, 2016, the Rockefeller Center, Dartmouth Lwyers Association, and the Center for Professional Development co-sponsored “The Paths to Law Alumni Panel,” which featured Brian Martin ’06, Lavinia Weizel ’04, Janos Martin ’05, and Lindsay Zahradka ’07.

During the session, each lawyer had interesting answers to a variety of common questions from undergrads interested in law school.

Biggest common misconceptions or misunderstandings of a lawyer’s job:

The biggest misconception the panelists touched upon was the inaccurate portrayal of the day-to-day lives of lawyers. Lawyers’ lives are not Law & Order or How to Get Away With Murder.

In fact, Weizel noted that most of the time spent at work was research and reading. Since law is hierarchical, one may simply be researching for months before they ever have their first appearance in court. Even certain types of lawyers rarely go to the courtroom even after years of experience. Zahradka noted that in her field, Bankruptcy law, she almost always worked out deals over the phone.

Advice for getting in to law school:

2015 Constitution Day: PoliTALK with Akhil Reed Amar, Sterling Professor of Law at Yale Law School

On Thursday, September 17th, the Rockefeller Center hosted a PoliTALK student dinner with Professor Akhil Reed Amar, Sterling Professor of Law at Yale Law School as part of Dartmouth's annual Constitution Day celebration. Professor Amar teaches constitutional law both at Yale College and Yale Law School, and has been favorably cited by Supreme Court justices across the spectrum in more than 30 cases. 


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences