In Memoriam: Professor William W. Van Alstyne

  • Lee Professor
    Lee Professor  Professor Van Alstyne was widely regarded as one of the nation’s most preeminent constitutional law scholars of his time.  
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William W. Van Alstyne, one of the nation's foremost constitutional law scholars, and William & Mary’s Lee Professor of Law from 2004 to 2012, died on January 29 in Southern California.

“Bill was truly one of the great figures in American law, and a beloved member of the William & Mary community for many years,” Law School Dean Davison M. Douglas wrote in a message to the Law School community.

“Bill was a glittering addition to the faculty and a dear friend, in whose marvelous company and vast knowledge I delighted during his time at William & Mary,” said Taylor Reveley, who served as dean of the Law School from 1998 to 2008 and as William & Mary’s 27th president. “He was a brilliant and eloquent scholar who was graced with a marvelous wit and vibrant presence.”

Among Van Alstyne’s many distinctions, Reveley noted two. He was twice chosen in polls of his peers as being among those most qualified for appointment to the Supreme Court. He also was named in 2000 as among the top 40 most frequently cited legal scholars in the U.S. of the preceding half-century.

Van Alstyne came to William & Mary from Duke University School of Law, where he was the William R. and Thomas L. Perkins Professor of Law. His publications were legion, including articles in the nation's leading law journals, and books such as "Interpretations of the First Amendment." He also was the author of "The American First Amendment in the Twenty-First Century," now in its fifth edition.

What set Van Alstyne's scholarship apart was a distinctive analytical methodology, according to Neal E. Devins, Sandra Day O’Connor Professor of Law, Professor of Government, and Director of the Institute of Bill of Rights Law at William & Mary. "He was very interested in the language and words of the Constitution and that of Court opinions," he said, an approach Van Alstyne used to great effect early in his career in a renowned article about the Supreme Court's decision in Marbury v. Madison.

Devins said that Van Alstyne was his hero long before he arrived at William & Mary. “When I was a law student, his article on Marbury v. Madison helped me (and all my classmates) get through our first weeks of constitutional law intact,” he said. “When I was a junior law professor, Bill wrote me encouraging notes about my scholarship. Having one of the most respected law professors in the country take note of your work was a real shot in the arm to a fledgling academic. And when Bill joined the William & Mary law faculty, his continued commitment to excellence served as a beacon—a reminder of how fantastic and energizing the academic life can be. Something to strive for and something I remember now that I am more than 30 years into my own career.”

Van Alstyne was a Fulbright Fellow in Chile, a Senior Fellow at Yale, and a visiting faculty member at law schools across the nation including Berkeley, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford, among others. He also lectured and taught in countries abroad. He served on the national Board of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union and had, in addition, led many national academic organizations. He was President of the American Association of University Professors, for example, and also chaired the Association of American Law School's Committee on Academic Freedom.

In recognition of his extraordinary contributions and achievements, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994.

Two members of the William & Mary law faculty were students at Duke when Van Alstyne taught there.

Trotter Hardy, Professor of Law, Emeritus, said Van Alstyne was "hands-down" his favorite professor during law school. He would sometimes spice his lectures with colorful hypothetical cases that drew on current events and Durham locales, Hardy recalled. Van Alstyne’s facility with language was often on display during class, he said, for he "would talk in sentences that would be very long and very circuitous ... but always grammatically perfect." Among the best parts of class were the "closing 10 minutes when he would bring the class full circle back to where we had started with a wonderful wrap-up."

Linda A. Malone, Marshall-Wythe Foundation Professor of Law, was Van Alstyne's student and research assistant at Duke, and subsequently his colleague as a visiting professor at Duke and when he joined the faculty at William & Mary.  She said that he was “a dear friend as well as a mentor.” Malone considered his "teaching and scholarship to be the highest standard of achievement and an inspiration for me as a law professor today. I doubt I would have ever considered being a law professor if I had not had his example and support in my legal career."

She attended a symposium in Van Alstyne's honor in 2004 at Duke and recalled "the extraordinary outpouring of respect and affection for him as a teacher, scholar and individual. At a time when the profession seemed focused on 'winning' by any means necessary, he was a true example of intellectual and professional integrity," she said.

Van Alstyne was a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Southern California. He received his J.D. from Stanford, where he was elected to Order of the Coif. Before entering academia, he served briefly as California's Deputy Attorney General and later handled voting rights cases as an attorney for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

He is survived by many friends and family members, including his wife, Professor Lan Cao, a member of the William & Mary law faculty from 2001 to 2013, and their daughter, Harlan.

Read the obituary in the New York Times, “William Van Alstyne, 84, Dies; Often-Cited Constitutional Law Scholar.”

About William & Mary Law School

Thomas Jefferson founded William & Mary Law School in 1779 to train leaders for the new nation. Now in its third century, America's oldest law school continues its historic mission of educating citizen lawyers who are prepared both to lead and to serve.