Professor Allison Orr Larsen, noted scholar, award-winning teacher, and director of the Institute of Bill of Rights Law, has found a perfect way to end the semester in her Constitutional law class: she raps an excerpt of “NonStop” from the musical “Hamilton.” In it, Alexander Hamilton visits Aaron Burr to talk about a “client” (the Constitution) that “needs a strong defense” (the essays and articles of the Federalist Papers):
The Constitution’s a mess [Burr]
So, it needs amendments [Hamilton]
It’s full of contradictions [Burr]
So is independence. [Hamilton]
This is Larsen’s favorite “Hamilton” verse because it “underscores what is at once frustrating and also magnificent about the Constitution.” As she explains, “the Constitution is messy and full of contradictions because humans are messy and full of contradictions. Any charter document attempting to outline rights and powers of a government that lasts for centuries is going to require a little bit of work from lawyers to keep it going. That discourse is a feature, not a bug, of Constitutional law.”
In July 2020, Larsen became the first woman to lead the Institute since its founding at the Law School nearly 40 years ago. She has been a member of the William & Mary faculty for more than a decade and in 2021 was named the Alfred Wilson & Mary I.W. Lee Professor of Law.
The Institute’s mission is to foster ongoing dialogue about the Constitution. One of the nation’s foremost centers for scholarship, teaching, and conversation on Constitutional issues, it plays an important role in the intellectual life of the school.
Larsen is a scholar of Constitutional law and legal institutions, with a focus on how information dynamics affect both. Her work has been published in top law reviews and cited by four U.S. Courts of Appeals. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal have highlighted her research on fact-finding at the Supreme Court, and the Senate Judiciary Committee called on her recently to testify about the subject. She appeared as a guest on “The Colbert Report” (Comedy Central) to discuss her research on amicus briefs, also the subject of her testimony before the Presidential Commission on Supreme Court Reform this year. Larsen’s awards for scholarship and teaching include the inaugural McGlothlin Teaching Award and the Outstanding Faculty Award in the “Rising Star” category, the highest faculty honor awarded by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
“Living in a Constitutional democracy requires discussion, engagement, and growth,” Larsen says. “Part of my job as director, and part of the Institute’s job, is to encourage healthy conversations and to create opportunities for them.”
Those opportunities include the Institute’s annual Supreme Court Preview, which brings judges, Supreme Court advocates, scholars, and journalists together each fall to discuss the Court’s upcoming term. The Institute also sponsors the Constitution Day Lecture, the Charles H. Koch, Jr. Administrative Law Forum, symposia with the Bill of Rights Journal, and the H. Stewart Dunn, Jr., Lecture Series.
This spring the Institute plans to launch a new speaker series inspired by the collegiality of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia, whose divergent opinions were as legendary as their friendship. The idea, says Larsen, came about in discussions with Professor Katherine Mims Crocker, a Scalia clerk and relatively new member of the Law School faculty. The goal is to bring in pairs of judges, advocates and other experts known for their collegiality with each other to discuss issues on which they hold differing opinions.
“I think the best lawyers can see both sides of an issue, assuming all parties are acting in good faith,” Larsen says.
Learn more about the Institute and its endeavors at law.wm.edu/ibrl.