NLLSA

Richard Primus

Prof. Richard Primus teaches the law, theory, and history of the U.S. Constitution. In 2008, he won the first-ever Guggenheim Fellowship in Constitutional Studies for his work on the relationship between history and constitutional interpretation. His scholarship has been cited in opinions of the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Prof. Primus works with constitutional law on the state level as well as the federal. He has helped state governmental agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private businesses solve practical problems involving state-level constitutional law, both in Michigan and in other states. The students of Michigan Law School have given Prof. Primus the L. Hart Wright Award for Excellence in Teaching on four separate occasions: in 2004, 2007, 2010, and 2011. Prof. Primus graduated from Harvard College in 1992 with an AB, summa cum laude, in social studies. He then earned a DPhil in politics at Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar and the Jowett Senior Scholar at Balliol College. After studying law at Yale, Prof. Primus clerked for Judge Guido Calabresi on the Second Circuit and for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He then practiced law at the Washington, D.C., office of Jenner & Block before joining the Michigan faculty in 2001.

Topic

Constitutional Homiletics

The prominent place of rabbinic practices of legal interpretation within discussions of Jewish law may obscure a different facet of Jewish practice that shares a good deal with American constitutional argumentation: the d'var torah. A d'var torah, like a certain kind constitutional argument, is a stylized rhetorical performance aimed at persuading the audience that an old and infallible text bears on some current question. Each kind of performance is offered within a normative community setting. A winning constitutional argument, like a winning d'var torah, is one that makes the text and the tradition line up with the audience's normative values, rather than forcing the audience to experience tension between those sources of authority. (The analogy here is between divrei torah and a certain subset of constitutional arguments, rather than all constitutional arguments. But it is a salient subset, because it is the subset most commonly offered by courtroom advocates or other participants in high-stakes public debate.)

Good divrei torah and good constitutional arguments often read old texts innovatively. But in both cases, innovative readings can succeed only when they vindicate something about the community's current values (of which a sense of relationship to the text may be one). Thus, one important function of both constitutional arguments and divrei torah is to enable audiences to embrace new normative orientations—usually through incremental change—while still understanding themselves as loyal continuers of a tradition. When a community experiences tension between its own normative views and what it perceives to be the normative demands of its tradition, a good constitutional argument or a good d'var torah re-reads the text and tradition so as to reassure the audience that tradition and text align with, rather than stand in the way of, the normative stance that the community wishes to claim as its own.