One of the nation’s foremost constitutional scholars, Professor William Van Alstyne, died on January 29. In his later years he was a friend of Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies. In fact, in 2010, at the conclusion of the Center’s annual Constitution Day Symposium, he delivered our ninth annual B. Kenneth Simon Lecture in Constitutional Thought.
A graduate of the University of Southern California and the Stanford Law School, Professor Van Alstyne spent most of his distinguished career as a chaired professor at the Duke Law School, after which he served from 2004 to 2012 as the Lee Professor of Law at the College of William and Mary Law School. His scholarship, covering a vast array of legal subjects, is voluminous, his honors numerous. His First Amendment casebook sits on my shelf. His seminal 1994 article, “The Second Amendment and the Personal Right to Arms,” underpinned the long march to District of Columbia v. Heller, in which Cato played so prominent a part.
I first heard Professor Van Alstyne address that subject in the late ’70s, at an Association of American Law Schools convention, of all places. He was not reluctant to stand against the tide. Years later, in June of 2008, shortly before Heller was decided, he demonstrated that spirit again in a way personal to me. The Legal Times had run a piece of mine criticizing a decision the Supreme Court had just handed down in a case called Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture. I thought the opinion, written by Chief Justice Roberts for himself, the Court’s four other conservatives, and Justice Breyer, had fundamentally misread the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause in this anomalous “class-of-one” case. Having thus staked out so contrarian a view, you can imagine my surprise and delight when I received a very nice note from Professor Van Alstyne, whom I had never before met, explaining why I was exactly right!
That spirit was evident again in Professor Van Alstyne’s 2010 Simon Lecture, which he titled “Clashing Visions of a ‘Living’ Constitution: Of Opportunists and Obligationists.” In that lecture he took on a number of the nation’s most prominent legal academics, from both Left and Right, to show how the Constitution has been systematically misread over the years. He will be missed. May he rest in peace.