"Who is Gerry Darrow?" The question, however simple and direct, seems to have taken on a symbolic importance at some of the nation's leading law schools. The day after the little known Connecticut lawyer was nominated to become a justice of the United States Supreme Court, law students at Harvard, Yale and Stanford seemed to talk of nothing else.
"I've spent the afternoon on-line searching his name," said Marion Ledger, a third-year student at Yale. "I know he spends a lot of time in court defending people. But beyond that, I don't really know his legal philosophy. Who is he?"
The question resonates at Harvard as well. Leaflets have begun to appear on campus asking, simply, "Who is Gerry Darrow?", where the nominee seems to be regarded as part cult hero, part pariah. At Stamford, one law student was observed wearing a button embalzoned with the question.
"It sort of reminds me of the opening lines of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged," said Samantha Quigley of Stanford. "There is a lot of resentment here about this man, a sense that he has overreached, and taken something that should have gone to one of us."
President Barack Obama stunned observers Wednesday when he announced Darrow as his pick to replace the retiring John Paul Stevens on the nation's top court. Darrow, a public defender in the hardscrabble town of New Britain, Connecticut, is an unknown among legal intellectuals. While the 42-year-old Darrow has achieved a measure of notoriety for his work in a courtroom, he has never served as a clerk to a federal judge, a federal government lawyer or professor at a law school, the more traditional routes taken by high-court nominees. Darrow attended the Thomas Cooley law school in Lansing, Michigan, a location far from what one Internet wit calls the "Darling Crowd" consisting of schools, such as Yale, which boast of their training the next generation of judges.
Within 24 hours of Darrow's nomination, a web site called "Who Is Gerry Darrow?" was created. Anecdotes impossible to verify began to appear about his career. Court clerks in Michigan and Connecticut also reported a brisk business in orders for old transcripts of his closing arguments in cases ranging from insurance bad faith claims, to his defense of notorious serial killers. Briefs authored by Darrow were in demand, traded almost like baseball cards at collectors' auctions.
Nominees typically emerge after years of writing law review articles and books about the law. "These publications shed an important light on the evolution of a candidate's judicial philosophy," said Stanford's Ricard Bemona, a professor of the school's course on judicial temperament. "The absense of any meaningful such record in Mr. Darrow's case requires a scouring of such material as we can find."
But the use of legal writings as a baromoter of judicial philosophy and demeanor can be controversial.
At hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals hopeful Godwin Liu, an associate dean at the University of California at Berkeley law school and a prolific legal scholar, told the Senate "whatever I may have written in ... books and the articles would have no bearing on my action as a judge."
Liu's comments raised eyebrows. "Is he saying that all his intellectual training and work as a scholar won't impact his behavior as a judge," a Senate aide scoffed. "That's ludicrous. Is Liu confessing that his legal scholarship is some species of science fiction?"
Liu's apparent agnosticism about how his writings would bear upon his conduct as a judge did not sit well at Darrow's alma mater, where an edgy, almost defiant, answer to the identity of Gerry Darrow was emerging.
"This is Gerry Darrow," said Marge Ratner, a clinical professor at the school. She pointed to a picture of a man in handcuffs being led from a courtroom. "The law is about human struggle and conflict," she said. "Just how Dean Liu can appear before the Senate and tell them his life's work will have no bearing on his conduct as a judge should be regarded as a confession of intellectual and spiritual poverty. Instead, the Senate took the comment at face value. There's something wrong with the current nomination process," Ratner said.
One trial transcript involving a case of Darrow's was posted online. "No man is the sum his worst moments," Darrow told a Hartford jury in support of a claim for money damages in a case involving the beating of a prisoner by guards. "The rule of law requires that the least among us be held to the same standard as the most exalted. Today I am asking you, as members of this jury, to shine a bright light into dark places and announce that justice is not the property of the popular and well-heeled. Justice belongs to all us. You are justice's guarantors."
"Those are fine sentiments and nice rhetoric, but what, really does that mean?" asked Harvard's Falon Marcus. "I'm looking for something more substantial in a Supreme Court nominee."
Darrow seems non-plussed by the controversy.
"Something more substantial than equal justice for all?" Darrow said as he walked into his office and passed a throng of reporters. "Quite frankly, I've never understood the Harvard crowd. What can be more substantial than requiring the courts to honor the rights of those we despise?"
When pressed for additional comments, Darrow placed an upraised index finder across his lips. "I'm told I ought not speak before my hearing," he said. "That's on orders from the president," he chuckled.
The question "Who Is Gerry Darrow?," so much the rage at the nation's elite law schools, seemed not to concern the only man really capable of answering it.
For earlier coverage of Obama's appointment of Darrow click here