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The Eloquent Partisan

by jane whitehead

 

In the summer of Supreme Court speculation that began in June 2005 with rumors of the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist’s impending resignation, Mary-Rose Papandrea became the legal expert of choice for Boston area TV stations.

“I think I was the only constitutional law professor left in Boston,” says Papandrea, thirty five, with a self-deprecating laugh. But after she predicted that Rehnquist would not step down—“He’s the type of justice who will stay until God forces him to leave,” she said, presciently—Fox, Channel 5, and NECN came back for her take on Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s surprise departure, and, following Rehnquist’s death, her thoughts about the nomination of John G. Roberts Jr., as chief justice.

“I don’t see myself becoming a talking head,” says Papandrea, but her appeal as a commentator is self-evident. Her insider view of the Supreme Court, gained as a clerk to Justice David Souter, combines with media expertise developed as features editor on the Yale Daily News as an undergraduate, and a gift for explaining, analyzing, and presenting complex issues, whether in the classroom or on the air.

The daughter of a lawyer father and a mother who chaired the English department at the local high school in Meriden, Connecticut, Papandrea planned to become a pediatrician. But as a pre-med student at Yale, she “fell in love with the humanities” and spent summers studying Romantic poetry in the English Lake District, and art history in Florence.

When her ambition to become a professor of literature was derailed by tales of unemployment from her history and English teaching assistants at Yale, Papandrea applied to the University of Chicago Law School, and found that her love of reading and writing, interwoven with a fiercely logical, analytical streak, made a great combination for a lawyer.

“I thought about teaching law right from the beginning,” says Papandrea, who used to inflict piano and math lessons on her younger brother in the basement. But after graduating, she set out to see the law in action, through clerkships in district and appellate courts and ultimately the Supreme Court. “Clerking is really the best job you can do when you come out of law school,” she says, because of the opportunity to be in court almost everyday and to see how different lawyers and judges handle a variety of cases.

At Chicago, Papandrea took classes from Elena Kagan, now dean of Harvard Law School. Inspired by Kagan’s stories of her time at the Washington law offices of Williams & Connolly LLP, Papandrea joined the firm in 1999. A fervent advocate of First Amendment rights, she took part in a number of high-profile media cases, including the successful defense of ABC against claims of libel and wiretapping brought by New Jersey police officers following a hidden-camera broadcast exposing racial profiling in traffic stops.

Papandrea’s ability to relate these experiences to the dry processes of civil procedure makes her “a great teacher,” says Luke Scheuer ’07, who took the class as a 1L and fought all summer for a place in her oversubscribed secondyear constitutional law class. “She gets really excited about the material,” he says,” and brings in cases that are in the news right now.”

Papandrea has recently written about what she sees as excessive government secrecy on the grounds of national security since 9/11, and is working on a piece about journalists’ privilege to protect confidential sources. One of the great things about teaching, says Papandrea, is that “you can write about what you care about.” And eloquent partisan that she is for the protection of public debate in a time of national crisis, her views will surely continue to be sought after, even now that all the other law professors are back in town.