Appointment Roils a Law School

Students and professors at Minnesota’s law school oppose hiring of author of controversial memo on treatment of al-Qaeda detainees.
November 29, 2006

For the last several years, Robert Delahunty has quietly toiled away as an associate professor of law at the University of St. Thomas. But now controversy surrounding his background as an architect of the Bush administration's policy on torture of war prisoners is resurfacing -- not at St. Thomas, but five miles away at the University of Minnesota, which has sought to hire Delahunty to teach a class next semester.

“He’s prominent for all the wrong reasons,” said Jon Taylor, a first year law student at Minnesota who has been circulating a petition asking the law school's dean to reconsider the hire. “I don’t think this is what we’re paying for at a top 20 law program.” The law school has about 800 students, and Taylor said that he has gathered close to 70 signatures and expects to reach 100 by Friday.

The controversy stems from a memorandum drafted in 2002 by Delahunty and a Justice Department colleague, John Yoo, a conservative scholar and professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall. Drafted shortly after 9/11, the memo concluded that the Geneva Convention did not cover al-Qaeda suspects captured in Afghanistan, and helped lay the foundation for the Bush administration’s handling of prisoners captured during the war on terror.

Contacted at his office, Delahunty said that he was trading calls with the dean of Minnesota’s law school and did not wish to discuss the issue.

Guy-Uriel Charles, the interim co-dean of Minnesota's law school, characterized the objections to Delahunty's hiring as "not that big of a deal," adding, "You've probably only got three students who are unhappy." He said that the law school would never make a decision to hire or fire based on ideology.

In an article that ran on Tuesday in The Minnesota Daily, the university's student newspaper, U. of Minn. law professor, Michael Paulsen said that the controversy was coming from a few extreme individuals, was based on a misunderstanding of the facts, and was a “gross violation of academic ethics and academic freedom.” Delahunty is one of the nation’s leading constitutional scholars, he told the paper. When contacted yesterday, he declined comment to Inside Higher Ed.

But Taylor disputed any attempt to make this issue an ideological battle. “We’re concerned about ethics,” he said.

“Delahunty has got absolutely nothing to do with academic freedom but all to do with legal ethics,” wrote nine U. Minn law professors in a sharply worded letter sent yesterday to the school’s deans. “Mr. Delahunty’s role in the Torture Memos was not academic and we object to hiring someone of his credentials rather than to anything that he may say in class should he be so hired....” The letter called on the school to reconsider hiring Delahunty and singled out Paulsen’s comments to The Minnesota Daily as “deplorable.”  

Shortly after Yoo and Delahunty wrote the memo in 2002, William Taft, legal adviser to the U.S. Department of State, wrote a rebuttal, calling the memo’s legal analysis “seriously flawed” and its conclusions “untenable”. When the memo was later leaked along with other internal documents, a long list of prominent law experts wrote a letter to President Bush stating, “The lawyers who approved and signed these memoranda have not met their high obligation to defend the Constitution.”

Ironically, if Delahunty does end up teaching the course next semester, one of the students attending his class would be Taylor. The class on constitutional law is required for all first year law students. “I’m sure if he is my professor, he will grant me respect," Taylor said. "And I will grant him respect in return."


Back to Top