On Sunday, an annual lecture named for a legendary Amherst figure featured one of that professor’s own students: Paul Smith ’76.
Described by President Biddy Martin in her introduction as “helpful, supportive, ethical, funny, warm and decent,” Smith is a lawyer whose work has included a clerkship with a U.S. Supreme Court justice and a long career at the Washington, D.C., firm Jenner & Block, where he’s a partner. He was named to the Amherst Board of Trustees earlier this year.
The 19 cases that Smith has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court have included Lawrence v. Texas, which in 2003 helped redefine the legal status of gay and lesbian couples by overturning the constitutionality of sodomy laws then on the books.
Of those laws, Smith said in his talk to students, “If you were out and proud about being gay or lesbian, you were admitting to be a person who had committed a felony. So you could lose your job, you could lose custody of your children—a whole variety of things could happen to you.”
The DeMott Lecture, named for longtime English professor Benjamin DeMott, is an annual series that has featured such alumni as Nobel laureate in medicine Harold Varmus ’61, U.S. Sen. Christopher Coons ’85, Wyoming Gov. David Freudenthal ’73 and President of Entertainment at Showtime Networks David Nevins ’88. As in years past, the lecture was presented to Amherst’s first-year class in Johnson Chapel.
Smith joked that he is more accustomed to facing nine “people in black robes who fire questions” than a room full of students. He went on to explain what his experience with the nation’s highest court—and the interactions among the chief justices—had taught him about working on divisive issues.
Using Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Antonin Scalia as examples, Smith noted that the two were in passionate disagreement on legal matters. Yet they remained good friends.
“She went beyond mere tolerance of this person who she didn’t agree with,” Smith said of Ginsburg’s relationship with her fellow justice. “She valued him as a friend and a colleague. And I think that’s a critical move that people don’t make often enough.”
Smith urged the students to “do more than tolerate diversity.” Instead, he said, “celebrate and embrace it in all its forms.”
The beauty of a liberal arts education is that it promotes diversity of thought, Smith told students, explaining that he’d learned “a whole new way of reading and understanding” as an Amherst student in the 1970s, including in DeMott’s modern fiction course.
“Yours is a particularly rich group of peers if you’ll only let them teach you as much as you teach them,” Smith said. “It’s always been a place where you learn as much from your fellow students as you do from the professors.”