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Writing for the Ivory Tower . . . and the IRT: Prof. Bruce Ackerman

What's the one overriding rule that Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science Bruce Ackerman keeps in mind when he sits down to pen an essay for a newspaper's op-ed page?

"It's especially important, when you do these things, that you be able to do them quickly," says Ackerman. "For me, if I can't write an op-ed piece in two hours, then I don't write it."

Despite his self-imposed time constraint, Ackerman has turned out dozens of influential opinion pieces on topics from the election controversy of 2000 to civil liberties after last year's terrorist attacks. (See the @YLS page for some examples.) Recently, he notes that he has mostly written about topics "having to do with the relationship between the president and congress and the people."

Some of Ackerman's ideas have raised controversy; for example, his suggestion in April 2001 that the Senate not confirm any nominees for the Supreme Court until after another election provoked ripostes from George Will, among others. But other ideas have found more tangible outcomes.

In the days after September 11, as Congress was first considering how to respond, Ackerman wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, which was the first piece to suggest that anti-terrorism legislation be limited by a "sunset" provision, requiring the statute to expire after two years. His reasoning was that no traditional freedoms should be permanently relinquished in the state of alarm immediately following the attacks. Again, Ackerman's proposal drew response in the pages of newspapers and magazines. But this time the preponderance of opinion was in favor of the idea. Editorialists adopted it and pundits picked it up.

The House, led by a coalition of libertarian Republicans and Democrats, wrote Ackerman's sunset provision into their version of the USA Patriot Act. The Senate, however, left it out. In final negotiations between the chambers, a sunset was applied to many, but not all, of the bill's measures. As it stands, Ackerman says, "this partial sunset will in the fullness of time eliminate some of the law's worst features." And he adds that he is particularly proud of this outcome because "it actually will make a substantial difference in the way we are going to engage in anti-terrorism activities."

Two other recent Ackerman op-eds have prompted court cases. The first was a piece suggesting that the House's requirement for a supermajority to pass an income tax increase violates the Constitution. A legal team, including Ackerman and Lloyd Cutler '39, brought suit on behalf of twenty-seven members of Congress, though the case was later dismissed. Another case currently in the courts, brought by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) among others, was prompted by Ackerman's contention that President Bush does not have the Constitutional authority to withdraw unilaterally from the ABM Treaty.

Despite the activity generated by his opinion pieces, Ackerman insists, "this is not a fundamental function of a professor at Yale Law School--to write op-ed pieces." Thus the two-hour limit, leaving the majority of his time for teaching and for the form of protracted thought that results in books.

In order to write one of his two-hour essays, Ackerman says he has to spot an issue on the front pages where he believes he can inform readers of an aspect of it that they hadn't thought about before. After that, composing the piece "is an art form, in terms of time, and trying to keep both sides of something, and yet having a position, and actually trying to inform people, rather than merely stating your position.... That's a lot to do in 750 words."

Ackerman notes that his books, like his shorter essays, are written to be accessible to a general reader and also to be persuasive. And because many of his books have been on topics of broader policy concern--such as campaign finance reform--there's an "easy relationship between what you read in newspapers and what I'm talking about in my books."

Nonetheless, there is one glaring difference between his works in the two media: While Ackerman has to reach the last word of an op-ed within two hours, "it takes me ten years to write a book--or sometimes it takes me only three." And that is really how the luxury of time in the Ivory Tower should be used, says Ackerman.

The op-eds, he insists, are only a sideline. "The basic point is to just give people, while they are riding the IRT, something to think about. It happens, you know, people do think."