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Ogden Honors Faculty Spotlight: Professor Paul Baier

LSU Law Professor to give a talk to Honors students tonight on same-sex marriage equality

For more than fifteen years, Professor Paul Baier has been taking time out of his busy schedule as member of the LSU Law Center faculty to teach a well-loved Ogden Honors College course on the American Constitution. When we say he has a busy schedule, we really mean it: he also practices law and has a longstanding second career as a playwright, author, editor, and director. He edited the memoirs of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black; wrote and produced the first documentary filmed inside the Supreme Court; and wrote and directed, on multiple occasions, a play about Edward Douglass White, the only Louisianan to ever have served on the Supreme Court. Just one week ago, Professor Baier argued a marriage equality case before the Louisiana Supreme Court, and this Thursday, February 5, Professor Baier will again find that 25th hour in the day to give an informal (and likely very lively) talk before Honors students on the legality of same-sex marriage. We sat down with him recently to hear more about his involvement in this complex and current issue.

What do you plan to discuss with Honors students in your talk tonight?

I saw that the Honors College has a speaker series. So I thought, well, since I’m going to be involved in this important matter in our state Supreme Court, maybe I can talk to the Honors student body about same-sex marriage in the Unite States. I’d like to talk about the development of that concept, its rather rapid spread, and court disputes about it, which really have divided courts in this country. In many states, same-sex marriage is recognized already, in thirty-six states to be exact.  I’ll talk until about quarter or seven, or maybe less, to get dialogue going. Should be exciting—because the exciting thing, of course, is that the Supreme Court of the United States has agreed to hear the same question, and to answer it before June. So we’re tagging along, so to speak! Except, in our case, both sides—the State of Louisiana, and our position, was that the supreme court of this state should render its judgment and not wait, because there’s a little boy involved.

Tell me more details of this case that you argued before the Louisiana Supreme Court.  

Our clients, Chasity Brewer and Angela Costanza, have raised a son together for ten years. The question is: can the non-biological partner adopt what she considers to be her own son? Louisiana will not permit that, because they do not permit same-sex marriage. Our position is: the prohibition against same-sex marriage has nothing to do with the adoption rules. We’ll see what the judges have to say about it.

The case came to me by happenstance. I had a student named Josh Guillory, and Josh knew these two women and they asked Josh if he would represent them because they were not considered to be as equal in their marriage as others in Louisiana. Then Josh got into some constitutional hot water and he asked me to help. And lo and behold we had a trial. We’ve been to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals twice. Ultimately we appeared before Judge Ed Rubin in Lafayette. Judge Rubin was very bold. He declared all of the prohibitions against same-gender marriage, including Louisiana’s constitutional requirement that a marriage be between a man and woman, he declared all these prescriptions a violation of the US Constitution, the Equal Protection clause, and he said that people have a right to marry. Under those circumstances, when a district judge declares a state law unconstitutional, the state would object to that, and has a direct appeal to the state supreme court. So that put Josh and I in the supreme court. We were there last Thursday to argue this case.

How did you first get involved in teaching for the Ogden Honors College?

The whole course began when William Jenkins was our Chancellor. He visited our law faculty, and he talked and bragged on the Honors College. I’m sitting there at lunch, and Chancellor Jenkins says, “LSU’s Honors College is the crown jewel of the university! It’s just like Oxford!” I said, I’ve got to see this diamond for myself. This is when the Honors College was in the old President’s house—it was a small beginning, now it’s the Ogden Honors College! So I walked across the street and I read the catalogue and there wasn’t any law in it. So I talked to the Dean [then Billy Seay] and I said, “I’m from across the street. I’m a law professor. You should teach law in your Honors College.” And he said, “Well, do you have any ideas?” I came back to my office and I knocked out a six-page syllabus. I gave it a lofty title: The Constitution and American Civilization. The Constitution shaped civilization. The Supreme Court’s work with the Constitution—what is freedom of speech? What is equal protection?—it’s a journey of working with words to civilize men. It governs the way we live.

So now it is eighteen years later, and I’m still teaching this, every spring, with Jim Hardy, who is a historian and absolute delight. He was the founding Associate Dean of the Honors College. The course is designed for young Honors College students who are curious about the law, who may want to attend law school. This is a course built for them. It’s a forum. We sit around the table in the Tucker Room, and it’s all about the law. We used the case method, and we really give them a taste of what a legal education is like. Then what happens is, a lot of our students are now students here, at this law school, and they do very well. They make Law Review. This course means I get contact with the best students on campus. They’re all interested in the law, and I want to share it with them. It’s a great joy.

How do you find time for all of your other pursuits—playwriting, editing, producing—among your teaching and legal duties?

There’s a line in Shakespeare—I think maybe Prospero says it in The Tempest—he said, “Give me but half a nutshell, and therein I shall have a kingdom.” It’s a beautiful thought, isn’t it? You live your own life as you make it. I’ve been at playwriting for about fourteen years. I was invited to bring a production to Washington, DC—to the Coolidge Auditorium [in the Library of Congress]. Do you have any idea what the Coolidge Auditorium looks like? I didn’t either. Google it—I did, and I broke out in a cold sweat. I thought, I’m gonna put on my play there? One thing I’ve learned is, if you have an opportunity, just walk right through the door. Don’t back out. Never mind the cold sweats at night. My lesson for students is always: just work hard. Dream! Work exceptionally hard. And you’ll live your dreams. You can do this. 

 

Article by Liz Billet, Ogden Honors College, lbillet@lsu.edu