A Solid Foundation for Constitutional Law: Rebecca Brown (A78)

October 14, 2022 | By Eve Tolpa

USC constitutional law professor Rebecca Brown (A78)

When Rebecca Brown (A78) took a high school aptitude test designed to help students choose colleges that would suit them, “the algorithm came back with only one suggestion for me—St. John’s!”

That suggestion wasn’t altogether surprising to her; Brown had been familiar with the school since the age of four, when her father, Samuel Emmons Brown Jr. (H88), began his three-decade career as a tutor, teaching first at Annapolis then at Santa Fe.

By having a tutor as parent, Brown witnessed “the absolute centrality of seminar to life. On Mondays and Thursdays, we had a very particular ritual designed to get my father off to prepare for seminar, and often included dinner conversations about what he thought the opening question might be that night, or other introductions to the ideas that he was laser-focused on addressing that night.”

As well as providing the context for many family memories, she found that “the ideas underlying the college’s approach to education were deeply instilled in me.” Now, as a professor at USC Gould School of Law, where she specializes in constitutional law and holds the Rader Family Trustee Chair in Law, Brown is “conscious every day of my obligation to lead the students to discoveries rather than simply show them the answers.”

“This kind of teaching is on the wane,” she adds, “even in law schools, but I try to be faithful to my St. John’s training in asking questions that allow the students to sharpen their own analysis rather than explaining the reasoning straightforwardly.”

After completing her BA, Brown earned a JD from Georgetown University’s law school and later served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. “He opened my eyes, in a way that the St. John’s curriculum had not really addressed, to the importance of equality as a substrate of human existence and an indispensable component of justice,” she recalls.

At the same time, she credits the college, indirectly, with charting the entire path of her career. “My first job after graduating from Annapolis was working for a very small law firm, and I was hired by a partner who had always been fascinated by the Program but had never met anyone who had actually been through it,” she says. “He loved our conversation about the college so much that he hired me as a paralegal and gave me such interesting work—well beyond what I was competent to do!—that I fell in love with the idea of being a lawyer and decided to go to law school the following year.”

As a Johnnie, Brown says she “resonated most with the readings that focused on the ways that organized society deals with its individual members. From Plato on, I was drawn to what might be termed political morality—what it means to be just (I struggled with Antigone on this issue) and what to do in the face of unjust law. I wrote my sophomore essay on Deuteronomy, which seems a strange choice, but I was intrigued by the nature of the laws that were given to the people and how it might be anticipated that the design of laws could make a people better. These themes became more explicit in the later readings like Locke and Hobbes, Rousseau.”

Many of those intellectual relationships endure. “The themes of structure and justice have continued to be essential to my development in my career,” says Brown, whose office bookshelf still holds well-worn copies of Locke’s treatises, as well as Descartes, Freud, Marx, and Plato. “All of these have played a role in my scholarship, which focuses on the interpretation of the Constitution to facilitate the protection of individual rights and the role of the courts in our constitutional order.”

It isn’t just the ideas with which she wrestled as a Johnnie that influenced Brown, but also the Program’s methods. “A memory that still lingers is the day I did a proof in lab on the board, starting at the upper left-hand corner of the blackboard and working my way through now-forgotten byzantine steps, until I ended up at the bottom right corner of the board, and finished writing only to discover that what my piece of chalk had produced was ‘E = mc2,’” Brown says.

“My mouth gaped. Somehow I had achieved something that I had no idea I could do, just working through the steps, learning from the great minds that had come before, and feeling the giddy sense of having discovered something myself. It was a thrilling sensation that has never left me.”

That experience, and countless others like it, instilled in Brown “the confidence to tackle hard work without insecurity... Indeed, I was the only person I knew in my law school class who thought that law school was less difficult than college. Once you have had to stare into the abyss of Kant, how hard could any judicial opinion be?”