Walking down Charles Street, one may encounter a large man who presents, immediately, a paradox. He is very well dressed, but then there is the necktie. It is loud, even boisterous, and the thought comes to mind that a haberdashery that sells ties like that perhaps should be closed as a public nuisance.
When one gets to know that gentleman, Prof. Garrett Epps, it becomes apparent that the ties are a statement perfectly in keeping with his persona. He is brash, even in-your-face brash, and he intends to be, especially toward any public figure absorbed with self-importance. In that sense, he is this generation’s H.L. Mencken, whose acerbic wit delighted Baltimore for years.
One example of Epps-as-Mencken: After Florida Sen. Marco Rubio posted on Twitter a Biblical verse from Ezekiel about casting away all of one’s crimes, the senator was greeted by Garrett this way: “Good advice; take it and stop bothering the rest of us with your hypocritical display of piety.” And when the senator at another time protested “a partisan impeachment” of the president, the professor’s Twitter dismissal was quick and scorching: “God, you are such a whiny little jerk.”
Public institutions are not spared, either. Let the Supreme Court go out of sight for a bit, while it decides how to conduct its work during the coronavirus threat, and the esteemed professor judges the Court harshly as it “cowers in the dark while hurling thunderbolts at our democracy.” Wearing his liberal heart on the sleeves of his handsome suits, he has a large assembly of his favorite targets.
One example: As the crisis over the spreading virus became a profound menace to America’s public health, Garrett was ready to identify some of the villains, tweeting: “Wishing a great Easter Weekend to all the prominent and wealthy lawyers who spent weekends and nights billing hours for brilliant services designed to ensure that millions of Americans continue to lack health insurance. You are an inspiration.” Notice how the dagger is so well concealed, until it is suddenly and fatally deployed.
Those examples, however, are only from the naughty, irreverent side of Garrett Epps. He has one of the sweetest personalities, up close, that one can ever encounter. He makes friends easily and cherishes them. He is probably the most gifted writer among journalists of today. George Will’s clever touch is not even close.
Baltimore’s professor is widely read, in a truly spectacular way, so that learned and delightful allusions flow seamlessly into the stream of his elegant prose. The Atlantic magazine’s online pages sparkle with his wit and rumble with his depth.
In the classroom, he is a caring, even while demanding, teacher, and seems definitely to be loved by those who learn from him. Sharing a public stage with him is a genuine collaboration, made even livelier by the large deposit in his memory of delectable stories (many from baseball) and vivid teaching moments. (Indeed, after a brief time with him on stage, his collaborator is able even to overlook those neckties.)
His scholarship is enormous in scope, and his books are eminently readable, penetrating and convincing. If one has to pick a favorite off the shelf of his work, it probably would be his 2013 book, American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution. It is truly a gem, telling the meaning of our basic charter of government from the perspectives of the theater, of religion, of the world of literature — only secondarily from the realm of law. The published scholarship on the Constitution is so vast that it can fill any library to overflowing, yet there almost certainly is not one volume there quite as satisfying — or even as entertaining — as American Epic.
Garrett almost certainly would be offended if he were thought of as a specialized scholar. But there are some fields in which he does stand out. He is perhaps the country’s leading expert on the founding history of the Fourteenth Amendment, that post-Civil War amendment that became the fount of much of the modern civil rights revolution.
He is also the unmatched scholar on the contemporary controversy over “birthright citizenship” — that truly generous clause in the Fourteenth Amendment that automatically bestows the wonder of American citizenship upon any child born on this nation’s soil. He also has few competitors in the range of his knowledge about the First Amendment, its Free Speech, Free Press and Religion Clauses.
He retains the instinctive sense of public good and public evil that he observed while doing newspaper writing and editing. He also has the intellectual discipline of a sound, practicing attorney. If much of his writing is conspicuously identifiable with the aspirations and hopes of cultural and political liberalism, there is still a grandness to it all that makes him a modern Renaissance man, even with unfortunate neckwear included.
He has now chosen to move on, to the Pacific Northwest. The intellectual weight of that part of the country will rise instantly, exactly in the amount it will decline on the East Coast.
ABOUT GARRETT EPPS
- LL.M. (Comparative and International Law), Duke University
- J.D., Duke University
- M.A., Hollins College
- B.A., Harvard College
- Epps joined the faculty in 2008 and taught Constitutional Law, First Amendment, and Fiction and Non-Fiction Writing for Law Students. He has published five non-fiction books, two novels and countless articles and essays.
Lyle Denniston is the unofficial dean emeritus of the Supreme Court press corps. In 2018, he developed an online course, “The Supreme Court and American Politics,” for UB in partnership with edX.