Prof. Annalise Acorn participated in symposium "The Unbounded Level of the Mind: Rod Macdonald's Legal Imagination"

Faculty of Law Communications - 10 February 2014

Professor Annalise Acorn participated in a symposium this past weekend at McGill University Law School on the work of Rod Macdonald, the F.R. Scott Professor of Constitutional and Public Law there.

The symposium, entitled “The Unbounded Level of the Mind: Rod Macdonald’s Legal Imagination,” was a wonderful celebration of Professor Macdonald’s extraordinarily prolific and profound contribution to Canadian legal scholarship as well as his transformative leadership as Dean of McGill Law School, Founding President of the Canada Law Commission and President of the Royal Society of Canada. Two days of presentations and interventions from legal academics, practitioners and judges from across Canada and around the world created a “kaleidoscopic” tribute to the intellect, energy and humanity of one of the true greats of the Canadian legal academy. The enduring depth and rigour of Rod Macdonald’s scholarship was highlighted by Richard Janda’s discussion of the “Macdonald Constant,” that “the sum of regulation in any given economy is a constant; what vary are the degree of centralization of the regulation and its instrumentalities.” The revolutionary quality of Macdonald’s leadership was reflected in Desmond Manderson’s description of Rod as reconceiving “institutions as sites of freedom.” And as one participant put it: “Rod is the closest this world has come to producing a true Philosopher King.”

Professor Acorn gave a short intervention following a panel on “Producing Fairness.”

Here are her remarks.

One of the questions I ask my students to think about when they’re reading an article or book is: “Does this contribute to the kind of scholarly culture that you want to be a part of?” And, nudging them in the direction of my own sense of a desirable scholarly culture I add, “Does this piece of scholarship nurture your intellect? Does it enliven your imagination? Does it invite you to think more adventurously about justice? Did you find in it any vivid insight about law and the human condition?”

If I had to pick one legal scholar whose work inspires a resounding “yes” in me to all those questions it is Rod Macdonald.

We’ve been asked to stick to Rod’s texts so let me say a few words about one of my favorites. Lessons of Everyday Law. This book sets out to bridge the cavernous real world / academic divide and succeeds by combining original, personal and immediately recognizable stories and images with rigorous legal theoretical analysis.

Rod is a wonderful exemplar of Einstein’s maxim: “Everything should be made as simple as possible but no simpler.”

This book dumbs nothing down but it is unfailingly engaging and insightful. Kids dividing a chocolate bunny informs a fascinating analysis of distributive justice. A ski hill disagreement with his son about Celsius or Fahrenheit on a “darn cold” day is a springboard to an analysis of the illusion of perfect rationality in legal categories, the canoeing c-stroke vs. five stroke loop around renamed the “windy day C-stroke” (and Huck Finn’s strategy of calling a shovel a jackknife) facilitates a penetrating analysis of legal fictions.

Every chapter is a gem that reveals Rod’s sensitivity and acuteness of perception, his inventiveness in constructing conceptual frameworks to illuminate those perceptions, and the guts he has to deliver both observation and concept without a jot of academic pretention.

Rod sees law in so many of its social hiding places – the lineup for the bus, kid’s arguments for staying out later on Halloween, the naming of professional sports teams. His clear sightedness there is key to his gift for shedding light on law in all the old familiar places: courtrooms, legislatures and administrative tribunals.

Rod’s work exemplifies George Orwell’s rules of good writing – in particular – “never use a stale image.” And the implication of that rule: use images. The richness of his metaphor of law reform as fixing the dock at the lake after every winter’s ice damage is dazzling.

Somebody, I think it was Wittgenstein, (but it could have been anybody) said that the academy is an oxygen-deprived environment. Without the intellectual oxygen that Rod and his work have given me at crucial moments in my life and my career I would not have survived.