Early this spring, we selected a group of outstanding young lawyers and law students who comprised our seventh class of Fellows. From a field of fifty-five applicants (our most ever), we selected fifteen Fellows. Twelve Fellows were on their way to clerkships with judges, or coming out of clerkships; two are currently in practice, with one finishing his law degree. We maintained our plans to hold the Fellowship in-person, committed to the idea that the full impact of the program could not be conveyed as well through a week of speeches in front of a screen. In the weeks leading up to the program, we watched for updates from local DC authorities and adapted our preparations around them, with contingency plans. However remote the possibility, we needed to prepare for anything thrown our way.
What was once remote, though, became reality. Six business days before the Fellows were to join us, the DC Mayor’s Office issued a new mandate requiring visitors to the city from 30+ states “to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival.” This decree, rendering our original plans impossible, arrived on a Friday. We immediately chose to relocate the Fellowship to Historic Old Town Alexandria in Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington. The full JWI team, including our managing director Michael Maibach, programs manager Daniel Osborne, and summer interns Spencer Reeves and Hassan Ahmad, embraced the logistical challenge. By Monday, we arranged new accomodations and meeting spaces. We purchased individual microphones and audio equipment for each participant. However, we also took advantage of our new locale by making private dinner plans for the Fellows to dine at Gadsby’s Tavern, George Washington’s favorite tavern and an Old Town staple. Most importantly, the JWI team set to work devising practices to mitigate the risk of infection for our participants at our new venues. Now more than a month beyond the close of the program, we are pleased to convey that Fellows and Faculty report good health.
We would not have gone so far to hold the Fellowship as planned if it had not been for the enthusiasm expressed by the Fellows. Their persistent desire to be with us in-person carried us through the spring and summer as we adapted the program. As with previous years, this group was truly exceptional in their appreciation for the arguments at hand and in their desire to build relationships within the Fellowship class. But the 2020 class displayed unique determination to be a part of this program, overcoming the difficulties of travel and adapting to the measures we put in place to reduce risks of infection.
With the new need for caution imposed by Covid-19, our sessions demanded much from the Fellows, and also much from our Faculty. Prof. Arkes led the majority of the seminars, with twelve sessions over the course of the week. He was aided throughout the week by veterans of this program, Professor David Forte (Cleveland State Law), Professor Justin Dyer (University of Missouri), Derek Webb (Sidley Austin), and Gunnar Gundersen (Gundersen & Gundersen LLP). Webb and Gundersen joined us for their sessions via webinar, while Forte and Dyer spent most of the week in-person. We are particularly grateful for the commentary of Forte and Dyer in sessions other than their own, and grateful for their continued presence as Fellowship Faculty. We were also excited to have two new Faculty members: Andrew Graham, Esq. and Dr. Ryan Anderson. Graham is the Executive Director for Policy and Education at our partner organization, First Liberty Institute. He ably led a session on the latest arguments in defense of religious liberty. Anderson joined us for a session on transgenderism and the recent Supreme Court opinion in Bostock. We are proud of our JWI Faculty. They never wavered in their willingness to overcome the unique challenges of the year.
Since this annual seminar compresses an entire semester of courses into six days, we are always concerned that the Fellows might grow tired by week’s end. However, the closing discussions around the seminar table seemed to reach a culminating finish with the enthusiasm of the Fellows unabated. The Fellows, to a person, appreciated the fact that they were able to come to these discussions knowing that the Faculty and Fellows held a common moral framework. Many of the Fellows expressed how heartening it was, after months of isolation, to share this experience of learning with a community of like-minded professionals.
One Fellow remarked: The James Wilson Fellowship is unique because JWI has the courage to make the moral argument. Instead of relying strictly on mechanistic tests and procedures, the James Wilson Fellowship cuts to the heart of the most important issues of our day by grounding principled arguments in common sense logic and reason just as accessible to men & women on Main Street as nine justices on First Street. I came in steadfastly believing in the objective reality of the natural law, woven into the fabric of our nation. But I was skeptical about whether we can effectively make moral arguments in an increasingly pluralistic society that exalts the notion of moral neutrality. But the James Wilson Fellowship taught me that moral neutrality is so often a myth. I go out convinced that not only can we make the moral argument, but we must, at least if we wish to protect the values that have upheld our wonderful nation for 244 years.
Of course, it is only fitting to express our happiness that we could partner with First Liberty. As a stalwart defender of a free, moral society, First Liberty is the ideal partner for this Fellowship. Special thanks to Andrew Graham, who not only closely collaborated in preparation for the Fellowship, but also attended the entire Fellowship in person as a member of our JWI Faculty. We look forward to continuing this partnership with First Liberty.
Beyond everything else, we are so touched and appreciative of our 2020 Fellows. They took time from their busy lives and made tremendous sacrifices to join us. They remained committed to the program as we shifted the program to Old Town Alexandria. And they remained patient throughout as they helped us exercise the caution needed to keep all of the participants safe. We look forward to keeping our 2020 Fellows close, engaging them in future JWI Programs, and connecting them with our now 102 Fellowship alumni!