After the last presidential election, Professor Deborah Hellman felt strongly she wanted to do something to help unite the community at the University of Virginia School of Law. So together with other faculty and students she created Common Law Grounds, a discussion group at the Law School that tackles some of the thorny issues that divide Americans.
“We started it in reaction to the vitriol and how things were getting more polarized,” Hellman said. “I thought we should have something to encourage genuine spirited and civil discussion of controversial topics.”
Four years later, law students are still talking to each other — respectfully.
The nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court was the latest issue students discussed — with legal rights concerning abortion, among other ideological sticking points, presumed to hang in the balance. Thirty-eight UVA Law students attended the virtual Common Law Grounds meeting, held Oct. 21 under the title “The Barrett Battle.”
Whether anyone’s views officially shifted due to the event is, perhaps, irrelevant. Something more subtle took place.
“The Barrett event was a reminder not to think that my side always is the morally correct one simply because of arguments I can pull together to support that claim,” said second-year law student Jeffrey Stiles, a member of the student organization who attends regularly. “In this case, both parties point to the other as ‘politicizing’ the process and both claim to be trying to promote the legitimacy of the court. Both sides are probably right, but how can we fix it?”
When Common Law Grounds began, other opportunities for hot-button commentary already existed, including debates hosted by student organizations such as the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. But they didn’t quite fit the need; Hellman wanted events at which the students talked as well as listened, and where students had the opportunity to engage in conversations involving the sort of back and forth that allows for a deeper understanding of the other person’s viewpoint.
Hellman is the author of the book “When Is Discrimination Wrong?” and other works that look at the when and why laws and policies that distinguish between people fail to treat them as equals. Even so, she said the student organization falls more within her personal interests than professional ones. She has remained the faculty adviser the entire four years.
Her initial idea was for Common Law Grounds to be a faculty-student group, but “the students totally ran with it.” It is now an entirely student-led organization.
At the start, some of her faculty peers suggested she should hire professional facilitators. Otherwise, tempers might flare up and things might get out of control. But Hellman was more concerned by an alternate scenario.
“I was worried that [with facilitators] we would lose the spontaneity of the conversation and it would be less open,” she said.
Her approach, to let students facilitate and police themselves, worked out just fine. She doesn’t attend every meeting, and when she does, she keeps a lower profile, often participating in one of the small groups, which student board members also host.
Students self-select to participate based on their interest in a topic, and the organization seeks to have a strong balance of gender, race and ideology represented, Hellman said.
Before the pandemic, students would have conversed over lunch, seated in the round. These days, the breakout groups are conducted remotely via video conferencing. But the high level of intimacy has remained.
“When you’re sitting at a table and you’re having lunch with someone, it’s harder to vilify them,” Hellman said. “It says a lot about the students as leaders that they value this kind of interchange. I have not been disappointed by the goodwill.”
Third-year law student Kyle McGoey, this year’s president, said the format gets students out of their “ideological bubbles.”
“Sometimes we find unexpected points of common ground, and sometimes we get to practice the art of arguing in a robust but respectful way — two opportunities that are hard to find in today's hyperpolarized political climate,” McGoey said.
Stiles said he attends because he likes to check his gut instinct on an issue, and hear the issue fleshed out in a way that might be more revealing than an online article or in-class discussion might be able to provide.
“It feels more like a lively family dinner than a debate,” he said. “It’s a reminder that the ‘other side’ isn't some abstract evil — it’s made up of my friends whom I respect and like as people.”
Kendall Burchard ’19, a past president of Common Law Grounds who now works as a John Marshall Fellow in the Office of the Virginia Solicitor General, agreed that the organization helps students move beyond the superficial in a “quick consumption” world.
“We skim headlines rather than read the stories, and we accept each other’s comments at face value rather than taking the time to understand how the speaker’s unique experiences informed their view,” Burchard said. “I think CLG offers participants an opportunity to understand and be understood in a way that our standard interactions often don’t permit.”
She shared an anecdote from her time presiding over the group, when there was a push to tackle the abortion debate head on.
“I was absolutely terrified and fought the idea for the better part of a year and a half before finally acquiescing,” Burchard said. “I have firmly held beliefs about abortion, as do most people I know. I really wasn’t sure there was a productive conversation to be had.
“But it was unquestionably the best event we put on all year. People were eager to talk, and more importantly, they were eager to reach some sort of consensus. I don’t think anyone’s mind changed that day, but that wasn’t the aim — it was to prove that it was possible for people with wildly different views to have a constructive conversation about an extremely important issue. And we did. Folks came to the table in good faith. There were no winners or losers, and more importantly, no one tried to make anyone out to be a winner or loser. People left lunch that day with a genuine respect and appreciation for the views expressed at the table. That was a gift in and of itself.”
Hellman said she resists the idea that Common Law Grounds is a centrist organization, or that it tries to get people to compromise on their positions, and she hopes that even more students on the ends of the political spectrum will take part in the future. But she acknowledged these are people who may be afraid to share, or perhaps are less interested in considering whether their views need revision.
To them, she says, there is no pressure; come be seen and heard for who you are.
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.