Orientation Address by U.S. Judge Toby Heytens ’00

Toby Heytens speaks to students
August 17, 2023

Judge Toby Heytens ’00 of the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals welcomes incoming members of the Class of 2026. Dean Risa Goluboff introduces Heytens.


RISA GOLUBOFF: It is now my great honor and pleasure to introduce our speaker this morning, the Honorable Toby Heytens. He is a 2000 graduate of the law school and has been a treasured member of our community since he first took a seat in this room in the summer of 1997.

He is also a model of the UVA lawyer you are all poised to become, a person whose life has been marked by humanity and brilliance, by service to others and to his country and commonwealth, by a wide-ranging and open-minded intellectual curiosity, and by absolute integrity.

Judge Heytens began his legal career here at UVA like all of you after earning his bachelor's degree from Macalester College. During law school, he served as the Articles Development Editor of the Virginia Law Review, and he graduated first in his class.

Following law school -- I know. He was that person that Natalie was talking about. Following law school, Judge Heytens clerked on the Third Circuit for Judge Edward Becker, who had been appointed by Presidents Nixon and Reagan, and for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had been appointed by President Clinton. he also served as a Bristow fellow in the US Solicitor General's office, and worked as an associate attorney in O'Melveny and Myers's appellate practice.

Judge Heytens returned to the law school in 2006 to join our faculty, where he quickly established himself as a stellar teacher, legendary mentor, and brilliant scholar. He taught civil procedure, torts, criminal procedure, and remedies, and he co-directed our Supreme Court Litigation Clinic. He was also the head of UVA's undergraduate mock trial team, which was a true labor of love for Judge Heytens.

For his remarkable contributions, he won all University Teaching Award in 2016, and a Raven award in 2015. He took two leaves from our faculty to serve in high-profile government roles, serving in the US Solicitor General's office from 2007 to 2010, and as Virginia's Solicitor General -- that is, not in the office -- as the Solicitor General from 2018 until 2021.

In November of 2021, Judge Heytens was confirmed to a seat on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals where he now sits. In his approximately two years on the bench, Judge Heytens has already made significant contributions to the law of the circuit on matters ranging from the 1872 Amnesty Internat -- Amnesty Act, to assaults by TSA screeners and whether the people assaulted can sue the federal government, to vague laws addressing elementary and secondary school students.

In these opinions, and in all of Professor -- of Judge Heytens,' sorry -- Judge Heytens' -- I demoted you for a moment there -- of Judge Heytens' work from the bench, he has exhibited all of the traits that made him such a terrific law teacher -- the clear thinking, the mastery of the law I have been talking about, and a deep concern for the real people and problems that underlie every case, which is why I'm so thrilled to have Judge Heytens back with us today to welcome you and share some of his insights and thoughts on the path ahead. Please join me in welcoming Judge Toby Heytens.


TOBY HEYTENS: So the last time I was in this room was a little bit less than a year ago because this room is actually where we had my investiture ceremony, which is just a fancy word for a big assembly and party when you become a judge. So that was the last time I was here. And as Risa told you, the first time I was here was almost exactly 26 years ago today when I was sitting in this room out there where you are all sitting right now on my first day of law school.

So I need to start this story with a confession, which is somewhat amusing given my current role before you today, and that is that all of these years later, I don't remember a single thing a person who gave the equivalent speech to this said on my first day of law school. I do remember who it was, but I do not remember a single thing that person said. But I do remember something that happened as we were walking out of this room that morning, and that is where I want to start the story I'm going to tell you about today.

So before we were in here, my peer advisors and my small section had met in a room over in Slaughter Hall, and they had told us that after this event, the one you're all listening to right now, we were all going to go have lunch at some place called the Biltmore in some area called the Corner. Don't worry if neither of those two things means anything to you right now. That's not important to the story. But I had been told I had a lunch date at a place in an area of Charlottesville.

And as I was walking out of this room right back near those doors in that aisle that's basically directly in front of me, one of my new classmates asked me if I wanted a ride to lunch. Now, I could have easily said no. For starters, I had my own car, so I didn't actually need a ride to lunch because I had my own car.

And because I didn't live at one of the places where you couldn't get a parking pass, my car was actually parked a couple hundred yards away in the blue lot. So I really had a car that was very easily accessible. So the immediate obvious answer is no, in fact, I do not need a ride because I have my own ride. Thank you.

More importantly, there was this moment of trepidation. How did I know that I would like this person who seemed definitely several years older than me and was kind of intense-seeming upon first presentation? And what if I was about to get an even better offer that taking this offer would preclude me from accepting, and then I would feel stupid that I turned down the better offer. That would be awkward. But I said yes, and I am so, so very glad that I did because that person very quickly became my first, closest, and most helpful law school friend.

The next thing I remember as we were going out to the blue lot was this person's car. It was this like gigantic American sedan. I don't think it was a Chevy Malibu, but it was something Chevy Malibu adjacent.

And it had this gunmetal gray color scheme, with this huge separate light attached like to the top of the driver's side rear window. And so when I asked about this somewhat strange-looking light, my new friend explained it was because the car was actually a former police cruiser.


This person was not a former cop. Don't worry. This was a car that the person had bought at an auction for some absurdly low price, and that explained why this person owned this particular car.

I, meanwhile, had this much smaller, much more conventional car that was purchased at a dealership and that, let's be honest, my parents had bought for me. That's the truth. This was the first of several indications that this person and I had somewhat different pre-law school backgrounds.

So because we were in the same small section, as you'll quickly discover, this person and I were in all of the same classes that fall. That's at least what it meant then, and I'm pretty sure what it means to be in the same small section as someone today.

And pretty early on, this person and I established a deal. Either one of us was allowed to call the other at any time and ask any question about anything that was happening in any of our classes.

Now, the other person didn't have to have an answer. They could say, I have not done that part of the reading yet. They could say, I have no idea what you're talking about. They could say, I actually don't the answer to that either. But the rule was we could always call, and we could always ask. And I know that always made me feel a lot better as I was going through the first semester of law school.

It also very tangibly saved me at least one time that is still vivid in my memory all of these years later. So as our first set of exams got closer, this friend and I started meeting up pretty much every day to study. So mostly, it was just the two of us sitting for hours on end in one of our apartments.

We never ever did this in the library, and I don't think we ever really did this in the law school. And we were often even in different rooms throughout the day as we were studying. We weren't sort of sitting across the table from each other. We were often even in different rooms.

But we'd set aside time each day to drink tea, or coffee, or eat these random dried salted soybeans that my friend liked for some reason. And as hard as I can, I've never even been able to find since then. I don't honestly where they came from.

And one night a couple of days before our Civil Procedure exam, I somewhat reluctantly confessed to my friend that I needed them to explain personal jurisdiction to me. Now, this story is really funny in retrospect for multiple reasons, including the fact that, as Risa mentioned, I later ended up teaching Civil Procedure when I was a law professor. In fact, I taught Civ Pro way more times than I taught any other class.

And it also is the case that when I taught Civil Procedure, I almost always tested on personal jurisdiction. But this was not funny at the time. It was quite -- it was quite scary. I mean, I remember -- it was a long time ago, but I was quite scared.

Because as you're going to soon learn, or depending on who you have for Civ Pro, as you'll learn in a few months, Civ Pro is -- sorry -- civil -- personal jurisdiction is a major topic in Civil Procedure. By my count, I think my professor had spent about two weeks on civil procedure.

And what I somewhat sheepishly said to my friend was, I want to be clear about what I'm saying to you. I don't mean I have some questions about Civ Pro -- about personal jurisdiction or the details of personal jurisdiction doctrine. I mean, I don't understand personal jurisdiction at all.

In fact, sitting here, I'm not even sure I understand what it is. And so I need you to start from the beginning, go back, and explain this in small words like I'm someone who's never encountered this in my entire life because I don't get it even a little bit. And my friend did.

A few nights before this person's own Civ Pro exam -- to be clear, this person was also in the same class we're talking about -- this friend spent at least 30 minutes teaching me a topic that that friend already understood. Now, I don't know if it helped directly on the exam because all of these years later, I don't remember for certain whether there even was a personal jurisdiction question on our Civ Pro exam.

I've thought about this a lot, and I think the answer is no, but I'm not sure. And the important point is that doesn't really matter because I know that as a result of that conversation I went into the exam feeling a lot less terrified than I otherwise would have. And I think that was ultimately way more important than whether there actually was a personal jurisdiction question on the exam.

But I don't want you to think this person was just a work-study partner kind of person. I had gone straight from college to law school, and I was only 21 years old when I was sitting where you are all sitting right now.

My friend, in contrast, was super old. That person was 26 when they started law school and had gotten pretty far towards getting a PhD in English before deciding they'd rather be a lawyer. And maybe that's the reason that this friend had at that point in their life thought way more about why they wanted to be a lawyer than I had, who had sort of just majored in history in college and then went to law school because, you know, I didn't want to get a job.

So here's an example. One day the fall of our 1L year -- I'm pretty sure there's a whole series of big classrooms in Withers Hall right over there on the right side. I'm pretty sure it was in one of those big classrooms. I remember my friend after class saying why they wanted to be a lawyer in general, and why they wanted to be a trial lawyer in particular. So I asked, do tell.

And what the friend said to me is that there are some things in life, like poetry, the thing that this person had loved and decided-- but decided ultimately not to do professionally -- there are some things like that that are arts.

And the friend explained these are things that are worth studying, worth experiencing, worth doing for their own sake not because they are useful necessarily, at least not useful in any direct sense, but because they are beautiful, and because they are pleasurable, and because they are the things that are worth living for, the things that you do-- the things that are worth living for because they're enjoyable for their own sake.

My friend said they didn't think that law was like that, and that was why they wanted to be a lawyer. The friend said that -- I remember this line exactly -- that law is not an art. Law is a craft.

That obviously doesn't mean that law doesn't require talent or skill or learning, that it can't be done better or worse, and that it can't be done so well that sometimes it actually is beautiful, or powerful, or moving -- doesn't mean any of that.

But just like the prettiest chair in the world has failed as a chair if people can't sit in it, or if it is uncomfortable for people to sit- in, law is the same way as that. My friend said the purpose of law is an intensely practical one. It is to help people navigate the world. And the job of lawyers is to help people use the law to do those things.

In other words, being a lawyer isn't primarily about beauty, or puzzles, or intellectual stimulation. Being a lawyer, my friend said, is always, always, always about people.

So fun fact - side digression on that story. So when I was interviewing for my current job, I was a faculty member here. And one of the unspoken but very clear questions was, is this person going to be a head in the clouds academic who only cares about ideas and things like that?

And so I frequently used that story during my endless series of interviews for my current job, and it tended to go over well and help reassure people. But I really believe that because I think -- and my friend was the first person who ever said something like that to me.

A couple of other things about this friend. So maybe it was because of some pretty significant risk factors in their background, I've never been sure precisely what those risk factors were, although I do know that this friend's family had emigrated to the US from Belarus when it was part of the Soviet Union, and that may have some connection to it.

But this friend was very keenly aware even when we were in law school of having some pretty significant health risk factors in their background. And as a result, this friend was fanatical about exercising. And this friend ate a high-protein, low-carb diet seemingly decades before everybody who was a health nut did that. At the time, this was kind of an outlier weird position.

And so for the first time in my life, I actually started going to the gym -- sometimes. And I probably, as a kid who had grown up in a small town in northern Wisconsin, ate somewhat less unhealthily during law school than I otherwise would have had I not known this friend.

This friend also loved, loved, loved the outdoors. And so I ended up seeing probably a lot more of the absolutely beautiful, genuinely beautiful places in and around Charlottesville than I would have had it not been for my relationship with this friend. And I have never once done the Humpback Rocks hike on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the last 20 years without thinking of this friend.

If you don't what Humpback Rocks is, that is also totally OK. You're not expected to know at this point. But if you are able, you should do it at least once you're here because the view from the top is genuinely remarkable.

Last but not least, unlike many of our fellow students, including an emphatically me at the time -- partly, I attribute that to, again, the fact that I was 21 when I started law school -- my friends seemed completely comfortable in their own skin and who they were. Remember, that weird car, after all.

My friend also had this incredible, but sometimes pretty savage, but always loving way of preventing any of their friends from getting too stressed or too impressed with ourselves. That was another one of this person's unique gifts.

So the reason I have spent all this time this morning telling you about my friend, Alex Karan -- there are two main reasons. The first one is selfish, and for that I apologize. Alex died in 2011, about 11 years after we graduated from law school, and about 6 and 1/2 months before he would have turned 40.

I have a picture of Alex sitting on the living room floor of my 1L apartment in my office in Arlington. The tie that I'm wearing today actually was given to me by his spouse at my investiture here about a year ago. And I still miss him terribly, as is probably pretty obvious.

And even though I know he would have been super annoyed by all of this attention -- I am absolutely certain to it because I can hear him yelling. If he was out there right now, I could absolutely be certain that he would start yelling at me the minute I got off the stage. It feels good to remember him and to tell you all what he meant to me.

The second reason I've told you so much about him this morning is because I think that personal stories always work better than a lecture. And when I was contemplating what stories I wanted to share with you this morning, I realized that I could not think of any better one than the story of my first law school friend.

So to sum up, as you are starting your own law school journeys, I encourage you to be open not just to meeting new people, but people that at first seem different from you and who you might otherwise be reluctant to meet.

I encourage you to find people that you can turn to when you have questions, especially the questions that you would be embarrassed or risk looking foolish if you asked anybody else. And there's a corollary to that. I encourage you to be that person for somebody else.

I encourage you to find people who gently push you to do the things that you know you should do but haven't always been great about. And then I encourage you, as best you can, to actually try to follow their advice. And then to give yourself grace when you inevitably fail to perfectly follow the advice they give you.

I encourage you to remember that fresh air is important, and that what you're learning about and training to do here involves real people, real problems, no matter how abstract sometimes it seems.

And last, but certainly not least, I encourage you to try, to try as absolutely hard as you can to treasure your time here and the people that you get to have this experience with. Because as everybody has already told you and will keep telling you the rest of today, UVA Law School and Charlottesville are very, very, very special places, and none of it is going to last forever. Thank you very much.


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