Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 36, Number 1

The Importance of a Strong Constitution

Tom McCoy reflects on 39 years on Vanderbilt's law faculty

by Grace Renshaw Tom McCoy

Tom McCoy is infamous for singling out at least one first-year student for an intense introduction to the Socratic method on the first day of his first class each year. "I would call on at least one student and make an example of him," he dryly acknowledges.

What some of these unsuspecting victims often didn't learn until later was that they were nominated for this dubious privilege by their scheming fellows. Professor McCoy particularly cherishes the memory of the year several students came to visit him and suggested that he should call on Kevin Lyman, '94, on the first day of class.

Lyman later married McCoy's daughter, Jennie, then a student at Vanderbilt Medical School, and now has a son named Thomas McCoy Lyman who goes by "McCoy." But he freely acknowledges that he is still smarting from his personal introduction to Socratic classroom instruction. [See story]

While McCoy was a formidable presence at the front of the classroom, his genuine enthusiasm about the U.S. Constitution proved infectious. "Many new constitutions being written around the world are so full of details that when the facts change, the constitution becomes a constraint rather than a guide," he says. "The broad, general principles and due procedures of our constitution continue to work well after more than two centuries, even as the landscape evolves."

By the end of his Con Law 1 class, McCoy wanted his students to understand the court's important role in the Constitution's enduring legacy. "When I got them in Con Law 1, most students had almost no idea of what the Constitution is all about," McCoy says. "A few had studied government from the political science perspective, but they hadn't really tried to engage in the processes of interpretation and construction or looked at how courts decide what they decide and how those decisions affect the law."

One of McCoy's goals was to ensure his students appreciated how well the court has justified the broad authority granted it under Article 3 over the last two centuries. "What's a case? How much do you have to have at stake before we call it a case? The framers left that to be worked out by the court, and the court's done a pretty good job of it," he asserts. "Most students who have studied constitutional law at a good law school are no longer worried about the common assertions that we have a runaway court, imperial judiciary, or that the court is engaged in legislating - all of the accusations you typically hear lodged at the courts. Clearly, there are individual isolated cases where the court exceeds its appropriate role, but by and large, it's done an amazingly good job of figuring out what the general principles of the constitution ought to mean in terms of the law."

McCoy describes himself as "just a green kid" when he was contacted by Professor John Wade, who was serving on Vanderbilt's faculty selection committee, at Harvard, where he was completing his lL.m. Another Cincinnati graduate - Hal Maier - was also serving on the selection committee, and McCoy's resume attracted his attention because it was accompanied by a letter from Wilber Lester, one of the most demanding members of the Cincinnati law faculty. John Beasley, then serving as associate dean of admissions, was visiting top universities to interview prospective law students. He recalls being handed McCoy's resume and told, "When you're at Harvard, talk to this guy."

"After talking to John, there was no doubt where I wanted to go," McCoy recalls. "I was in the communal shower when a dorm mate stuck his head in and said, 'Some guy named Wade is on the phone for you. Want me to tell him to call back?' I grabbed a towel, walked down the hall dripping wet, picked up the phone and accepted the offer on the spot. And when I got there, Vanderbilt was everything John Beasley had said it was - the warm collegial character of the faculty, the genuine affection between faculty and students, the emphasis on teaching in all of its forms, in and outside the classroom. I had other offers over the years, but I never had any interest in leaving."

McCoy's desire to teach law was a direct result of his own encounter with Socratic teaching at Cincinnati, where he was taught by classic Socratic law professors. "They were extremely demanding, they pushed you really hard, they induced you into arguing with them - and thereby drew you into the process of refining your own intellectual skills," he says. "By challenging you in a variety of ways, they made you want to get better, understand it better, if for no other reason than to stop them. When I figured out what they were doing, I thought, 'Wow, this really works - I'd like to do that.'"

After earning his J.D. at Cincinnati, McCoy pursued an LL.M. at Harvard. "The whole year at Harvard, I was studying teachers," he recalls. "From the good ones, I learned what to do; from the bad ones, what not to do. By the time I got to Vanderbilt, I had a mental image of what a good law professor looked like. I would come back from class every day and think about how close I was to that image."

McCoy looked to two role models - legendary former professor Paul Hartman and former Dean John Wade - to hone his own personal style. "Paul and Dean Wade were two very different kinds of teachers. Dean Wade was warm and supportive, but rigorous and demanding. Paul was more aggressively demanding - he employed an in-your-face style of questioning, pushing, responding with forceful argument, which was more consistent with the way I'd seen it done, the system under which I had thrived, " he says.

McCoy focused his scholarship on the free speech clause of the First Amendment because "no other civilized society on the face of the earth has ever had free speech as we know it. It's such an essential element in our social and political make-up, a challenging intellectual puzzle on which a whole lot depends. The biggest surprise for most students is that our modern notion of free speech only traces back to the 1960s. In the first half of the 20th century, we were routinely sending people to the penitentiary - that only changed in the 1950s and 1960s, when the court discovered what I think is the true meaning of the free speech clause."

Although the faces in his classes changed over the years - "when I first started, there would be a handful of women in the class, and over the years, they became half the class" - the brightness and intellectual curiosity of students has remained a constant motivator for McCoy. "Students have a way of keeping you young mentally and physically," he says. "My only worry about retirement, is not having the daily youth drug of interacting with students. I'm really going to miss the fresh energy and the sense of renewal that comes with each class."