Address to Opening Assembly: Virginia Junior Classical League State Convention

On November 19, 2023, I had the opportunity to address the Opening Assembly of the Virginia Junior Classical League’s state convention. The convention theme was a quotation from Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, Book XI, Chapter 25: “Multa, quae impedita natura sunt, consilio expediuntur.” The three main points of my address make up a simple rhyme: Keep it up; be you, not me; WWJMD. The text from which I spoke is below:


Thank you for that introduction, Dr. Robertson. And thanks to all of you for being here and lending me your ears. I come neither to bury nor to praise, but simply to offer some historical, local, and perhaps jurisprudential perspective on the importance of your gathering and studies.

I confess to being a bit intimidated by all the erudition around us here. I knew I would be intimidated, though, and so I came prepared with some texts. There is too much to read from here, so I’ve distilled my remarks into three points and I’ve made them into a little rhyme. Would you like to hear it? 

Keep it up,

Be you, not me;


Keep it up 

Keep it up. My first ask is easy. …

Amici, Cives, Quirites….just kidding. I’m not going to recite for you the most famous Latin speech in the English language. I can tell you, though, that if you try translating it from English into Latin you’re going to run into some difficulties in the very first triad when you try to figure out whether “Amici, Cives, Quirites” captures the political, legal, and cultural dynamics of Antony’s address to his audience properly.  

Rather than go do down that road, my first ask is simply that you keep it up. Keep on doing what you’re doing in gathering as you are here. It is inspiring to be with all of you gathered as friends, Roman-ists, and countrymen. 

I am not a deeply learned scholar of the Latin tongue or of Roman history. But I am your countryman, and I am a student of our nation’s founding.  (Livy’s tome from which your convention’s theme has been taken is Ab Urbe Condita, after all, and I could speak Ab Nostra Condita, perhaps, if you wished me to.) I bring a particularly legal lens to our country’s origin story. And I believe that your study of Latin, Greek, and the classical humanities generally is essential to the kind of study that needs to be done in both areas of the project I co-direct at The Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law: The Project on Constitutional Originalism and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. This project connects the origins of our country and our Constitution, on the one hand, with the origin and destiny of our cosmos, and of each of us, on the other hand, all as understood within the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Be You, Not Me

This takes me to my second point: Be You, Not Me. 

Some of the best material in the CIT (the Catholic intellectual tradition) is in Latin. This is a study to which I have come in earnest only lately. It’s never too late, to be sure. Even before I switched to teaching at Catholic University from teaching at the University of Richmond School of Law, I found myself auditing and studying for exams at UR in the entry-level college Latin class. 

I had to do this because I needed to know Latin better to learn what I needed to learn.

I could not rely on translations alone to understand, for example, what St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the Summa Theologiae about law and justice and each of us created in the image of God.

Nor can I rely on translations alone when I engage in disputes about constitutional theory with scholars who rely on seemingly novel interpretations of, for example, the distinction between lex and ius in Roman law.

I need to know Latin when I work with the Latin-English side-by-side versions of Justinian’s Institutes, for example, or St. Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis in Deum. Bonaventure’s Latin in this book, by the way, is breathtakingly beautiful, and has a beauty that can only be appreciated auditorily in its native Latin.

So “Be You, Not Me.” When you graduate from college with Latin honors, you might receive a diploma in Latin, as I did. Don’t be like me, unable to read the degree that has just been conferred on you.

If you go on to the graduate study of theology, as I did, do not find yourself treading water in English when you can study original texts in Latin.

If you go to law school, learn Roman law, not just American law.

And if you study American law, study it within the classical legal tradition at a place like Catholic’s Columbus School of Law. 

Study the classics so that you can carry on the most worthy aspects of the political and cultural traditions of this American republic. 


I come now to my third and final point. Remember what it is? I’ll remind you of the rhyme: Keep It Up; Be You, Not Me; WWJMD.

WWJMD. WWJMD. From you know about me, maybe you think that this is a Marian play on the catchphrase that was popular in Christian teen culture in the 1990s, when I was a teenager. WWJD was seemingly everywhere in certain American Christian teen communities. The most popular items were rope bracelets with “WWJD?” stitched into them. It stood for: “What Would Jesus Do?”

Maybe since I’m Catholic and we love and honor Mary in a special way, you might think I’m suggesting: “What Would Jesus’s Mom Do?” No, not at all.

I’m not here to preach about Catholicism or any other religion this morning. But I can suggest the Writings of John Marshall. He is my JM. What would John Marshall do? 

Why John Marshall?

Where to start?

Born in 1755, died in 1835, John Marshall was the fourth Chief Justice of the United States. We are just a short walk now from the house he lived in for forty-five years, one of the oldest residences still standing in Richmond. Roughly the same age as his New York contemporary born in the West Indies and recently revived on Broadway—Alexander Hamilton—the Virginian John Marshall went off to fight in the American Revolution with Virginia’s Culpeper Minutemen as a young man of nineteen. He was a deputy Judge Advocate General while in the Continental Congress, and he suffered with Hamilton, Washington, and other patriots in that army during their awful winter at Valley Forge. He studied law at William & Mary in between stints as an officer commanding troops. After the war he came to Richmond to practice law and raise his family with his beloved wife, Polly. In 1788, he argued for Virginia’s ratification of the new U.S. Constitution in the spot where Monumental Church now stands just down Broad Street here in Richmond. And he served in the highest levels of all three branches of the U.S. Government: as a congressman in the House of Representatives, as Secretary of State in the administration of John Adams, and as Chief Justice of the United States from 1801 to 1835.

To give some perspective on the length of time that Marshall held that single office atop the judicial branch of the United States government, Marshall swore into office President Thomas Jefferson (twice), James Madison (twice), James Monroe (twice), John Quincy Adams (once), and Andrew Jackson (twice). For some perspective on where he started in the Continental Army, Marshall’s contemporary Alexander Hamilton died in 1804, when Marshall still had thirty-one more years to serve as Chief Justice. (Speaking of Hamilton, Marshall also presided over the treason trial here in Richmond of the man who killed him, Aaron Burr.)

So that’s Marshall. But why WWJMD? Why should you or I ask: “What Would John Marshall Do?”

Believe it or not, I ask a version of this question all the time when I think about hard questions of constitutional law. Marshall was the author of many opinions that are justly denominated as “constitutional classics.”

By “classics” here, I mean texts with a fullness of meaning worth investigating and arguing about, texts that contribute to traditions that are made up in part about arguments over these texts’ many meanings.

The Constitution of the United States is itself a classic in this sense. So too (though of a lesser rank to be sure) are Marshall’s opinions for the Court in cases such as Marbury v. Madison (1803), McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), Cohens v. Virginia (1821), Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), and Worcester v. Georgia (1832). These are all constitutional classics.

When thinking about being with you this morning, I also decided to ask “WWJMD?” because I already knew the answer. Here’s part of a letter that John Marshall wrote to his grandson in 1834, when he was in his late seventies and his grandson was 14 or 15 years old:

I had yesterday the pleasure of receiving your letter of the 29th of November, and am quite pleased with the course of study you are pursuing. Proficiency in Greek and Latin is indispensable to an accomplished scholar, and may be of great real advantage in our progress through human life. Cicero deserves to be studied still more for his talents than for the improvement in language to be derived from reading him. He was unquestionably, with the single exception of Demosthenes, the greatest orator among the ancients. He was, too, a profound Philosopher. His “de officiis” is among the most valuable treatises I have ever seen in the Latin language. 

Marshall’s letter commending proficiency in Greek and Latin as “indispensable,” and the study of Cicero—particularly his “De Officiis”—was not a one-off jotting. When John Marshall was your age, maybe even starting younger, he learned Cicero, Livy, and Horace in a small school with his fellow schoolboy James Monroe and also at home with a clergyman tutor brought over from Scotland by his father, Thomas Marshall. 

In a different letter that Marshall wrote to a school-age descendant near the end of his life, Marshall again commended Cicero’s De Officiis, describing it as “among the most valuable treatises in the Latin language, a salutary discourse on the duties and qualities proper to a republican gentleman.” 

I was reminded of these letters and Marshall’s examples just a few weeks ago when our CIT project at Catholic Law hosted scholars from Duke, the University of Houston, and Hillsdale College for an exploration of the topic, “Cicero, Natural Law, and Constitutionalism.” (You can find a video and transcript of that talk if you’re interested, by the way, under the events tab at our CIT website, which is


We have come full circle. 

In asking WWJMD, the answer, in effect, is: Keep it up! 

Keep studying what you’re studying and doing what you’re doing. 

Keep it up; be you, not me; WWJMD.

I know that your studies are arduous because I have been engaged in the same kinds of studies as you are, and I have only come to them later in life. But you have the counsel of teachers, parents, and others. This “counsel” or consilio will be of great help, rendering more expedient that which you might find naturally difficult. But take heart, for this consilio will help with many things. Remember:

Multa, quae impedita natura sunt, consilio expediuntur.

adjudication-related considerations in Sheetz v. El Dorado

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Sheetz v. El Dorado County (2024) features a unanimous opinion for the Court by Justice Barrett and separate concurring opinions by three other Justices (Sotomayor joined by Jackson; Gorsuch solo; and Kavanaugh joined by Kagan and Jackson). These separate opinions address themselves in different ways to the narrow scope of what was decided in the opinion for the Court.

The question presented was whether conditions imposed on building permits are exempt from regulatory takings scrutiny because they are imposed pursuant to legislation rather than administratively. The Court answers this question “no.”

Sotomayor (joined by Jackson) wrote separately to note that there is an antecedent question, one not addressed by the Court, which is “whether the permit condition would be a compensable taking if imposed outside the permitting context.”

Gorsuch wrote separately both to note that the Court’s opinion did not address another question and also to suggest that this question had an easy answer. This was the question “whether the Nollan/Dolan test [i.e. the test that governs the Takings Clause inquiry in this context] operates differently when an alleged taking affects a ‘class of properties’ rather than ‘a particular development.’” The easy answer to this question, implied Gorsuch, was “no.”

If this question was so easy, why didn’t the Court address it? It appears that at least three Justices have a different view than Gorsuch. Kavanaugh (joined by Kagan and Jackson) concurred “to underscore that the Court has not previously decided—and today explicitly declines to decide—whether ‘a permit condition imposed on a class of properties must be tailored with the same degree of specificity as a permit condition that targets a particular development.’” The reason to underscore the limited nature of the Court’s decision, presumably, is to prevent others from reading that opinion to have resolved the issue.

From this brief description of the scope of the opinions, the question naturally arises how the Court decided to calibrate the breadth or narrowness of this opinion. The answer to this question is not something that one tries to answer as a matter of constitutional interpretation. The answer turns instead on the nature of the judicial function within the particular place in the judicial hierarchy occupied by the Supreme Court of the United States, together with a justice’s understanding of how best to carry out that function as a single individual on a multimember appellate court with jurisdiction that is both limited and discretionary. To the extent that these kinds of understanding are informed by a distinctive theory, that would be a theory of adjudication rather than a theory of interpretation or law.

Pope Francis’s Remarks to International Federation of Catholic Universities

On January 19, 2024, Pope Francis was scheduled to deliver “a lengthy address” to the International Federation of Catholic Universities. Because he was a “bit short of breath,” he instead got right to the point of what he was going to say and then let his prepared text speak for itself. Here’s what he said viva voce:

I was planning to deliver a lengthy address, but I am a bit short of breath; as you can see, this cold is not going away! I am giving you the text so that you can read it for yourselves. I thank all of you for this meeting and for all the good that our Catholic universities do by communicating knowledge, the word of God and an authentic humanism. Never tire of persevering in the splendid mission of Catholic universities. It is not their confessional status that gives them their identity: that is one aspect, but not the only one. It is perhaps that clear humanism which makes people realize that human beings have values and that these need to be respected. This is perhaps the finest and greatest thing about your universities. Thank you very much.