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UCI reportedly working on deal to rehire Chemerinsky

Days after the legal scholar was rejected as law school dean, talks are in progress. He is noncommittal.

September 15, 2007|Garrett Therolf and Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writers

UC Irvine officials on Friday were attempting to broker a deal to once again hire liberal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky as dean of its fledging law school, just three days after its chancellor set off a national furor by dumping him.

Prominent Orange County attorney Tom Malcolm, a participant in high-level university discussions, said: "I think we are satisfied that if [UCI Chancellor Michael V. Drake and Chemerinsky] have a meeting, they can come to some understanding, and [Chemerinsky] can become a good dean."

Chemerinsky, who would have been the school's first dean, was noncommittal about whether he would still take the UCI job. "I have nothing to say about it. I haven't thought about it," he said.

An agreement would be an extraordinary development after Chemerinsky contended this week that Drake succumbed to political pressure from conservatives and sacked him because of his outspoken liberal positions. The flap threatened to derail the 2009 opening of the law school and prompted some calls for Drake's resignation.

Also Friday, details emerged about the criticism of Chemerinsky that the university received in the days before Drake rescinded the job offer, including from California Chief Justice Ronald M. George, who criticized Chemerinsky's grasp of death penalty appeals. Also, a group of prominent Orange County Republicans and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich wanted to derail the appointment.

Drake has insisted that Chemerinsky didn't lose the dean's position because of his politics, saying that it was only because he expressed himself in a polarizing way.

Any deal would therefore require Chemerinsky to "successfully transition from being a very outspoken advocate on many causes to being a dean of the stature that we expect in a start-up law school," said Malcom, a prominent Orange County Republican who was going to be a member of Chemerinsky's advisory board.

He said that Drake and Chemerinsky could come to terms following "an effort to recognize that there was a breakdown in communication, and it has nothing to do with this academic freedom issue."

Joseph F. Dimento, one of two professors already hired at UCI's Donald Bren School of Law, and a supporter of Chemerinsky, said he was aware of the effort to bring him back.

He cautioned, however, that a resolution would take effort on both sides.

"I would hope that they would be able to consider whether [reconciliation] is a reasonable approach or whether their differences are too significant," Dimento said. "I would not want them to compromise their differences."

A UCI spokesperson said Drake was not available for comment Friday.

Chemerinsky, a former USC law professor now at Duke University, has a solidly liberal record.

He worked against California's three strikes law, argued in support of judicial review for detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and represented Valerie Plame Wilson, the CIA agent whose cover was blown by members of the Bush administration.

Drake acknowledged that Chemerinsky had attracted significant opposition from conservatives, but he would not name the people who had contacted him. He said that their complaints were not the cause for his decision to terminate the dean.The criticism included a letter from the California Supreme Court criticizing a Chemerinsky opinion piece in The Times.

In an interview Friday, George said Chemerinsky made a "gross error" that was "very troubling" to the court in an Aug. 16 article that criticized U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales. Drake offered him the job that same day.

George, an appointee of Gov. Pete Wilson, said that Chemerinsky wrote incorrectly that only one state, Arizona, provided lawyers for death row inmates who want to file a constitutional challenge, known as a habeas corpus petition, to have their sentences or convictions overturned.

George said he was surprised Chemerinsky would make such a mistake. The court asked Court Clerk Frederick K. Ohlrich to write a letter to the editor to The Times to correct the piece.

"None of us could understand how somebody, let alone someone who is very bright and a fine legal scholar, could get that wrong," George said. "It had nothing to do with his philosophy. I certainly feel he is an outstanding legal scholar and a fine advocate."

The Times has no record of the letter being received as a letter to the editor or as a request for correction.

George gave a copy of the letter to Malcolm.

Malcolm said he gave the letter to Drake. "It disturbed him, but I don't think it was the reason for his decision."

Chemerinsky was angered by the letter when told about it by The Times.

"If the justices sent a letter to UC Irvine with the goal of influencing the dean process, that's inappropriate," he said.

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