Visiting Scholar Tara Helfman on originalism, the Constitution and her new status at Georgetown


Of all the labels swirling around to describe Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch before his confirmation hearings beginning March 20th, patriotic is likely among them, according to Tara Helfman, who is on loan from Syracuse Law School while she works as a Georgetown Center for the Constitution Visiting Scholar.

Helfman’s recent slate of articles reflect her ongoing scholarship that includes executive powers, the Constitution and originalism.  While at Georgetown for the 2017 spring semester, Professor Helfman hosts GULC students in her “Freedom and the Framers” reading group, where she guides students through an exploration of the ideas and events that helped shape the American Constitution.

The purpose of the group, Professor Helfman says, is to allow students to enrich their understanding of constitutional doctrine and thereby become “useful and effective lawyers. [The reading group] is a lot more free-wheeling than a normal Socratic-oriented course. We read interesting things, and everyone is motivated to be there because they’ve chosen to be there.  It’s not for credit.”

One of her students is Angell Darvalics, a first-year evening student who says she looks forward to the reading groups each week where Helfman brings homemade cupcakes. “Professor Helfman’s vast knowledge of constitutional history combined with her enthusiasm and humor inspires me to want to learn more,” Darvalics says. “What I love most about her teaching style is that her passion and enthusiasm for the history of the Constitution is infectious.”

“It’s a delight for me and I do it in part for purely self-indulgent reasons,” Helfman says. “I could read these texts on my own but there is something especially illuminating about re-visiting texts I’ve read more times than I can count with students.  The students teach me a lot.”

Given her relaxed teaching duties, Helfman is able to immerse herself in a different setting and focus on being a scholar. Her primary reason for being with the Center is to continue research on the original meaning of the law of nations, which is loosely translated in modern speak as international law.

Her other project is a forthcoming manuscript about Robert Thorpe, a British vice-admiralty judge and abolitionist in the Sierra Leone colony. “It’s a history that, for whatever reason, has been neglected,” Helfman says. “It tells a story about liberated Africans who found freedom through his court, and explains how international norms are made—through legal theory and the presence of force.”

And Helfman, an originalist scholar, says that the very idea of a written constitution demands nothing less. “Originalism provides us with a meaningful way to situate our present in light of our past without rendering us helpless in the dead hand of the past,” Helfman says. “It recognizes that ideas have durability and that the ideas that underpin the Constitution endure in part because we are constantly engaging in conversation with them as lawyers and scholars and as citizens.”

After spending years studying legal texts from different ages, Helfman says she doesn’t need citizens to love the Constitution, but instead to read it, think about it and engage with it. “From the standpoint of the entire history of human experience, our Constitution is remarkable.”

Q/A with Professor Helfman

Q: Did you always want to teach?

A: I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I grew up in Queens, New York which has been characterized as one of the most multicultural areas in the world. I didn’t know any lawyers growing up so I thought I’d be a school teacher or secretary. I worked my way through college, working the 4:00 to midnight shift in a hospital trauma center in the most violent neighborhood in Queens.

Q: Do you enjoy writing contemporary pieces for the masses?

A: I see it as consistent with being a lawyer and professor. Our profession doesn’t have a monopoly on the Constitution; it belongs to all Americans. To the extent I can make deeply politicized or seemingly complex issues intelligible to laypeople, I feel like I am living up to one of my highest and best uses: to help people engage intelligently with the law.  I do that in the classroom by training lawyers, and in magazine articles by educating, engaging, and sometimes infuriating readers.  I don’t mind if some people are infuriated by my opinions–I have a thick skin.

Q: How did you get to where you are today?

A: I had professors who encouraged me to think bigger and differently than the world in which I had grown up.  They encouraged me to apply for graduate scholarships.  As a graduate student I studied the history of ideas at Cambridge in the same program that Professor Laura Donohue (Georgetown Center for the Constitution Senior Scholar) did. It was a mind-expanding and horizon-altering experience. I thought about career opportunities in a whole different way.

Q: Do you have any mentors?

A: I’ve been very blessed to have had professors who were true mentors to me and saw in me capacities that I did not recognize in myself.  They encouraged me to pursue ideas or projects or goals that I would not have done were it not for their vision and confidence. These were people who challenged me and did not hold my hand. They challenged my assumptions and arguments in order to encourage me to think more rigorously. They made me a stubborn researcher and a dedicated scholar. Those mentorships made me a better lawyer and scholar.

Q: Tell us about your book, “Liberty & Union.”

A: My co-author was a professor who taught me constitutional history and become my mentor, then my friend.  We kept in close contact over the years. We realized there are histories of constitutional law – basically, histories of case law and the Supreme Court.  But this book is different in that it is a constitutional history of the United States.  It takes as its unifying theme the notion that the Constitution plays an extremely unique role in this nation in the way we self-define. We don’t have a royal family, we don’t have a common religion, we don’t have a state ideology like an official state party, and we don’t even have the same common history as individuals in this country – but we share a common commitment to the Constitution. The book comments on how that commitment manifests itself through history

Q: What advice do you give to your law students?

A: I encourage my 1Ls to find a study buddy whom they get along with and can bounce ideas off of.  As a student, you may have understood 40% of the content of a case and your partner may have understood another 40% of the case, material that you may have missed altogether.  Together you can come to a more complete understanding of the material. The danger of studying alone is that you don’t know what you’ve missed – because you’ve missed it.

Q: If you were to return to your law school days at Yale, what would you tell yourself?

A: To cherish the friendships you make. I recently had lunch with a classmate I had not seen in 10 years and we picked up right where we had left off.  Also, competition [in law school] does not have to occur at the expense of decency and goodness. In a profession that trades on personal integrity and professional ethics, the way you treat your classmates and the reputation you cultivate in law school really brands you as a professional long before you are sworn in to the bar.

One response to “Visiting Scholar Tara Helfman on originalism, the Constitution and her new status at Georgetown

  1. David R. Marcus


    I always knew you way more cerebral than me. I came across this piece about you visiting at Georgetown and just wanted to say “well done”. David


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