Cancelling John Marshall: Two Law Schools Named After the Great Chief Justice Consider Dropping His Name

Told you so.

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In 2015, I queried whether a movement would form to take down statues of Chief Justice John Marshall. After all, he was an ardent slaveholder. Fast forward five years. In August 2020, I wrote a post titled "Cancelling John Marshall?" I questioned how long it would take for the purges to reach the Great Chief Justice. I'm sure some readers rolled their eyes. By now, you should recognize my predictions have a bad tendency to come true.

There are two American law schools named after John Marshall. First, the University at Illinois-Chicago John Marshall Law School. (Until recently this institution was an independent law school.) And second, the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

Now both institutions are reconsidering their names.

About three months ago, several attorneys started a Change.org petition, urging both of these institutions to change their names:

As Supreme Court Chief Justice, John Marshall owned slaves, upheld slavery, perpetuated the slave trade, and he denied Native American rights to the land. Yet so many schools are named after him, from elementary schools to a few law schools.  This is prime example of systemic racism in the legal and educational establishment. We call on the following institutions to drop "John Marshall", or "Marshall" from their name:

  • University of Illinois at Chicago - John Marshall School of Law
  • Cleveland State University - Cleveland-Marshall College of Law
  • 18 other elementary, high schools and grad programs

This petition has garnered more than 1,700 signatures.

Now, the Dean of the John Marshall School of Law has responded. She will appoint a task force to consider dropping the name, to "to further our work to become an antiracist Law School."

After listening to input from the Law School community, I am appointing a new task force and a new committee to further our work to become an antiracist Law School. The details about each appear below. I hope you all will work with these two groups to help us continue to evolve and grow. In the near future, I will be providing additional updates and details about other antiracism programs and initiatives. Thank you for reading about these important matters.

Task Force to Consider Renaming the Law School 

Background: UIC Law's official name is UIC John Marshall Law School. That name, until August 2025, is controlled by a Premises Covenant in the Asset Transfer Agreement between the University of Illinois Board of Trustees and The John Marshall Law School. In addition, another Premises Covenant requires UIC to refer to the Law School campus as the John Marshall campus until August 2025.

The Law School's name traces to its founding, in 1899, as The John Marshall Law School. John Marshall was the fourth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court; he also served as Secretary of State and as a member of the House of Representatives. John Marshall owned and traded slaves. He also wrote opinions that address slavery and indigenous sovereignty.

Some alumni, students, and faculty have called for the name John Marshall to be removed from the Law School's official name as expeditiously as possible and before the Premises Covenants expire. Dean Darby Dickerson has appointed and charged a Task Force to make findings and a recommendation about the Law School name.

If the Task Force recommends a name change, she will provide that recommendation to UIC's Chancellor. The Chancellor will make a recommendation to the University of Illinois President and Board of Trustees. Dean Dickerson also will provide the Task Force's findings and recommendation to the Law School Legacy Corporation f/k/a The John Marshall Law School so that its board can consider whether to waive the two Premises Covenants that require use of the John Marshall name until August 2025.

Charge: To develop findings and a recommendation about whether "John Marshall" should be removed from the Law School's name. In so doing:

Gather input from our law students, faculty, staff, and alumni regarding the Law School's name; Conduct research regarding C.J. John Marshall's personal and professional history regarding slavery, indigenous Americans, and related matters; Conduct research regarding why the Law School was named for C.J. John Marshall.

If the Task Force recommends removing the John Marshall name, propose the principles that should be recommended to the Law School Legacy Corporation when evaluating whether to release the University of Illinois from the Premises Covenants related to the John Marshall name and that the University of Illinois Board of Trustees use when evaluating whether to accelerate removal of John Marshall from the Law School's name.

Timeline: The Task Force's work will begin immediately. The Task Force plans to complete its work in or before January 2021.

I think I can predict what this Task Force will recommend: cancel John Marshall. From a business perspective, this move makes sense. The Dean will be able to sell the naming rights--a very valuable commodity.

The Cleveland-Marshall College of Law has also begun a process.

"We take the petition to change the name of our law school and the spirit in which it was written very seriously. We reject and condemn racism in all its forms - overt, covert, and systemic, and we accept our responsibility to evaluate our role in perpetuating racism, whether it is conscious or unconscious.

Removing "Marshall" from our law school's name would be a very consequential decision by the College of Law and Cleveland State University that will require careful study and thoughtful consideration of different viewpoints from our entire law school and university community. We have begun that process by forming a Law School Name Committee consisting of CSU Cleveland-Marshall faculty, staff, students, and alumni which is meeting regularly to consider this issue.

In considering a name change, we will incorporate wide input and will be guided by our proud history, our guiding values, our law school's mission Learn Law. Live Justice, and the values and mission of Cleveland State University."

Cleveland State is a public institution. I suspect the Ohio legislature may have some thoughts about this move. There have been rumors of a possible merger between the University of Akron School of Law and the Cleveland Marshall College of Law. This merger would help avoid the name-change issue.

In any event, I told you so. And the purges will not stop with John Marshall.