Nolan Thomas / Morningside Muckraker
You wouldn’t mistake Professors Robert and Elizabeth Scott for native New Yorkers, not if you’d encountered their warm, engaging demeanor. Nor would you likely guess their origins.
He hails from India, and is a proud alumnus of Woodstock School, but he attended high school in New Jersey. She was born in Washington, DC, but moved often, as her father was in the Foreign Service. Their paths first crossed at Oberlin College, in Ohio. They have since lived in Virginia, now reside in New York City, and maintain a summer home in Nantucket. Understandably, they struggled when I asked them to identify their hometowns.
But if they haven’t found stability in residence, they have plainly found it in each other. The two were interviewed as a team. She reflected on the joys of working with him; he bragged about her first job offer. When I inquired about their secret talents, each offered the other’s. And as for their hometown, they tentatively settled on Charlottesville, Virginia.
Where did you meet?
E: Oberlin, at a pool hall. I was a freshman; he was a junior. I was on a date with a friend of his, who introduced us.
R: And I was looking for attractive freshmen. She made it easy for me, because she left her purse behind, which turned out to be a complete accident. She left her purse everywhere, apparently. But I took the opportunity to return it and ask her out.
Where was your first date?
R: The movies. There was only one theater in Oberlin and one movie playing, so we saw The Longest Day. It was about D-Day. John Wayne.
E: Then we went for ice cream sundaes at a place called The Pen & Pencil.
What was the most reckless thing you did together?
E: Get married!
R: It didn’t seem reckless at the time.
E: I was 19. He was 21. Our parents were a bit surprised.
R: Our parents were overseas. My father came in from Switzerland to meet her, and he was very pleased with what he saw.
E: It all worked out.
R: Yes. Getting married so young, things really could’ve gone off the rails.
E: We were very fortunate.
R: And we haven’t been very reckless since!
Were you both set on law school?
E: He started law school before me. I went to law school when our daughter was four.
R: Her first offer for a professorship was here at Columbia. Walter Gellhorn, a distinguished professor at CLS, read an article of hers and suggested her for the position! We came as a couple, in the 80s, and they wanted us to stay, but my parents were in Virginia. Also, our son was six, and New York wasn’t the place to raise him. It was a little rougher in those days.
What’s it like working together?
E: It gives us a lot to talk about. We’ve written articles together, which is fun. Usually some combination of my Family Law and his Contracts expertise.
What work are you most proud of?
E: I did a lot of work in juvenile justice. Together with Larry Steinberg, I wrote an article arguing that adolescent immaturity reduces culpability for criminal defendants. It was used in the SCOTUS ruling that struck down the juvenile death penalty. See Roper v Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).
R: As the dean of the University of Virginia Law School, my goal was to transform the campus. We got rid of all the East German architecture.
E: (shaking her head) Brutalist.
R: Now the facilities are beautiful. It’s a modern environment, but there are lots of gardens.
What law could the US dispense with or create?
E: Legalize same-sex marriage. Marriage should be available to everyone.
R: More restrictions on guns. I was very disappointed with the latest ruling on the Second Amendment. Guns are responsible for a great deal of violence in this country.
E: And overrule Citizens United.
What are your shared interests outside of the law?
R: We also enjoy the theater, the opera, traveling, hiking.
E: We’ve been to the French, Swiss, and Italian Alps. The Canadian Rockies.
R: Patagonia. Peru. We went on a 100 mile hike in Kenya.
R: Over the course of 10 days.
Who are your historical heroes?
E: Eleanor Roosevelt
How do you feel about animals?
E: We love animals.
R: Love ‘em.
E: We’ve had cats and dogs. We just lost Lucy, a black Labrador retriever, recently. Before her, we had two golden retrievers, Tess and Heather.
R: That’s been a less good experience.
That’s awfully cryptic.
R: We’ve had a series of cats. Tanya, Sophie, Jinx, Ned. Some died an unhappy death.
E: Tell the Buttercup story.
R: Buttercup liked to rest on top of the car tires.
E: You can probably guess how this ends.
R: We did check the tires, you know… usually.
What are your secret talents?
R: She is an incredibly talented interior designer, very skillful. She really has an eye for what goes where.
E: He has a vast knowledge of sports trivia.
Any sport in particular?
E: Across the board.
What is a great family tradition you have?
R: Our children and their families visit us at our home in Nantucket every summer, for 10 days. Our daughter is a photographer and a mother. Our son is a lawyer. We have three grandchildren. It’s a great tradition.
Are your lives as you imagined they would be?
R: Not at all. My life has turned out so much better than I thought it would be. Luck has favored me for many years.
E: No. I didn’t plan a career at all until I became involved in the Equal Rights Amendment in the 70s. I read law review articles on the topic that piqued my interest.
R: She was part of the first wave of women who went to law school!
E: It helped to have a husband working as a professor. He was very flexible.
R: We’ve both been very fortunate.
This interview has been edited for style and form.