Monday, May 01, 2006 | I almost missed the obituary. Because I tend to read the newspaper from the bottom of the page up, I only saw the other obit on the untimely death of Bernard Siegal – also known as Buddy Siegal, also known as Buddy Blue – whose weekly music column in the Night and Day section was one of my all-time favorites. His caustic writing was wickedly irreverent, brimming with juicy dirt and spot on. It was also a hoot to read.
So when my husband asked me if I had read in the paper that morning that Bernard Siegan had died, I corrected him. “No, it wasn’t Bernie, it was Buddy Blue,” I said. I was certain he had confused the one letter in their names – Bernard Siegan, the professor; Bernard Siegal, the music critic.
When I retrieved the paper from the trash, I saw, at the top of the page, that he was right – Bernie Siegan had also died. The page had Siegan’s obit on top and Buddy Blue’s below it. I had only read the bottom one.
I knew Buddy Blue only from his columns, but my connection with Bernie Siegan was much more personal. The news of his death crept up on me slowly. Memories grew until by the end of the day I was filled with thoughts of all those years Bernie and I had engaged in stimulating political debates whenever we found ourselves trapped at the same parties together.
Bernie had been a good friend to my husband’s father until he died two years ago. It was because of my father-in-law that I first met Bernie. There were many occasions over the years – parties, gatherings, celebrations – where we had a chance to talk. It wasn’t long before we found our connection with one another, and a more unlikely connection one could not imagine.
Our politics could not have been more different. He was an ultra-conservative lawyer and educator who held to a strict interpretation of the Constitution. I was a liberal feminist who grew up in the late 60s and early 70s, filled with the powerful residue of successful social upheaval and revolutionary protest. We were polar opposites in so many ways, yet I was inexplicably drawn to him.
Siegan was born in 1924 in Chicago, the son of Polish-Russian immigrants. He spoke only Yiddish until he was five. After serving in the army in World War II, he earned his law degree from the University of Chicago in 1949.
In 1973, he moved west and became a law professor at the University of San Diego, where he remained until he died last month at the age of 81. Lengthy obituaries were featured in newspapers across the country, including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer and Los Angeles Times. Yet he belonged to San Diego, and we were proud to call him one of our own.
The legal scholar became known internationally as an expert on constitutional law, regulation, property rights and economic freedom, and authored numerous books on these subjects. He was famous for espousing the view that economic freedom deserves the same constitutional protections as the freedoms of speech, religion and the press.
In particular, Siegan was deeply committed to the importance of personal property rights and disdained governments that showed no respect for this fundamental freedom. He linked property rights to economic liberty and opposed the seizure of private property and the imposition of undue regulations that he felt violated the rights of property owners.
He argued that much of the social legislation enacted since the New Deal was unconstitutional because it infringes on an individual’s right to economic liberty.
In the National Review, USD law professors Gail Heriot and Maimon Schwarzschild called their esteemed colleague “one of the key legal and constitutional thinkers in the movement of ideas which became the Reagan Revolution.”
Siegan is widely recognized for his work with the emerging republics in Eastern Europe as Communism began to crumble in the 1980s. He helped draft Bulgaria’s constitution and provided constitutional advice to government officials and private groups in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, Armenia, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Peru and Canada.
In 1987, President Reagan nominated the distinguished professor to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Nearly a year and a half later, after being skewered by narrow-minded politicians opposed to his views, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected his nomination along party lines, by a vote of eight to six.
Gentle and Charming
But more than that he was gentle and kind, a person with whom one could debate and argue without name-calling, derision or invective. He was often befuddled – or appeared to be so – which only increased his sweetness and charm. But he was no absent-minded professor, with his sharp mind and quick wit.
Liberals were very lucky that Bernie was not the official spokesperson for conservative causes. Because of his respectful style, skilled debate tactics, well-formulated positions and quiet, attentive manner, his powers of persuasion would have been exponentially more successful than the shrill, abusive voices we hear today in government and on the airwaves.
Bernie would sometimes seek me out when he and I found each other in the same room for one event or another – usually to try to convert me to his side, his gracious wife Shelley told me. Mostly he would skip the small talk, which was always fine with me. We would check in with one another – how are you, how are the kids – before moving on to the topic of the day.
There was usually some story in the news that would allow him to put forth his viewpoints and present reasons why some of my “for the greater good” positions were unworkable.
I must have been a frustrating challenge – as set in my ways as he was in his. It didn’t matter. The point was simply to enjoy the thrill of the discussions, the arguments, the engagements. These conversations were an academic exercise that Bernie, of course, could have done in his sleep, but he indulged my eagerness to debate with him, which forced me to fine-tune my rhetoric and sharpen my mind.
Our discussions were ferocious at times but never bitter. Heated, yet cordial. More than cordial, actually. When we talked, he was always warm, thoughtful and respectful – even though I must have driven him crazy.
For my part, his conservative politics were infuriating, but my exasperation was always tempered by his delightful, gentle demeanor, which made his arguments disarmingly effective. We never had a conversation that didn’t include a flash of his infectious smile and a twinkle in his eyes.
Social issues were a hot topic. When we discussed abortion, for example, I could not convince him that his opposition was inconsistent with his libertarian views on economic matters.
Why, I asked again and again, should the government be prohibited from regulating personal property but be allowed to interfere in the bedroom and in a woman’s body? Owning your own body is light-years beyond owning a piece of land, if you want to talk about basic liberty.
In our dozens of conversations, we could never convince each other to change our views. Yet he never gave up trying. Why this remarkable scholar took an interest in me I’ll never fully understand. I can only be grateful that he did.
It was an honor and a privilege to know this man, a man of character and integrity, whose kind and courteous manner taught me a great deal about the power of reasoning, respectful debate and the qualities of an extraordinary educator.
His enormous contributions to American society and the international community are well-known and cannot be overstated. What has been less publicized are his virtues as a man, friend and teacher.
At a memorial service last week at USD, an odd combination of Catholic mass and Jewish service, speaker after speaker praised Bernie’s many accomplishments – from growing up poor in a Yiddish-speaking home, to helping create constitutions for foreign nations … and everything in between.
This gentle, unassuming giant – law professor, legal scholar and constitutional expert – became a crown jewel of this fine city. His death is our great loss.
Marsha Sutton writes about education and children’s issues. She can be reached at