Professor J. Gordon Hylton passed away May 2, 2018 after a battle with cancer. To honor his memory, the Virginia Law Weekly republishes this Spring 2016 discussion between Features Editor Lia-Michelle Keane '18 and Professor Hylton.
Homeruns and History with Professor Hylton
Lia-Michelle Keane '18
As a staff member of the newspaper, it is always exciting to interview a Law Weekly alumnus, and that is especially true when the individual in question can say that he served on the paper the year that it was cited by the United States Supreme Court. While that is a greater claim to fame than most people can even dream of, for Professor J. Gordon Hylton, his involvement in publishing the famed edition is merely a line on an impressive list of professional achievements.
In addition to teaching at institutions such as Marquette Law School and the Chicago-Kent College of Law of the Illinois Institute of Technology, Hylton is also a past member of the American Bar Association’s Diversity Committee, as well as a former chair of the Association of American Law Schools’ Sections on Legal History. On his journey to becoming a professor, Hylton obtained a J.D.-M.A. from the University of Virginia, along with a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Although Hylton has stated that his interest in academia was sparked as a student, he took the time to clerk for Justice Albertis S. Harrison and Chief Justice Lawrence l’Anson of the Virginia Supreme Court, and then worked at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination before ultimately returning to the classroom to begin teaching.
Although Hylton speaks of his time at Marquette Law fondly, he readily acknowledges that he is happy to be back at his alma mater, noting that “[a]lthough the law school that [he] attended in the mid-1970s was a more diverse and more cosmopolitan institution than it had been in the past, today’s faculty and students of law school in general are far more representative of the American population as a whole than was the case in [his] student days.” Something that concerns Hylton, however, is the fear that current students recite the names of individuals such as John Barbee Minor and William Minor Lile, yet few know who they were.
Notably, for those UVa Law School students who enjoy participating in the North Grounds Softball League, you can thank Hylton for helping to expand the role of the sport within our community. A Double Hoo with a vision, Professor Hylton and a group of friends founded the league during the fall of 1976, leaving behind a legacy and time-honored tradition that would continue for decades to come. In fact, as Hylton happily pointed out during our lunch in Stone Dining Room, NGSL will celebrate its 40th anniversary in the fall, which makes the student organization one of the longest running at our school. When asked if he continues to play softball in his spare time, Hylton replied that although he is on a team, his love of sports has largely shifted from the field to his research.
Indeed, as a legal historian, Hylton has examined historical and legal developments within the sports industry to write on such topics as the relationship between baseball cards and the modern right of publicity, as well as the longstanding tradition of using Native American team names. Hylton’s work is not confined to the sporting realm, however; he is also well-known for his scholarship pertaining to the history of African-American lawyers, a fact that our incoming dean, Professor Risa Goluboff, praised him for extensively when he permanently joined UVa Law’s faculty in 2015. Currently, Hylton is examining the history of legal education at UVa Law, focusing in particular on the law school’s beginnings in 1827 and the changes that it underwent up until the mid-1970s. He hopes to track the development of the Law School and “the role of the University of Virginia in the larger story of the history of American legal education.” Further, Hylton stated, “One of the great attractions of doing non-ideologically driven history [research] is that you don’t know what you are going to find until you actually do the research.
Despite his impressive credentials, Hylton maintains a tremendous sense of modesty, which he wears along with an unfailingly jovial attitude. Professor Hylton’s passion for teaching is apparent, and he notes that one of the things that he likes most about being a professor is having the opportunity to speak with students after class and during office hours. Additionally, Hylton admits that although he realizes 1L’s are under a great amount of stress, he nevertheless enjoys teaching first-year law school students because they are typically the most focused and well-prepared. Perhaps that is why Hylton’s favorite class to teach is Property, though he paused to add that Trusts and Estates was a close second. He described the latter as an extension of Property, noting that both courses involve elements of “death and greed,” which bring human aspects to otherwise technical subjects. He claims to appreciate the relationship between material possessions and how people relate to those objects, offering a unique way to think about future interests and the right to exclude. In addition to the courses noted above, Hylton also teaches Professional Responsibility and African-American Lawyers from the Civil War to the present.
Although Hylton derives great joy from his time lecturing, he does have one major complaint about teaching at UVa Law. Shaking his head, Hylton lamented that he is occasionally tasked with teaching in WB128 and similar classrooms where the lectern is positioned far away from the first row of students. If it were up to him, Hylton said that he would hold his classes in the rooms located on the second floor of Slaughter Hall, which he described as being “much better” than their counterparts in Withers-Brown Hall. Finally, when asked to offer a piece of advice to students, Hylton earnestly replied, “Giving good advice has never been one of my strong points; however, I think the legal profession will be better off if lawyers are as concerned about what the law should be as they are in knowing what the law is.”