In Memoriam: An Interview with Professor J. Gordon Hylton

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.”