By Bob Kaster
I received my law degree in 1967 from Hastings College of Law. The school in San Francisco is part of the University of California system. Its current name, probably not for long, is UC Hastings Law. The school was named after Serranus Clinton Hastings, its founder, a nineteenth century politician, rancher, lawyer and judge. He served on the California Supreme Court as Chief Justice and was also elected Attorney General of California. There is evidence dating as far back as 1860 that Hastings had an active role in the killing of Yuki Indians in California’s Eden and Round Valleys. The issue became prominent in 2017 when the San Francisco Chronicle published an opinion piece to the effect that Hastings promoted and funded “Indian-hunting expeditions in the 1850s.” In keeping with today’s sentiment supporting tearing down statues and renaming venerable institutions, the school is now poised to change its name. The chancellor, almost as an afterthought it seems to me, recently sent out a letter to alumni asking for them to voice their opinions, to which I responded.
Unless you have a JD degree from Hastings Law, you probably don’t care if the school changes its name. But you may care about the larger issue it symbolizes. For that reason, I am submitting an excerpt of my response to the Chancellor. Some readers probably won’t agree with my reasoning. If that’s true, you will be in good company, for the law school’s Board of Directors and the California State Legislature probably won’t agree either, and the school’s name will be changed. In fact, I think it’s already a done deal.
Dear Chancellor Faigman,
This letter responds to the June alumni newsletter inviting comments about the school’s name change. I am opposed to it.
Some background on me, and why I care about this: I am probably one of the older folks you will hear from. I graduated from Hastings in 1967, benefiting from the wisdom of the “65 Club” of renowned law professors forced into retirement from other institutions because of their age. For me they were professors Prosser, Powell, Perkins, and others.
I am grateful to Hastings for giving me a chance, and for opening doors of opportunity. I recall the dean’s handwritten message on my acceptance letter that said something like, “Frankly, Mr. Kaster, we are not impressed by your college marks; and we expect you will devote your every waking hour to the study of law when you are here at Hastings.” Well, somehow I survived Hastings, and have enjoyed a successful life, for which I can thank the school. With my JD degree, I served in the US Air Force JAG during the Vietnam era, I practiced law for eighteen years, and I served on the California Superior Court for twenty years. Thank you, Hastings.
The pride I have in my law school will be diminished immeasurably if the name is changed. When people ask me where I went to law school, and I answer, “Hastings,” it invariably garners a response of genuine respect. Will that continue? I think not.
In my mind, the current woke hysteria of removing statues of important historical figures and changing names of venerable institutions is connected to the frightening claims I hear more and more that the US Constitution also needs to be gone; that it is irrelevant, and flawed because the drafters of the document owned slaves and didn't view the world the same way we do now.
It’s true that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison owned slaves. They were flawed, although not considered so in the time and culture in which they lived. Serranus Clinton Hastings apparently participated in the California genocide, which involved the killing of indigenous peoples by the US government and private citizens. Through the lens of history, we can righteously look back at those activities with horror. But likewise, we can look back at all of western civilization through the same lens with similar horror.
But the stature of Hastings College of Law and the respect for the school’s name don’t exist because of Serranus Clinton Hastings, or the good or bad things he may have done in the nineteenth century. They come from the solid reputation the institution has achieved and the high standards it has maintained since its founding in 1878. The school’s name is an important element of its reputation. I can’t help imagining how Dean Prosser would react today to the proposed name change. I guess we can’t ask him, but after more than fifty-five years his presence and demeanor are still vividly fixed in my mind, and I can make a pretty good guess.
As to the question of what name should be given to the school if the name is changed, I honestly don’t care. In deference to “the artist formerly known as Prince,” may he rest in peace, to me it will be “the law school formerly known as Hastings.”
The problem with tearing down statues, changing names of institutions, and heaven forbid, dismantling the US Constitution, is what comes next? Venezuela comes to mind.
I’m looking back on fifty-five years of pride in being associated with Hastings College of Law. I fear that fifty-five years from now people will look at UC _____ (insert new name here) as the formerly great institution that surrendered its name to the woke public sentiment du jour.
Bob Kaster, Class of 1967
Email: [email protected]
Bob Kaster is a long-time Yreka resident and retired Superior Court Judge. In retirement, he has taken up creative and journalistic writing, including novels, short stories and essays. For five years he has written local newspaper columns under the byline, The Septuagenarian Speaks. Having turned 80, he wonders if the name of his column should be changed, and, if so, to what?