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When the mind that launched 1,000 reactionary academic tracts died last week, at least a few local attorneys took note. One might even say they found meaning. In a refrain familiar to many lawyers, Jacques Derrida, the notoriously complex French theorist who died Oct. 8, was labeled by critics as a moral relativist, a nihilist who obscured the distinction between right and wrong. So perhaps it makes sense that, among Derrida’s 1,403 most ardent supporters — meaning those who signed a letter this week to The New York Times objecting to an Oct. 10 obituary that called him an “abstruse theorist” — were at least 22 attorneys, law professors and students. One of them was Philip Leider, a deputy San Francisco city attorney. “You could just hear [the author of the obituary] saying, ‘Everything about this was a bunch of garbage. Thank God he’s gone,’” Leider said. Leider, for one, is not thanking God — or whomever the post-Nietzsche equivalent would be — largely because he spent the early 1990s as Derrida’s student and personal assistant at UC-Irvine. While Leider abandoned literary theory for law school in 1996, he said Derrida’s teachings were not abstruse enough to leave behind. “You learn to listen for things, to look for things in writing and legal writing, that you would never have learned,” said Leider, who left Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom last spring to work on same-sex marriage litigation for the city. Derrida wrote extensively on the law, and his work was widely discussed in American legal theory after he spoke at a 1993 conference on ethics and law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. Scott Spear, at the time an Alameda County public defender, attended the conference. He said that while Derrida’s work has few direct courtroom applications, his theories of meaning and ethics remain important influences, despite many law professors’ opinions that Derrida’s work is too unintelligible to teach. “There’s something hypocritical about criticizing him for being difficult, since that’s what we’re supposed to do, to try to understand difficult texts,” Spear said, adding that he’s never met another lawyer who has read a single Derrida text. Jonathan Simon, an associate dean at Boalt Hall School of Law, says this hypocrisy (or pharisaism, as Derrida would put it) keeps many law students from learning some of the more important pieces of legal theory. “It’s the kind of serious thinking that law school dilettantism doesn’t lend itself to,” he said. The overarching message of this serious thinking: “Language as a surface is not a flat message board where you can post the message that you want. It’s a roiling wave of meaning whose force we can direct,” Simon said. Practically speaking, this means that legal documents may be read — deconstructed, even — as texts separate from their authors’ intent. But Rajiv Vrudhula, also a signatory on the Derrida defense letter and an associate in Morrison & Foerster’s New York office specializing in financial transactions, hopes to keep this lesson out of his work. “The purpose of what we’re doing is trying to stamp out ambiguity,” he said.

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