John H. Mansfield ’56: 1928–2014

Of the old school, and on the cutting edge

John Howard Mansfield, the John H. Watson, Jr. Professor of Law, Emeritus, and scholar of the First Amendment, died on April 10, 2014, at the age of 85.

“Professor Mansfield has never stopped seeking understanding of what makes life so worth living.”

Credit: Leah Fasten “Professor Mansfield has never stopped seeking understanding of what makes life so worth living.”

He joined the faculty of Harvard Law School in 1958 and was known for his courses and scholarship in constitutional law, evidence, and issues of church and state.

Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow said: “John devoted his professional life to Harvard Law School. He was a good friend and a mentor to many of us, as well as to so many students. He will be greatly missed.”

Mansfield was a demanding yet warm teacher who embodied the “education by expectation” that he so admired in his hero, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter LL.B. 1906, whom he honored in a 1965 Harvard Law Review tribute.

“As generations of Harvard students can testify, John Mansfield relentlessly adhered to and expected the highest standards of excellence in his classrooms, in and out of season,” said HLS Professor Mary Ann Glendon. “As a scholar, he relentlessly searched for truth, unafraid of where his quest would lead him. As a colleague, he was kind and generous. It was a privilege to have known him.”

In a tribute to Mansfield published in the Fall 2008 issue of the Harvard Law Bulletin, James Sonne ’97 wrote  that his former professor was “among the most engaging, and engaged, men I’ve ever known.” Sonne continued: “All his work shows the dexterity of mind and clarity of thought of a true teacher-scholar.”

Mansfield’s research interests were in the areas of comparative and constitutional law, as well as the law of evidence. In his scholarship, he wrote landmark works on the jury system, scientific evidence, law and religion, legal history, and the law of India.

John Mansfield

Credit: John Chapin John Mansfield joined the HLS faculty in 1958.

He was author of the book “Evidence: Cases and Materials, with 2005 Supplement” and several shorter works and articles. His article “The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment and Foreign Relations,” published in 1986 in the DePaul Law Review, has been cited as the first scholarly work to consider the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause abroad, five years before a court had ever considered the issue and 15 years before 9/11.

After graduating from Harvard College and HLS, Mansfield served as clerk for Justice Roger Traynor of the Supreme Court of California and then for Justice Frankfurter on the Supreme Court.

In July 2008, Mansfield retired from Harvard Law School. In the Bulletin tribute written for that occasion, Sonne wrote: “He is one of the last of a great generation, having shared the joys and struggles that marked the times with dearly departed friends and colleagues such as Mark Howe, Phillip Areeda and David Westfall. In many ways, he is a man of ‘the old school’ who believes, as Professor David Rosenberg once observed, that ‘one good question is better than 10 good answers.’ At the same time, his work in comparative and interdisciplinary areas exemplifies the cutting edge of legal thought.”