Notice & Comment

Remembering Richard Parker, by Amy Sinden

I kick myself now. Had I understood the imminence of the deadline, maybe I could have concocted a way to cross paths with him sooner. But as things played out, I remained a distant admirer of Richard Parker for close to two decades and only got to experience his wit and charms in person during what turned out sadly to be the final two years of his life. And, of course, the “in person” really does need quotes around it. Among the countless large and small losses inflicted by the COVID pandemic was the conversion of what should have been, in any ordinary time, a proper in-person introduction into the kind that has become by now so tiresomely familiar—talking to a miniature version of Richard on a tiny box on my computer screen.

It was in the late spring of 2020. A group of about two dozen progressive administrative law scholars and activists had gathered with tentative optimism about the potential outcome of the upcoming presidential election to chart a way forward for a progressive vision of regulatory review. I had seen his name on the guest list and was eager to “meet” him, having been a fan since the early days of my academic career when I first ran across his 2003 classic, Grading the Government. Studying that piece, in which, with his trademark clarity of thought and precision, he surgically and painstakingly laid bare the fallacies of the anti-regulatory “scorecards” of that era, I thought “I wish I could write an article like that.”

But once I saw him in action, I realized the glimpse I got from reading his writings gave me only a narrow slice of the full range of this man’s prodigious talents and virtues. There were, of course, as many disparate opinions about the issues we were discussing as there were law professors in the Zoom room. I, as designated moderator, struggled to keep all those cats herded in some discernible direction. But before long, Richard emerged as the real leader of the group. He was smart and quick, but more importantly, he had that rarest of virtues—the ability to listen and to do so with genuine interest and respect. He was a master at finding and locating the elusive path of consensus and bringing others along on it. Never heavy handed, his approach was instead so gentle, so charming, and so self-effacing, you hardly realized you were being persuaded.

That evening, with lightning speed, he drafted an eloquent 2-page distillation of the group’s ideas and through several days of patient emails and phone calls managed to wrestle it into what I viewed as nothing short of a miracle—a consensus document that pretty much every one in the Zoom room was willing to sign on to. I could see that Richard’s special brand of intelligence went far beyond simple cleverness and mental adroitness. It encompassed also a kind of emotional wisdom that I fear may be becoming old-fashioned. He understood the importance of one-on-one rapport and personal relationships and that producing a consensus document like this required more than a couple of group emails. He took the time to patiently reach out personally to key players by phone, to find out how their kids were doing, and to ask about their summer plans. The result was to transform what could have been just another meeting of academics holding forth about their individual ideas into a concrete work product that had real potential to move government policy.

I feel fortunate that Richard and I had the chance to work on a few small projects together in the months that followed that initial meeting. But I had thought that was just the beginning of many more years of collaboration and friendship to come. You are sorely missed, Richard. Even by this friend who never even got to shake your hand. I wish you hadn’t left us so soon.

Amy Sinden is a Professor of Law at Temple University and serves on the Board of Directors of the Center for Progressive Reform.