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SEALS 2020 Wrap-up

Dear SEALS deans, program committee members, and supporters,

I am pleased to report that our 74th annual meeting has come to a successful conclusion. But what an unusual year! Coming into 2020, with terrific help from our members and attendees, we had prepared a terrific program for this year’s meeting. Then, the pandemic hit and an in-person meeting became impossible. Our major risk (every year) is potential liability exposure of up to $350,000 for unused rooms and contracted-for catering, and the pandemic decimated the desire of our membership to attend an in-person meeting. We were then forced to deal with enormous challenge of how to move everything online. Moreover, because the pandemic led to an economic downturn, law school budgets were squeezed and travel restrictions were imposed. As a result, many faculty had no funding for their participation in our meeting.

I am pleased to report that we were able to successfully transition to our first virtual meeting. Dean Megan Carpenter of the U. New Hampshire graciously offered her school’s assistance with the technical aspects of an online meeting. With fabulous help from her staff, particularly Mr. A.J. Kierstead, and from Mr. Peter Jetton (W&L), as well as because of terrific work of our dedicated staff, the online conference materialized. But the meeting was definitely a group effort. SEALS’ Board of Trustees, which usually meets 2-3 times a year, began meeting every other week under the strong leadership of President Colin Marks (St. Marys). The work load for the officers (who are also Board members in most instances) increased dramatically as well with all of the major officers (President, Executive Director, Deputy Executive Director, Treasurer, Secretary and Corporate Compliance Officer) forced to do a lot more work. The extra work also extended to committees with some committees forced to adapt to a rapidly shifting environment (e.g., as some moderators dropped out, they had to be replaced).

However, the end result reveals the resilience and dedication of the organization. Over the years, even as SEALS has become a solid scholarly organization, some have derided the meeting as nothing more than a “beach vacation.” This year proved that we are far more than that. With nobody able to travel to the beach (except for Tom Metzloff who had a virtual beach background in our online meetings), we still had a very strong turn-out for our meeting. Our final participation was down only about 15% to 20% from a normal year, and we hosted lots of good scholarly discussions. In order to make things work, SEALS’ Board lowered the registration fee to $80, and many attendees chose to pay the fee out of their own pockets, knowing that their institutions would not reimburse them.

While we experienced a few minor technical glitches, our overall meeting was a huge success. However, the credit extends well beyond the officers and Board.  In particular, we offer special thanks to the committees who had a lot more work this year. Because of Jon Garon’s (Nova) Online Education Committee and our sponsors (who offered special programming), we were able to offer some very interesting programs on distance education. At the last minute, Professor Mitch Crusto was able to put together special programming on the protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. Plus, on the financial front, I worked with the hotel to have our in-person cancellation treated as “force majeure” so that we were released from damage liability. So, I think it is safe to say that SEALS has emerged from a mine field and from what was undoubtedly the most challenging year in our history. In SEALS lore, we always refer to the 1992 Homestead (and the “Homestead 7”) as the biggest prominent disaster in SEALS history. That meeting nearly ended our organization. It is safe to say that the Homestead disaster has now been relegated to a distant second. The only thing that we were unable to salvage this year was the in-person faculty recruitment conference.

I have some announcements regarding SEALS leadership positions. First, Prof. Colin Marks has become the Immediate Past President and has been replaced in the presidency by Dean David Brennen of the University of Kentucky.  Second, the terms of Prof. Margaret Hu (at-large Board member) (formerly of W & L and now at Penn St.) and Prof. Ron Rychlak (U. Mississippi) have come to an end, and they have been replaced on the Board by Prof. Caroline Osborne (U. West Virginia) who became the new President-Elect, and by Prof. Charles “Rocky” Rhodes (S. Texas College of Law) who was elected to the open at-large Board of Trustees seat. Both took office at the end of our meeting. Please join me in welcoming both Carolina and Rocky to the Board! Finally, I was re-elected as the Executive Director and to the Board of Trustees.

I also have announcements regarding future site selections. SEALS Board of Trustees moved aggressively to take advantage of the pandemic by booking our ’25, ’26, ’27 and ’28 annual meetings at great places and great rates.  For ’25-’27, because the Omni Amelia Island Plantation dropped the word “Plantation” from the name of the resort, we will be going there in ’25, ’26 and ’27. The new name of the resort is the Omni Amelia Island Resort. We also booked the Marriott Harbor Beach for 2028 at a price that is only slightly higher than what we would have paid in ’20. So, our sites are now set from now until 2028. We were able to obtain fabulous attrition provisions which dramatically limit our risk exposure.  So, SEALS is secure for many years to come.

Our hope and prayer is that the pandemic will abate by next year and that it will be possible to hold a normal in-person meeting. Next year’s meeting is scheduled for the Boca Raton Resort and Club and will be held from July 26-Aug. 1st. Planning for next year’s meeting will begin in the near future.

Please be aware that SEALS functions as an open and democratic organization. In other words, there are no “sections” that decide and dictate SEALS programming.  Anyone at a member school is free to put together a panel or discussion group for the annual meeting.  If you have a particular topic that interests you, just do it! Prepare a title for the program, a short description, and find panelists or discussion group members, and submit it. If you need assistance, please feel free to contact me or SEALS’ Deputy Executive Director (Caprice Roberts of George Washington U.).

In the meantime, I hope that everyone has a safe and productive 2020-2021 academic year, and I pray that everyone stays safe from Covid-19. I was going to say “and now for a little rest.” But my classes start on Tuesday, and I have to help my daughter move to law school at the end of next week. So, as this say, there is no rest for the wicked!  Be safe!

Russell L. Weaver
Professor of Law & Distinguished University Scholar
University of Louisville
Louis D. Brandeis School of Law

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