April 14, 2011 — At Wednesday's Founder's Day luncheon in the Dome Room of the Rotunda, each recipient of the 2011 Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals expressed gratitude and humility that they should be honored in the name of one such as Thomas Jefferson.
"If Mr. Jefferson were here," said Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Cynthia Kinser, recipient of the medal in law, "he would receive all three medals – architecture, law and citizen leadership."
Jefferson's birthday, April 13, is marked each year with the presentation of the medals by the University of Virginia and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates Monticello. The medals are the highest external honor bestowed by the University, which grants no honorary degrees.
After the presentations, President Teresa A. Sullivan offered the traditional toast to U.Va.'s founder: "We honor him and we wish him 'happy birthday.' "
The three medal recipients – Kinser, environmental designer Maya Lin and philanthropist Peter G. Peterson – each gave public talks at the University during their visits this week.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture: Maya Lin
For Lin, it's all about the environment.
In her talk, "Between Art and Architecture," presented Wednesday to a packed crowd in Old Cabell Hall, Lin, a designer and artist, said, "I see my work as a tripod – art, architecture and memorials."
Her works include the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington; the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala.; the Women's Table at Yale University; a chapel for the Children's Defense Fund in Clinton, Tenn.; and the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City's Chinatown. She also has created large-scale, site-specific art installations that explore nature and smaller indoor installations that continue her exploration of the land.
Whether it is a line drawn in space with stainless steel tubing that depicts the topography between Angel Island and the Golden Gate Bridge for "Where the Land Meets the Sea," a work at the California Academy of Sciences; or an earthwork sculpture that reclaimed a gravel pit, reimagined as a "Wavefield" at Storm King Art Center in New York, each work focuses on the natural world and invites the viewer to explore and interact in a new way. Lin said she is interested in "influencing your perception of the land."
For a major project along the Columbia River, Lin was asked to commemorate Lewis and Clark's expedition through the Northwest. Seeking a deeper and richer history, she engaged Indian tribes living in the area and combined their views of reverence for the land with the explorers' findings and observations. They had two very different ways of looking at the world, she said.
For what she says will be her last memorial, "What is Missing?," Lin is creating a number of site-specific works that address species loss and create awareness about what scientific and environmental groups are doing to combat it. Her concern for dwindling biodiversity is made visible in the project's "Map of Memory," which she said she hopes will create awareness of our "former ecological abundance."
Her overarching goal is "getting people to think through art and to imagine plausible scenarios for how we can live," she said.
Thomas Jefferson Medal in Law: Cynthia Kinser
Rather than being merely complex legal abstractions, the decisions made by the Virginia Supreme Court "truly touch the daily lives and affairs of everyone in all walks of life," Kinser said Tuesday at the School of Law.
In 1997, then-Gov. George Allen, a U.Va. Law classmate, appointed her to the state Supreme Court, and in 2010 her fellow justices elected her the first female chief justice of Virginia.
Kinser was a noted jurist and attorney in her native Southwest Virginia long before she joined the state Supreme Court. She was raised – and still resides – in Pennington Gap, a town in Lee County only 10 miles from the Kentucky border.
After graduating from the Law School, Kinser clerked for Judge Glen M. Williams of the Western District of Virginia before entering private practice in Southwest Virginia, where she was one of the only female practicing attorneys at the time.
She was elected as Lee County's first female commonwealth's attorney in 1980 and later returned to private practice before being appointed a U.S. magistrate judge for the Western District of Virginia in 1990.
The seven members of the state Supreme Court heard 2,600 cases last year and granted 187 appeals, Kinser said. This record compared favorably with the 8,000 filings in the U.S. Supreme Court that resulted in only 73 opinions, she said.
Even if the facts in a given appeal may seem to justify a particular ruling, Kinser said, appellate judges are bound by very specific rules in overturning a verdict. If judges are not strict in applying those rules, their decisions become dangerous, she said.
As a result, appellate judges take their duties seriously, Kinser said. "It's not unusual to spend many hours writing and editing just one part of an opinion to make sure that at the end of the day it says exactly what the court intended it to say," she said.
"All of us struggle with and worry about the unintended consequences of any decision. How is it going to play out in the next case?"
Among the many rules that bind appellate judges, Kinser highlighted four: the litigant's legal standing, the relevance of the error or argument to the original trial, the standards of review and legal precedence.
"I believe that if appellate judges regularly reverse factual findings or the discretionary decisions of the trial judges because we happen to disagree with them, we would be removing the people best suited to make those decisions from that role, and I believe that we would be undermining both our system of justice and the public's trust in all courts' decisions," she said.
Thomas Jefferson Medal in Citizen Leadership: Peter G. Peterson
Peterson and his philanthropic foundations have long been concerned with the fiscal challenges threatening America's long-term future, said Harry Harding, dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, in introducing Peterson's talk Tuesday afternoon in the University Chapel. "Because he was so far ahead of his time in focusing on this issue of import today, he's a hero of mine," Harding said.
Peterson dived right into his signature issue.
The national debt – the cumulative total of annual federal budget deficits – now surpasses $12 trillion. Almost half is held by foreign investors, who may one day become spooked that the U.S. won't be able to pay off those debts in a timely fashion, unleashing a "debt bomb" that would devastate the national and global economy, he said.
Even assuming the expiration of stimulus spending to deal with the recent financial crisis, an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a drop in unemployment, Peterson said, deficits and debt are still expected to grow rapidly and unsustainably, reaching roughly 300 percent of GDP in 2040 – far higher levels of debt than the U.S. racked up fighting World War II.
To explain these complex and monumental challenges to the average American, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation produced an acclaimed documentary, "I.O.U.S.A.," in 2008, and a sequel, "I.O.U.S.A. Solutions," two years later. The foundation also produced what Harding called one of the best briefings on the issue, "State of the Union's Finances: A Citizen's Guide."
As outlined by President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, setting America's finances on a sustainable trajectory will require a combination of increasing taxes, closing tax loopholes and cutting spending in the major segments of the budget: defense spending and entitlements, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Peterson said.
Each of those components will be a tough sell politically, but reining in health care costs "is the toughest issue, by a factor of 10, compared to all these other issues," Peterson said.
"We have a bipartisan problem here. We've got to get the left, the independents and the right together on a plan.
While higher taxes on the rich alone won't come close to solving this challenge, he said, any politically palatable solution necessarily must include such measures, so "those of us who are affluent have to confront the fact that our taxes are going to go up.
"It's not only politically incorrect to ask people to sacrifice, it's considered politically fatal. But we've gotten to the point where we can no longer avoid sacrifice," he said.