PUBLISHED:April 22, 2008

Faculty Lives in Public Service: Professor Erwin Chemerinsky

“We make time for the things we care about,” Professor Erwin Chemerinsky told a capacity audience of Duke Law students on March 19. These were apt words from a professor who makes the time to serve on government commissions, argue appellate cases before the Supreme Court, travel the U.S. to speak at law conferences, and write regularly about current legal issues.

The Alston & Bird Professor of Law and Political Science, Chemerinsky shared stories from his own life in public service as part of the “Faculty Lives in Public Service” series sponsored by the Office of Public Interest and Pro Bono.

Though he originally had plans to become a high school teacher, an interest in civil rights law led Chemerinsky to Harvard Law School. It was, he said, a somewhat “alienating” experience, since the public interest opportunities he desired were not readily available. “I only wanted to interview with public and government agencies, but there was a grand total of zero that came to campus.” He did, however, make a point of taking summer internships in public interest law in Washington, D.C., and his hometown of Chicago.

He worked at the U.S. Department of Justice for a year following his graduation, handling major fraud cases, which gave him “great training, wonderful responsibility,” he said. At a Washington, D.C. public interest firm he handled his “dream cases,” but in an “environment that was not very suited to my personality,” he said, recounting with humor the way the lawyers would yell to each other through the office walls.

The turning point came when he responded to an expired ad for a position to teach first-year constitutional law at DePaul College of Law, which launched his academic career — “the best job in the world,” and a great way to make a difference, he told his student audience. “My hope is that by being a law professor I can reinforce in students the desire to become public interest lawyers … and in that way have the larger effect of changing the world.” Tenure gave him the freedom to engage in various forms of public service work, he noted.

A prolific writer, Chemerinsky views his legal treatises and op-ed columns alike as efforts to bring about change. “If one writes enough over a period, there is the chance of having an influence,” he said. His many speaking engagements at law conferences around the country are likewise “part of a public education effort … [and] one way, in the long term, to change and shape the law.”

Of all his professional work, Chemerinsky claimed to be most proud of his leadership of an elected commission to rewrite the 600-paged Los Angeles city charter in 1997-98. “It was the most amazing two years of my life,” he said. He has since led and participated in other government commissions dealing with issues of racial diversity, city contracts, and police reform.

Another way he tries to make a difference, he said, is consulting with legislative bodies, “usually behind the scenes.” In 2006 he testified against the confirmation of current Supreme Justice Alito and recently advised the Los Angeles City Council on its adoption of gun control policies.

Chemerinsky referred to his considerable advocacy work as another manifestation of his commitment to public service. He has taken on an average of three or four appellate cases every year since 1987 — for a total of about 60 to 70— and has argued four in the United States Supreme Court. His cases have involved issues relating to voting rights, death penalty, police abuses, punitive damages and the First Amendment. “The difficulty is – I almost always lose!” he said, admitting that losing can be dispiriting.

One of his “most devastating losses,” he said, involved a client sentenced to life in prison under California’s three-strikes law for “stealing $153 worth of videotapes from K-Mart stores.” Although he won his argument in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court upheld the sentence; Chemerinsky’s client has no possibility of parole for 50 years.

In taking on cases with political or social significance, Chemerinsky has encountered considerable opposition. He recalled getting a deluge of “hate mail” after his first 2002 appearance in federal court on behalf of a Guantanamo detainee. The experience helped him “develop calluses” to the cruelest criticisms, he said, adding that in his mind, he only has two choices: “Give up, or fight harder. I cannot imagine giving up … without fighting as hard as I can,” he said.

Chemerinsky urged students to use their legal education to fight for the public interest, however hard it is to affect social change. “I believed when I applied to law school that law was the most powerful tool for social change,” he said. “I still believe that. I just didn’t realize how difficult social change was going to be … It now becomes the burden of your generation. I believe that as a lawyer you can make a difference, and having the power brings the duty to do so as well.” -Karmel Wong