Official Publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association


Vol. 59, No. 5 | May/June 2002
Classifieds | Display Ads | Back to Contents

Integrating Scholarship, Teaching, and Service:How Four Law Professors Make It Work
by Sam Magavern

Minnesota law schools expect three things from their professors - scholarship, teaching, and community service - and most law faculty seem to have little difficulty achieving in all three areas. What can be more difficult is to integrate the three.

A familiar model exists for integrating skills-oriented teaching with community service: clinical classes offer professors a chance to teach the practical side of law while helping students provide service to disadvantaged people. But when it comes to scholarship - writing law review articles, for example - there is no comparable model to help connect professors with the issues facing their communities. It is left to individual professors to find ways to make their scholarship, teaching, and service reinforce each other. This article profiles four professors who have succeeded in making their legal scholarship and teaching a part of their quest for equal justice.

David Weissbrodt

Professor David Weissbrodt takes community service seriously; in 1999, he won an Outstanding Community Service Award from the University of Minnesota. What makes Weissbrodt unusual is how broadly he defines his community: it is literally the world. A leading scholar in international human rights, Weissbrodt makes his presence felt from Washington to Korea to Qatar. Last year (he acknowledges that it was an unusual year, even for him), he published four books, including a Training Manual on Human Rights Monitoring.

In over a dozen books and over one hundred articles, Weissbrodt has refined the art of what he calls “applied human rights research.” He does not undertake legal scholarship unless it has the potential to change the world, and he expects the same aspirations of his students. “I believe in having students do things that have impact in the real world,” he notes. When a student approaches him with a potential topic for a term paper, Weissbrodt asks, “How can we turn your interest into something that will help the world?”

Thus, one student recently did a memorandum for counsel in a Florida case against military officers from El Salvador for their alleged complicity in the killings of nuns and other non-combatants. Another student just turned in a paper analyzing what went wrong at the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban. The student interviewed local attendees, studied past conferences, and tried to create a better model for future attempts. Weissbrodt will not just correct and grade the student’s paper; he will send a draft of it to others who attended Durban so that they can help improve it and also be influenced by it.

Weissbrodt was a law student at Berkeley when a professor got him excited about the emerging field of international human rights law. After interning for the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva, Weissbrodt went into private practice in Washington DC, where he served on the board of Amnesty International and started their first DC group. Upon arriving at the University of Minnesota in 1975, he helped to found an active human rights community - including organizations such as Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, the Center for Victims of Torture, and the first Amnesty International group in Minnesota - what he calls “a sea in which I can swim.”

“My work has a global, national, and a local perspective,” Weissbrodt says. At present, he is working with the United Nations on the first set of “Human Rights Principles for Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises.” At the national level, the work involves dialogue with the U.S. Committee on International Business. At the local level, Weissbrodt is getting input from Minnesota corporations, which, he says, have been leaders on issues of corporate social responsibility. How will these new principles get used? One example is that the Financial Times Index has already expressed interest in using the principles as standards on which to base human rights report cards for companies.

Weissbrodt has a gift not just for scholarship, but also for creating structures that maximize the effectiveness of scholarship. Most importantly, he was the founder of the University’s Human Rights Center, which creates and disseminates educational materials, provides fellowships, does applied research, and maintains the Human Rights Library. Weissbrodt saw the potential of the Internet very early, taught himself to code HTML, and began to gather materials for an electronic library that now, with over 7,200 documents, has become the University’s largest web site. While the physical location of the Human Rights Library gets two or three visitors a month, the web site gets roughly 100,000 in a typical month, from over 130 countries. Some are scholars; many have practical reasons for needing the information they find. The Library exemplifies Weissbrodt’s application of analytical skill, organizational skill, and raw energy as both an activist scholar and a scholarly activist.

Eric Janus

The longest trial Eric Janus ever litigated took place not during his eleven years as a Legal Aid Society attorney, but during his tenure as a professor at William Mitchell. In 1995, Janus spent five weeks as co-counsel trying In Re Dennis Linehan while maintaining a full course load. “It was certainly not easy to do,” Janus acknowledges, “and I would never do it except in a critically important case.” For Janus, Linehan, the landmark case involving the civil commitment of a sex offender, is critically important because it involves “the misuse of state power to distort civil commitment to deal with a criminal law problem.” Minnesota’s laws on sex offenders, he feels, “undermine the legitimacy of the criminal and civil commitment systems”; furthermore, they represent “bad public policy” and “arbitrary government power.”

How did an academic come to litigate this case of national importance? Janus’s life as a law professor has been deeply influenced by his work as a practitioner before joining academia. It was a friend from his Legal Services days, Liz Nudell, who asked him in 1992 to join her on the Linehan case. Civil commitment was an expertise that he had first developed in practice, then deepened as an academic. Little did he know when he took on the case that it would involve three trips to the Minnesota Supreme Court, a habeas petition to the 8th Circuit, and two petitions for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court (one of which was granted). William Mitchell, he says, had no hesitation about letting him do it and has been supportive throughout. His students, too, while sometimes disagreeing with him on the merits of the case, have never expressed hostility toward his work on it. His work outside the classroom provides some unique learning experiences for his students - as when, in 1999, his Civil Procedure students got to see him argue a Linehan appeal in front of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Some professors might approach the civil commitment of sex offenders only from a service standpoint, as a type of case clinics have to handle sometimes; others might prefer the comfort of purely theoretical analysis of how civil and criminal law relate. But Janus blended scholarship, teaching, and public service. He has written about civil commitment and related issues in three books and roughly twenty articles. He has become a nationally known expert, routinely receiving calls from lawyers around the country seeking advice. He has edited journals and organized conferences. And he has litigated cases. He guesses that he spends about 25% of his time working on cases and communicating with lawyers around the country about their cases. What incentive does he have to spend so much of his time giving free advice? Janus notes simply that, having developed an expertise, “it would be stupid to let it go to waste.”

Janus has stayed connected to the world of practice in other ways, as well. A member of the Hennepin and the state bars, he has served on the Legal Assistance to the Disadvantaged committee of the MSBA and has published two articles in the Hennepin Lawyer. He notes with pleasure the ways in which, over the years, the private bar has increased its support of Legal Services programs and pro bono efforts, bridging the divide between the private bar and public service. He himself has “grown a lot more tolerant,” and learned that there are “many, many ways to do public service work.”

Robin Magee

One way academics can avoid the temptation of the ivory tower is through their students. Hamline Law Professor Robin Magee first leapt into local activism in 1992 when a student urged her to get involved in the case of the “Minnesota Eight” - the eight men accused of the murder of Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf.  Magee’s original involvement in the case was not as a litigator, but as an activist trying to educate the public about racial issues in the criminal justice system and to ensure a fair trial for the accused. The issue proceeded to “take over my life for three or four years,” says Magee. At the end of four years, Magee found herself “extremely disillusioned” and yet also “compelled to keep working on these issues.”

Before this experience, Magee had aspired to end up in a think tank, dealing with justice issues at a certain remove. She describes herself as having been naive about police racism, having grown up in Detroit, where the police were mostly African-American. After the experience “opened [her] eyes to the real world,” Magee saw a “strong need to make the work of a law professor more practical.” In particular, she saw that the analytical skills of a law professor could make a real difference when brought to bear on community issues. While Magee applied her analytical skills to her activism, she also incorporated her activism in her scholarship, writing an article entitled “The Myth of the Good Cop and Inadequacy of Fourth Amendment Remedies for Black Men.” 23 Cap. U.L. Rev. 151 (1994). The article examines the bias in favor of police testimony and against African-American men.

Magee’s next plunge into activism came in 1995 in an equally high-profile case: the arrest of Qubilah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter, upon allegations that she was plotting the death of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam head who was long rumored to have been involved in Malcolm X’s assassination. Magee’s involvement began on the street, when she was protesting at the federal courthouse at the time of Shabazz’s first appearance. Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow, noticed the sign Magee was holding and came over to speak with her.

Working with the Shabazz family, their counsel, and fellow activists, Magee sought to re-frame the issues of the case. Whereas the prosecutors focused attention on the alleged Shabazz/Farrakhan conflict, the Shabazz team turned the spotlight onto how the government was doing investigations in communities of color. “You needed a historical perspective to give legitimacy to the issue and to make an analysis of the government practices that would be audible to the mainstream media,” says Magee. While she had been disappointed in the Minnesota Eight cases, Magee feels that in the Shabazz case, “the contributions we made outside the courtroom had a profound effect on the case.” In the end, the government dropped its charges, which rested on an informant of dubious credibility, and Shabazz agreed to seek chemical dependency and psychiatric treatment. Magee’s “most cherished piece of correspondence,” she says, is her thank you letter from Qubilah Shabazz.

Not all cases need be high profile.  Magee expresses equal pleasure about her work with a group of ordinary tenants in a Minneapolis housing complex who felt oppressed by off-duty policemen working as security guards. Magee was troubled by the way the lines had blurred between on and off-duty work by the police. When on-duty, they amassed criminal files on the tenants which were then used in eviction proceedings. Conversely, when the tenants were contemplating criminal complaints against the landlord, they were understandably reluctant to turn to the police for help. Magee turned litigator and represented nine tenants in eviction actions, winning eight cases. In the end, she says, the work she and the tenants did forced the city to transfer some of the police officers involved to other parts of the city and eventually led the owners to sell the building. In her scholarship, the experience led to a current work-in-progress on the disclosure of confidential reliable informants in civil cases.

Magee’s experience as an activist turned her scholarship toward police issues. Recently, her position as a scholar allowed her to play a crucial role in the debate over racial profiling in St. Paul. On the invitation of the St. Paul NAACP, Magee helped negotiate one of the most far-reaching profiling policies in the country. Magee, who knows the benefits of being adversarial in some contexts, notes that “it was important not to be too adversarial in that context.” While the NAACP wanted someone with academic credentials and skills, the St. Paul Police wanted someone who was knowledgeable on the legal issues but was not a trial lawyer likely to sue them. The agreement that was reached “could not have happened without an academic in the room,” says Magee, “especially because it went beyond where the law is at this point.” The police agreed to give a consent advisory before searching motorists, to hand out business cards, to let the community develop some of the training given to the police, and to gather data and create an “early warning” system regarding racial disparities.

Magee gives credit for her own education to the activists she has worked with over the years - teachers, engineers, home-makers and others who knew far more about certain topics than she did. “Many times I started to talk, they started to laugh - because I was so removed from how the world operated.” Magee says she understands the initial unease academics may feel as they try to make the transition to community politics and issues; she felt it herself. But now she has reached a point in her career where she feels comfortable with her integration of scholarship, teaching, and community work. Furthermore, she feels fully supported by Hamline. “If I write an editorial, and people call the Dean and tell him to fire me, he tells them, “‘That’s why we hired her.’”

Jerry Organ

Jerry Organ, a professor at St. Thomas, moved to the Twin Cities only ten months ago, but he brought with him a history of community service - and is already on the board of St. Stephen’s Human Services and pondering how he might be able to address the local affordable housing crisis. While teaching law at the University of Missouri, Organ devoted many hours to serving on the board of the Central Missouri Food Bank, which provides food to food shelves. Organ notes proudly that, in the wake of severe flooding in central Missouri, the Food Bank became one of the few such institutions in the country to distribute to food shelves without charging a fee.

While many academics work to integrate scholarship, teaching, and service, for Organ and his colleagues at St. Thomas there is a fourth dimension: that of faith. Organ describes it as “freeing” to be at an institution explicitly dedicated to both faith and social justice. Part of their mission, he says, is to educate lawyers who take their pro bono duties seriously, regardless of what type of practice they have. Organ has a view of lawyering as problem-solving in a broad sense, one in which values and spirituality are an inevitable part of the equation for both lawyers and clients. He believes that a lawyer and client should work together to examine not just at what is legal but also what is right.

Organ left his private practice in environmental law to seek a more balanced and holistic career. He acknowledges, though, that the incentives provided by academia do not always align perfectly with the goal of doing community service. “The law academy in general values articles on national legal questions published in high visibility journals.” The way a law professor gains a reputation is to find a niche of scholarship, to say “here’s an area I’m going to dominate,” and then to write three to five interrelated articles on that topic. It can be challenging to combine a research agenda driven by those considerations with intervention in community issues that often have highly local aspects. Thus, Organ does not consider most of his publications - tending to deal with federalism issues in environmental law - as directly related to his community service.

In some cases, though, the worlds of scholarship and service have come together for him. In Missouri he had a student with a personal interest in a recent statute on concentrated animal feeding operations. After he helped her to do a research paper on the topic, he asked her if he could re-work it and co-author the revised piece. They did so and published the piece in the Missouri Environmental Law and Policy Review. Their work turned out to be useful to several nearby counties that were reviewing their land use policies, and Organ ended up serving on an interdisciplinary team of academics to advise the counties. Through that service opportunity, he was able to put his and his student’s scholarship to direct use.

Having begun to delve into Minnesota’s affordable housing crisis, Organ is now wondering about creating a similar dynamic of service and scholarship on that issue. In teaching a land use class next fall, he plans to use the lens of affordable housing to give perspective. Affordable housing might also be a focus for student term papers in the class and may become part of his own scholarly agenda. As Organ says, he is unusual among law professors in that he is contemplating moving out of his scholarly niche, despite the incentives to stay there.

As all four professors’ examples show, however, scholarly niches need not be preserved only in ivory towers. Scholarship can have practical use, and street experience can inform scholarship.


SAM MAGAVERN is the public policy advocate for the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, where he has practiced since 1992. He is a graduate of UCLA Law School and Harvard College.


Legal Scholarship for Equal Justice

Recognizing the contributions that professors like Janus, Weissbrodt, Magee, and Organ make to their schools and to the community, a diverse group from the bench, bar, and the four schools recently formed a Legal Scholarship for Equal Justice Committee (LSEJ) to encourage and facilitate more legal research and writing that advances the cause of equal justice for all. The Committee includes a Minnesota Supreme Court justice, the state Public Defender, and four law school deans and six professors, as well as representatives from private firms, the state bar association, Legal Services programs, and the Minnesota Justice Foundation. At its first meeting in February, LSEJ discussed ways to better integrate the legal scholarship with community needs.

The first fruit of those discussions is an innovative new class, co-sponsored by the four schools and open to enrollment from each of them. “Equal Justice, Applied Research” will be taught by Professor Janus in fall 2002. Students will receive a background in poverty law and local issues; they will then choose their research topics from a list compiled from practitioners and academics around the state by LSEJ. That list will also be made available to all the students and professors at the four schools, with the hope that when choosing their topics - for law review articles, independent study projects, term papers, and the like - faculty and students will want to address the issues practitioners have identified as important to the advancement of equal justice. LSEJ is also planning a CLE and symposium for 2003 at which professors whose work has special relevance to equal justice concerns will be able to present to practitioners.

For more information about LSEJ, please contact Heather Rastorfer Vlieger, Minnesota Justice Foundation, (651) 290-8658, mjf_staff@wmitchell.edu.