A Supreme Legal Educator
I’ve circled around Willamette my whole life,” said Assistant Professor of Law Jeffrey C. Dobbins, a native Portlander. “I’ve always had a consistent level of respect for the College of Law. It is the most well-rounded law school in the state. Its relationship with state government and its location near the Capitol and state appellate courts afford students an important experience that is easily missed in other law schools.”
Dobbins, who clerked for Justice John Paul Stevens of the U.S. Supreme Court, knows firsthand how working with lawmakers can strengthen a young attorney’s lawyering skills. “I hope to be able to draw on cases I’ve worked on and those at issue when I was a clerk to illustrate what relevant rules of law are and to illustrate what will be most relevant to my students’ careers once they graduate,” he said.
Dobbins, who joined the College of Law in June 2006, taught Federal Courts during his first semester at Willamette. “The class is about tactics,” he explained. “As a litigator, you need to understand how to get clients into a court that is both appropriate and desirable, and you never want to lose sight of why you should or shouldn’t be in that particular court. My background will allow me to insert practical experience into the more theoretical course material.”
No doubt, Dobbins’ students will find his experience invaluable — and his background enviable. Dobbins attended Harvard University, where he studied the integration of science and history. “I thought very hard about pursuing an astrophysics degree,” he said, “but along the way, I discovered I liked a humanities approach to science.”
Dobbins’ interest in the human side of science led him to enroll in dual programs at Duke University in Durham, N.C. While pursuing his J.D. at the law school, Dobbins also was enrolled in a master’s degree program in environmental management at Duke’s School of the Environment. He served as articles editor for the Duke Law Journal, as well as editor in chief of the Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum. “I was interested in gathering information through scientific research then applying that information to legal and policy decisions,” he explained. Dobbins graduated from Duke in 1994, earning both a J.D. and an M.E.M. in resource economics and policy. He was first in his law school class.
Following graduation, Dobbins accepted a clerkship with Judge David S. Tatel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Washington. He joined the judge’s staff just as Tatel was appointed to the bench. “It was a great experience,” Dobbins said. “It was Tatel’s first year as a judge, so I was able to see him develop a process for making judicial decisions.”
Dobbins was tasked with writing bench memos, drafting opinions and assisting in the disposition of general court business, such as emergency stays and petitions for rehearing. Dobbins said serving as a clerk to a new judge was a great deal of responsibility. “I had to make particularly sure that I was always right — that all my research was always correct,” he explained.
After completing his clerkship on the Court of Appeals, Dobbins was offered the rare opportunity to clerk on the U.S. Supreme Court. In June 1995, he joined the staff of Justice John Paul Stevens. “It was a very different experience,” Dobbins noted. “By the time I started the clerkship, Stevens had already been on the court 20 years. He could have done the work with one hand tied behind his back.”
Dobbins worked closely with Stevens, reviewing and recommending action on petitions for certiorari, addressing emergency applications, and considering cases scheduled for argument. Dobbins also reviewed and edited opinions. “I would help to fill in the structure of an opinion initially drafted by the Justice — make sure that the facts were accurate, that the legal analysis and reasoning were complete, and that the language was precise,” Dobbins explained.
Of the more than 8,000 petitions for certiorari that were considered by the Supreme Court in the year he clerked for Stevens, the majority involved criminal matters. “That was a big change from the D.C. Circuit,” he noted. He also saw a large number of death penalty cases. Dobbins said these cases were the most difficult for him. “There are such high stakes and such a compressed, rushed process due to the nature of these last minute appeals. It is hard to have faith in the process when you see the limited amount of resources available to some criminal defendants.”
Despite the stressful nature of the work, Dobbins found the Court to be relatively harmonious and collegial. Dobbins said the clerks often were “a safely valve” for the justices. What little skirmishing that existed on the Court outside of written opinions was almost always left to the clerks. “The clerks can get into scraps and have emotional blow outs,” he explained, “because they are there for a year, and then they are gone. The justices remain, so they must maintain a certain level of civility.”
Dobbins also found the Court to be relatively immune to the party politics found in Washington. “In the majority of cases, results are driven by judicial philosophy,” he said. “The justices are trying to make decisions using the process of legal analysis they believe is most appropriate.”
Differences did arise, however, over philosophies of how federal and state courts should interact. “One philosophy is that if an interpretation of the law is not obvious, right there in the text of a statute, then we’re done,” Dobbins said. “Other justices allow more room to maneuver. If they can interpret a statute in a way that they believe is consistent with what the legislature intended, they will adopt that approach.”
When his clerkship ended, Dobbins accepted an appellate attorney position in the Environmental and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. He primarily managed cases from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior on issues ranging from state water rights to Indian law, from coal mining permits to environmental crimes. “There was not a lot of substantive consistency across topics,” he noted, “but there was consistent attention to the appellate and legal questions that came up case after case.”
In 2002, Perkins Coie LLP offered Dobbins an attorney position in the commercial litigation group of their Portland office. Dobbins, who had clerked for the firm during law school, jumped at the opportunity. At Perkins Coie, Dobbins managed cases in environmental law and general commercial litigation. He also helped the firm create an appellate practice group. “I enjoy the appellate process, because I like the ability to sift out what doesn’t matter in a case to get to the heart of an argument,” he explained.
After four years with Perkins Coie, Dobbins made the move to academia, joining the Willamette College of Law faculty in the summer of 2006. “I have always been interested in teaching,” he said. “When I think of what I’ve enjoyed most in my work, much of it was academic theory. Appellate work can be very similar to academics. In both, you stand in front of people asking you questions about how they should think about complicated legal issues. You have to answer those questions and explain those issues as clearly as possible.
“My primary goal in teaching is to share my practical knowledge with students so they have greater success in their first real jobs as attorneys,” Dobbins said. “Walking into their careers, I want them to have had the practical experience they need to effectively represent their clients.” Although most law students will never have the opportunity to clerk for the country’s highest court, thanks to Dobbins, Willamette’s law students will still learn from the experience.
Jeffrey C. Dobbins
“My primary goal in teaching is to share my practical knowledge with students so they have greater success in their first real jobs as attorneys.”