A Conversation with Professor Neal Devins

Professor DevinsAs the inaugural Sandra Day O'Connor Professor of Law and Cabell Research Professor, Neal Devins enjoys the unique opportunity to provide multiple forms of service to his community: service to his students through his dedicated, intensive teaching; service to the field of legal academia by producing thought-provoking and timely publications; and service to the College of William & Mary via administrative duties, such as his Directorship of the Institute of Bill of Rights Law, and a joint appointment with the Department of Government.  Importantly, these forms of service are interrelated; they are linked by a common theme allowing each to enhance the others.

That commonality is the interworkings of governmental actors and the influence those interworkings have on the Constitution.  Devins’s early career was instrumental in focusing his interest on those connections.  Before entering the academy, Devins served as Assistant General Counsel for the United States Commission on Civil Rights, an organization that writes reports and makes recommendations to Congress and government agencies on law enforcement and legislation.  “At the Commission, I learned a great deal about the interface between different political actors and how that affected Court decision-making,” Devins says.  “For example, the civil division of the Department of Justice defends the government in employment discrimination cases.  Conversely, the civil rights division serves as a plaintiff's lawyer, so the two divisions have differing views of how the federal government should interpret employment discrimination statutes.”
Devins’s early career also helped refine his scholarship; as he transitioned from one job to another, Devins encountered a wider variety of scholarly topics upon which to draw in his research and writing.  “My earlier writings were more focused on substantive issues that I learned about at the Commission and at Vanderbilt’s Public Policy Institute, where I worked on education issues,” Devins says.   “As I learned more, I branched out from education to other issues I became aware of through my teaching or through current events.  I became more comfortable writing about the Supreme Court when I coauthored a book, Political Dynamics of Constitutional Law, around 1990, that exposed me to a new range of issues.” 

Devins says his focus on the mechanisms of the Supreme Court was unique when he first began his research.  “Most professors at the time were focused on doctrine and broader theoretical questions.  I was one of the first law professors to really talk about the Constitution outside of the Court,” Devins says.  “I did a lot of leg work, looking at the actual ways that governmental actors interpreted the Constitution, and how that influenced the Court.” 

Devins notes he has developed a greater understanding of the intersection between politics and Supreme Court decisions over the course of his career.  “I have come to learn that court decisions are part of a larger political dynamic and the recognition of that give-and-take process has impacted my teaching. I think it important for students to understand that the Court is part of larger social and political forces,” he says.  “The Court often makes use of highly malleable, somewhat inconsistent tests. It is useful to think about the broader social cross-currents in figuring out why the Court may do that.  It is not simply an infusion of political science into the class. It is a way to understand legal arguments too, and it helps students deal with the fact that the doctrine is indeterminate.” 

After writing more than 100 articles, essays and book chapters, Devins notes there are some that he has enjoyed more than others.  “I had a great experience writing an article on Solicitor General control of independent agency litigation.  The article required that I interview lots of current and former government officials and learn the back stories about several important Supreme Court Cases,” Devins recalls.  “It was very exciting research; a real process of discovery but also an opportunity to meet some fantastic lawyers.”  That article, Unitariness and Independence: Solicitor General Control Over Independent Agency Litigation, was published by the California Law Review in 1994.

“Neal Devins makes many invaluable contributions to the Law School,” Law School Dean Davison M. Douglassays Dean Davison M. Douglas.  “He is an extremely prolific and distinguished scholar of constitutional law and politics.  His scholarship is widely read and he is routinely invited to present his work at high-profile conferences.  Professor Devins is also a caring and creative teacher; he devotes considerable time and attention to his students. Finally, as Director of the Institute of Bill of Rights Law, Professor Devins has orchestrated a steady stream of wonderful conferences, symposia, and guest speakers. This combination of excellence in scholarship, teaching, and administration is a rare package indeed.”

Devins is the author or editor of 11 books and gives no indication he intends to slow down.  His latest book will be published by Oxford University Press and is co-authored with Lawrence Baum, Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University. It is titled "The Company They Keep: How Partisan Divisions Came to the Supreme Court."  Read their related paper, Split Definitive: How Party Polarization Turned the Supreme Court into a Partisan Court (SSRN).

“Neal Devins has contributed to what we know about a wide range of subjects with his scholarship,” says Baum. “His most distinctive contributions arise from his deep understanding of both law and politics, an understanding that has led to a series of important insights about the relationship between the two.  He has a remarkable ability to identify and explain broad developments in politics and government. I have learned a great deal about law and politics from the process of discussing and developing ideas with him.”

Collaborating with political scientists, who supplement his analysis and add a different perspective on constitutional law, enriches his scholarly work, maintains Devins.  He has collaborated with eight different political scientists on various projects over the years, and points to Lou Fisher, one of the most prominent, as his mentor and a major influence on his decision to pursue an academic career.  “Lou became my mentor when he embraced me as a law student writing a paper on appropriations riders.  He was the number one expert on the appropriations process and I greatly admired his work.  I sent him a draft and we started to communicate. It blossomed into a friendship and co-authorship when I went to Washington to work at the Commission,” Devins recollects.  “Lou encouraged me to be an academic, and made me feel that this was the right thing to pursue after my legal education.” 

“I have known Neal Devins for about three decades,” says Fisher, who is currently a Scholar in Residence at the Constitution Project, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, DC.  “From the first time we met I appreciated his integrity, honesty, and intellectual curiosity.  We have coauthored many books and articles.  I'm always impressed how these products are enriched by our joint efforts.  I've seen him testify before congressional committees, present papers at conferences, and teach in class.”

Devins intentionally incorporates much of his knowledge and experience into his classes.  His understanding of the political process and its effects on Supreme Court decisions brings a “real world sensibility” into the classroom.  “Teaching is the most important thing I do,” says Devins.  “Over the years, I have kept up with many students and have come to learn that my class played some role in their professional development.  That is much more gratifying than hearing that someone liked something I wrote, although that is also very exciting, of course.”  

The numerous articles and books Devins has contributed to the academic community over the course of his career have also served his students.  He says his research helps him to remain engaged with the material he teaches.  “I cannot imagine being a good teacher without being a good scholar. Scholarship keeps your mind working, keeps you engaged with materials you teach, makes you feel that you have earned the right to be the professor of students as good as ours,” Devins says.  “Scholarship feeds my brain and self esteem in ways that allow me to be comfortable and competent in class.” 

His commitments to teaching and scholarship overlap in yet another way: Devins has coauthored papers with six different students over the years. “I think it is important for faculty to have collegial relationships with students beyond graduation and I try to do as much of that as I can,” he says.

Paul Eckert, ’96, who is a partner at WilmerHale in Washington, DC, and served as Special Assistant and Counsel to President George W. Bush, first met Devins as a first-year student in Constitutional Law and worked with him as faculty advisor to the Law Review. “Neal Devins is an extraordinary observer of American constitutional government,” says Eckert.  “His commentary on topics ranging from landmark battles between the Executive and Legislative branches to the resolution of inter-agency turf battles should be mandatory reading for lawyers serving in, or dealing with, the federal government. 

“He's also a citizen lawyer in the proudest tradition of William & Mary,” Eckert continues.  “An engaged teacher inside and outside the classroom, a prolific writer about the legal issues of our day, the leader of an institute dedicated to advancing understanding of the Bill of Rights, and, of course, a devoted father.  I am grateful to count him as a friend and mentor.”

Professor Alan Meese“Neal is remarkably committed to the Law School's mission,” notes Alan Meese, Ball Professor of Law at William & Mary.  “He is a dedicated teacher who cares deeply about his students, a very productive scholar whose work is widely read and cited, and a vital leader in faculty governance.  On a personal level he has been a superb mentor, colleague and role model --- someone who is always willing and able to provide sound advice, counsel and guidance to less experienced faculty like myself.”

Even with his impressive scholarly output and steady teaching obligations, Devins still makes time for service to the legal community in general and the William & Mary Law School in particular.  He enjoys collaborating with the student division to pursue projects like Constitutional Conversations, a community education project run by William & Mary law students, and the Election Law Program. 

His biggest commitment to the Law School comes from his Directorship of the IBRL and his involvement with the annual Supreme Court Preview.  As Director of the IBRL for more than a decade, Devins has increased student involvement with the program.  “I really try to work with students and the other organizers in bringing the best possible speakers to campus and working with student groups to pursue programs of interest to them,” Devins notes. 

The Supreme Court Preview now includes a Saturday lunchtime program in which student groups co-sponsor breakout sessions on different topics, fostering interaction between participants and students at William & Mary.  “The Preview now brings in around 15 panelists every year who have collectively argued more than 200 cases before the Supreme Court,” says Devins.  “That’s a real shift away from academic presenters to practitioner presenters, and I think the Preview and the students are the better for it.”

Read Professor Devins's recent articles such as The Indefensible Duty to Defend, 112 Colum. L. Rev. 507 (2012) (with Saikrisha B. Prakash) (SSRN), and 50 States, 50 Attorneys General, and 50 Approaches to the Duty to Defend, 124 Yale L.J. 2100 (2015) (with Saikrishna B. Prakash) (SSRN).

Please visit our Scholarship Archive to find additional abstracts of his articles, download .pdfs of his scholarship, and watch video excerpts from our Supreme Court Preview.