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Jens David Ohlin

We asked Jens David Ohlin, Vice Dean and Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, what has inspired and motivated him throughout his career. This author spotlight gives a glimpse into his passions and what brought him to where he is today.

What or who motivated you to study law?

[JDO] I was motivated to study law when I learned of the ethnic cleansing and war crimes occurring in Kosovo during the summer of 1998. I was living in New York City and there was a heat wave that summer and I couldn’t afford air-conditioning. I couldn’t sleep so I would stay up all night watching ABC news, which covered the atrocities on a daily basis.  It was painful to see that criminal law seemed utterly absent from the scene and incapable of either constraining conduct or imposing responsibility. So, I applied to law school. I started to think about the conditions for a viable system of criminal justice and what happens when those conditions are not satisfied, either globally or locally. These concerns will occupy my entire career.

Did you have a favorite professor in law school?  If so, who was the person and what made them stand out?

[JDO] George Fletcher. He was an inspiring pedagogue. He is a man of big ideas who influenced me in many ways. First, he is a comparativist who likes to consider the various approaches to criminal law in different legal cultures. This framework is attractive since American criminal law is inherently comparative; there are many different approaches among the 50 states. Second, he is interested in the deep structure of the criminal law, or what he calls the “grammar” of criminal law. This influenced my own approach to understanding the criminal law. Third, he cared about criminal law theory. More specifically, he cared about the relationship between philosophical theories and how the legal doctrine is applied on the ground in real cases. As someone with a Ph.D. in philosophy, this approach appealed to me.

What law school course did you enjoy the most?

[JDO] Probably Constitutional Law–Separation of Powers, with Henry Monaghan. Although my teaching and research specialty is criminal law, we are in a historical moment where all lawyers need to have an understanding of, and appreciation for, our divided form of government, and the Madisonian checks and balances that make it possible. In these troubled times, I find myself thinking back on the fundamental issues and ideas that we debated in that course.

What are your primary areas of writing and teaching? What fascinates you about these areas of law?

[JDO] Criminal Law, International Law, and International Criminal Law. I think of criminal law and international as foundational subjects that serve as “parents” and their “child” is international criminal law, which involves a mixture of both fields of law. Sometimes the intermingling of the two parents is controversial and contested because they are based on entirely different paradigms. Criminal law is inherently individualistic: assigning blame and imposing punishment on individuals for their wrongdoing. In contrast, international law is mostly collective: what rights and obligations do nation-states have? The creation of a sub-discipline that straddles this fundamental divide produces complex puzzles that are hard to resolve.

Do (or did) you have a mentor, or someone that has inspired or encouraged you in your writing or teaching?

[JDO] Although George Fletcher was my major influence in criminal law, I would say that I drew great inspiration regarding law school pedagogy from Peter Strauss, who taught Legal Methods at Columbia Law School.  It was the first class I ever took in law school, and now when I am teaching criminal law at Cornell Law School and pressing my students to develop better legal arguments—to apply the law to a given set of facts—I find myself channeling Peter Strauss.

What motivated you to write a Criminal Law casebook?

[JDO] I had several discussions with my Wolters Kluwer sales representative. We started discussing what I wanted to see in a criminal law casebook, and she remarked that I seemed to have well developed ideas about the content and organization of an ideal criminal law casebook. She said I should consider transforming my abstract ideas into a casebook. I took her suggestion seriously and I am very glad that I did. Although it was hard work, it was a pleasure to write Criminal Law: Doctrine, Application, and Practice. And the revision process (for the second edition) was equally rewarding.

What has been the most influential or pivotal moment in your career?

[JDO] I met Nino Cassese. He was President (chief judge) of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). He introduced me to criminal law scholars around the world. At the time, I was a nobody (still a student, in fact) but he was generous with his time and energy and had a well-deserved reputation for supporting younger scholars at the beginning of their careers. I was definitely a recipient of that largesse. Because of that connection, I was introduced to criminal law scholars in Germany, The Netherlands, England, Italy, Argentina, Colombia, Israel. It was a global community of scholars. Nino later became chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Darfur. He was also chief judge of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, a criminal tribunal in The Hague, but his service there was cut short when he was cruelly taken by cancer in 2011.

What changes in legal education excite you?

[JDO] I think there is an increasing focus on classroom pedagogy. A generation ago, there was a sense that scholarship mattered most for professors and that any professor who focused on teaching was just a failed scholar. This notion was not ridiculous and offensive, but also unethical because professors have a professional duty to be the best classroom teachers that they can be. One of the things I like about Cornell Law School is that classroom teaching is taken so seriously. Everyone is talking about pedagogy, what works and what doesn’t, experiments and refinements tried and refined over many semesters. The standards for classroom excellence are high.  And I think this is reflective of a positive trend across legal academia. It is one of the reason that I wrote Criminal Law: Doctrine, Application, and Practice. I wanted to write materials that help professors give their students the best outcome possible.

What advice do you have for today’s law students? 

[JDO] I always tell my law school students to study the subjects that excite them. This is the last chance they will have to study a subject before entering their professional careers, and they should seize that moment. I tell them that it is very hard to predict in advance which subjects in the law school catalog will best prepare them for their career, which might take several unexpected turns over many decades. Better to follow your passion and study what excites you. Also, students are often guided by rumors and received wisdom about which subjects are “mandatory” or “necessary” for a successful career.  The reality is that career paths are far more capricious and often an interesting course taken during 2L or 3L will have surprising relevance many years later. There is no single path to success.

How do you hope to be remembered by your students or law school?

[JDO] I want to be remembered as a teacher who approached criminal law with a real passion for the subject, and who effectively communicated that passion to them in the classroom. I often remind my students that these are real cases with real victims and real defendants.  So much is at stake. Victims have been horribly wronged and traumatized, and in murder cases, the wrong is one that can never be redressed. Defendants are facing lengthy prison terms, sometimes life in prison or even execution. The results matter. As lawyers (and moral agents) we have an obligation to get this right.

What are your interests outside of law? 

[JDO] I love to cook for my family.

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