Deanell Reece Tacha has made her mark on the legal community as a distinguished jurist, serving for more than 25 years as a circuit judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. As of June 1, she transitioned to a new post as the sixth dean of Pepperdine School of Law. In this interview, Dean Tacha reveals how she journeyed from a small town in north central Kansas to Malibu, California, and why she gave up life tenure as a federal judge to lead Pepperdine Law.
Pepperdine Law: Growing up, what were your career aspirations?
Dean Tacha: At that time, I had never met a woman lawyer or a woman judge. There were, of course, very, very, few women in the profession at the time. I think if I ever had any aspirations beyond the really traditional ones, they were probably to teach college or possibly to become involved in politics.
Both of my parents were college graduates and they had always encouraged me to go to college, although not many people in my class did.
When I enrolled at the University of Kansas there was a dean of women named Emily Taylor. She was extraordinarily instrumental in encouraging women to choose what were then very nontraditional career paths. Indeed, she mentored a whole group of us women at the university, and she was the one who began to raise my aspirations.
What was the climate of law school like when you arrived at the University of Michigan?
There were very few women in my class. I would say fewer than 15 in a class of a few hundred. The late 60s and early 70s were a period of great change in all of higher education. The University of Michigan Law School was no exception. Women and ethnic minorities sought access, opportunities, and equity. I always felt that male students and faculty alike treated me fairly and with respect, but the climate generally was changing rapidly for all of us. My memory is that there were no women on the Michigan faculty at the time, so there were no female role models as legal academics.
What important lessons did you take away from law school?
Law school propelled me into thinking much more analytically and being better able to understand the viewpoints of others.
It was a time when we were beginning to understand that we needed to bring more diversity into all professional schools, law schools included, so I think that it left me with a very strong commitment to diversity, a very strong commitment to understanding that lawyers and judges must reflect the population around them.
Were there other mentors that you had in law school who impacted your life like Emily Taylor did when you were in college?
Yes, and one was Grant Nelson who is now on the Pepperdine law faculty. Indeed, he gets a great deal of credit for my interest in Pepperdine. He was in his early years of teaching and taught me constitutional law. He was very supportive of the women in our class, and he was also a Midwesterner, so he and I had a lot of things in common.
The dean of the law school, Theodore St. Antoine, a great labor lawyer, was also quite a friend. Then there is the great Yale Kamisar, who was a criminal law professor. He certainly awakened me to criminal law in ways that I hadn’t anticipated—in particular to the constitutional rights of both accused and incarcerated people.
After law school, you landed a White House Fellowship. What were you thinking about your career at that time?
The White House Fellows program consists of an education component and an actual job. My job was special assistant to the Secretary of Labor, James Hodgson. He was involved in a lot of labor management issues at the time and personnel issues in big industry. For the education part, I attended the White House Fellows class, which introduced me to almost every leader in all aspects of government, and the economy, and American culture.
At that point, knowing I was going to be a lawyer and having been given the opportunity to perform both legal and administrative work at the Cabinet level, I became increasingly interested in the combination of legal practice and general administration.
I ended my fellowship year in 1972 and I stayed at the Labor Department through the elections of 1972, which were the elections of Nixon’s second term. Then I decided after the election to go into private practice at what was then Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C.
Then I decided to return to Kansas to marry my husband. My husband was a high school basketball coach in Concordia, Kansas. I moved there and practiced with literally just one office shared with one other lawyer in that town. I was not only the first and only woman lawyer, I was the first and only for several years after that. We only stayed there for another few months because then I got the opportunity to come onto the University of Kansas School of Law faculty in the fall of 1974.
What were some of your biggest takeaways from that teaching experience?
I began both teaching and being director of the legal aid clinic, so my first job at the law school was teaching property, administrative law, and running the legal aid clinic. It cemented what I already knew, that I really loved legal education.
I also became—I think it’s fair to say—fully committed to trying to promote excellence in higher education. And I loved the legal aid clinic, and clinics generally, as a good model of legal education.
And then you were nominated by President Ronald Reagan to be a judge. How did your judgeship come to be?
Every judge has a different story. My family had always been involved in politics and were very good friends of Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum, who were our senators at the time. And they both—Bob Dole in particular—encouraged me. And I actually resisted because I had just had our youngest child, and I was at that time vice chancellor of the university, and I loved my job. I had four children by that time so it was not an easy sell to get me to be interested. I thought I would stay in higher education, but I began to think about it and began to consider it. My name went forward, and the rest is history.
What makes a good judge?
Intellectual rigor, and the willingness to work hard on issues that you might not know a thing about until they confront you in a case. I think also the willingness to stay very, very tightly constrained to the law, and remove all personal viewpoints and approaches.
A good judge is one with a lot of human understanding; you can’t just consider the theoretical aspects of a case. You have to think how it plays out in a courtroom, what each case presents, how the law ends up, how the facts end up. The other thing is you can’t agonize once you’ve done your best work and filed your decision. You have to move on.
You’ve been a long-time speaker and participant in our annual Byrne Judicial Clerkship Institute at Pepperdine. What are some of the lessons you impart to your clerks?
We have to stay constrained by the rule of law, which means that judges, and I think lawyers as well, should focus on that case and that case alone, not their own personal self-interest, not their own personal viewpoints, but the moving, thoughtful progress of the law.
And the second thing is to create and enhance an environment of professionalism and ethics and civility—the “tone” of the law if you will. The public has to trust us, and they will only trust us if we listen to them, if they feel that we are telling the truth in a civil and a respectful way, and that we have the best interest—the common good—as our goal.
The other thing that I’ve tried to teach my law clerks is that every lawyer, every judge, indeed every human being—needs a well-rounded life. One cannot let one’s professional aspirations overcome or overshadow the totality of one’s personality, so I’ve always encouraged my law clerks to do things outside of work—whether with their family, their faith, their community, or with anything else that interests them.
Tell us about your ties to the early days of Pepperdine.
My path and Pepperdine’s seem to have crossed many times. I knew of Bill Banowsky, an early founder of the Malibu campus, while I was in Washington, and his aspirations for the school made an impact on me. President Reagan and President Nixon were both committed to the idea of Pepperdine as an institution, so I knew about it early on.
And then of course, Grant Nelson taught me and ultimately ended up at Pepperdine, and I taught David Davenport when he was at the University of Kansas School of Law and then of course he went on to be president there. Andy Benton grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, where we lived. Finally, Ken Starr and I have been very close friends since he and I were appointed to the bench. So it’s been a crisscross of interests for a long time.
What compelled you to take this post?
I’ve had a long and really rewarding career in the judiciary, but this is an opportunity to go back to legal education at this particular time in history. I thought, “I’d like to be involved in what is quite an important time for legal education.”
What is your vision for Pepperdine?
To make sure it’s an outstanding educational experience for every student. That has to be at the top of the list. And that includes such things as developing their intellectual potential, developing skills, providing them with mentors and good advice, and working with them to find the best and most appropriate employment opportunities.
I also want to be sure that it’s a great environment for faculty scholarship and great teaching. There are wonderful faculty members, many with national reputations at Pepperdine, and it seems to me that one of the main jobs of the dean is to make it possible for them to do what they love to do.
It is terribly important to continue to build the financial base for this school. Ken Starr did a marvelous job—in fact all prior deans have done a marvelous job at that—but with tuition at the level that it is, and the job market as difficult as it is, trying to find resources for student support and for faculty support is very important.
And though the next one would be not as important for the school as the first three, I think we need to do some hard looking at the building. It served its purpose so well when it was built, and was indeed a model when it was built, but that was quite a few years ago. I have been in literally hundreds of law school buildings around the country and seen the difference that it can make when you have a state-of-the-art building. Now we don’t want to leave our location by any means, but I do think there are many things that can be done within the existing footprint.