by Sheila Pursglove
Most students come to law school knowing little about the subject, says Dennis Olson, a professor at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
“There’s not much coverage of it in college programs or grade school – so, they’re bright and capable and eager and launching into a field they’ve never really had a chance to explore before. It’s a lot of fun to go on this adventure with them and to be their guide as to parts of it. It’s always fun for me to see how far they go in such a short period of time.”
Olson, who teaches Constitutional Law and the First Amendment, finds his students bring a wide array of background and experiences to the classroom, and “an amazing cross-section” of socio-economic classes, ages, occupations, creeds, and cultures.
“I’ve found it very interesting and enriching to associate with all of these interesting people,” he says.
When Olson earned his degree in political science from Brigham Young University, studies primarily centered on relations with the Soviet Union.
“I like to tell people my undergrad education became obsolete with the fall of the Berlin Wall,” he says. “That’s an exaggeration, but it’s amazing how quickly the world can change.”
Fascinated by two undergrad semesters on Constitutional Law and International Law, he set his sights on law school – and on teaching.
“I felt I had a talent for teaching and wanted to teach something I found interesting and challenging. Law seemed to be the ideal field – and I was right.”
He went on to teach at the Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law, University of Oklahoma College of Law, Oklahoma City University School of Law, Florida Coastal School of Law, Texas Tech University School of Law, Texas Wesleyan University School of Law where he was also Associate Dean, and Appalachian School of Law where he was the founding Dean. He was also a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Southern Virginia College and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Great Falls in Montana.
Actively involved in accreditation processes, Olson has served as co-chair of an accreditation site team for the American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE).
“When it works well, the accreditation process encourages participating schools to articulate what they are, what they want to become, and how they intend to get there,” he says.
Olson shares his past experience with students, including his clerkship for a state trial judge in Idaho, an invaluable experience for teaching Civil Procedure.
“I can relate experiences from the clerkship to show the way the court approaches its decision-making role and how the rules really do shape the litigation.”
He also shares a rare case from private practice in Portland that has come in handy teaching Property, in which he negotiated the settlement of a rule against perpetuities case; and a case of a client whose employer breached its contract and refused to pay salary it owed.
“It was gratifying that our firm was able to get a full recovery plus statutory penalties and attorneys fees for him,” Olson says. “I also handled a libel defense and successfully obtained a dismissal – a nice result in an interesting type of case that most first year associates would not get a chance to handle.”
Olson has a deep respect for the governmental structure that the framers crafted.
“I recognize the preeminence of the rights of speech, press, religion and assembly in maintaining a free government – for me there are no more interesting or important questions than the ones posed in constitutional analysis.”
One of the great challenges, he says, is to respect the democratic process essential to the U.S. constitutional republic while also giving full effect to the constitutional protections that temper that majority rule.
“There’s a common misperception that judicial review is anti-democratic – that’s not so. The Constitution required super-majority support for its ratification and any later amendment.
“There’s no inconsistency between popular sovereignty and fealty to the Constitution as it is duly ratified. But that misperception of anti-democratic judicial review feeds a constant temptation to conclude that our own preferences must be what the Constitution actually requires.”
The danger can be illustrated in the context of the First Amendment.
“It must protect more speech than just that in which I would engage or my version of the First Amendment just appoints me czar,” Olson says. “So, we must explore how far those speech protections will go.”
The same questions arise in other areas.
“It’s not enough that I’m pleased with the policy result – I have to ask honestly whether we’ve achieved these results in accord with the constitutional system that a super-majority of the citizens has chosen. Any other approach subverts the bedrock principle of popular sovereignty.”
Olson cites the 7-year legal case over prolonging or ending treatment for Terri Schiavo – a Florida woman with massive brain damage – as an interesting way of framing questions about respect for the constitutional structure and process and an important cautionary tale.
“There were many people who on a broad array of issues had questioned whether the courts were not simply imposing their policy views on social controversies; yet, suddenly when faced with a result they didn’t like, wanted the courts to do the same thing they had so vociferously condemned – to impose a decision contrary to the rules established through the political process based on their policy preferences,” he says.
“We all have policies we prefer, and we’ll all lose at times in our effort to persuade others. We have to accept losing – even when we’re convinced we’re correct or even morally superior – as a requisite price of a free government. We’ve no reason or right to think if we abandon popular sovereignty that we’re entitled to be the new sovereign.”
Olson views the 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission issue as a prime example of what he terms “the human capacity for mind-boggling inconsistency.” When the government argued that media corporations had an exception from the limits on speech only because of legislative grace, which could be withdrawn at will by the government, one would have expected those media corporations to howl in opposition, he says.
“Instead, in an amazing show of hypocrisy, the media corporations cast their lots with hoping the government will continue to give them a preferred status rather than defending the principle of free speech. Thankfully, the court did not make the same choice.”
A member of the Federalist Society, Olson enjoys hearing – and sometimes being a part of – debates with contrasting perspectives.
“The conservatives and libertarians who make up the group often have diametrically opposed viewpoints, and the invited commentator may bring yet another perspective or two into the picture. I enjoy the commitment to our constitutional system of government and the active debate that generates a broad array of positions.”
Olson, who is married with seven children, enjoys reading and listening to classical music.
Of Norwegian heritage with family roots in Minnesota, he enjoys genealogical research, and volunteers every Saturday at a local family history center. “I’m always fascinated by the story of people’s lives and the puzzle of trying to find their ancestors.”