THE COMPLICATED, PRINCIPLED, EVOLVING RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN VERMONT LAW SCHOOL AND THE U.S. MILITARY
By Cynthia Anderson
Bob Liu JD’14 arrived at Vermont Law School unsure what he wanted to do with his life. He was there for a general legal education, but unlike some of his classmates, didn’t feel drawn to a particular practice area. Things began to shift partway through his 1L year, when he overheard friends discussing the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps. Liu found himself intrigued, so during his 2L year when interviews were being scheduled with recruiters, he signed up.
Through late winter and spring of 2012 Liu, in suit and tie, would walk from his house on Fairview Terrace down the hill and across the bridge to one-on-ones with representative JAGs. He met with the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy. During the Navy interview, something clicked. Liu realized, “This is the goal. This is the dream. JAG is where I want to go.” It would not be a simple undertaking: getting into the Corps is highly competitive, with single-digit acceptance rates.with recruiters, he signed up.
At VLS, it’s taken as something of a given that graduates assume jobs at nonprofits and NGOs in disproportionate numbers, and that, in private practice, they tend to accept more pro bono work. But each year students like Liu seek a different kind of service—as JAG Corps prosecutors and defenders in military criminal courts and as in-house counsel and special advisors—career paths that have not always been so straightforward at VLS.with recruiters, he signed up.
Indeed, the decades-long trajectory of the relationship between this progressive, idealistic place and the U.S. Military has been complicated and sometimes fraught. For the better part of a quarter-century, Vermont Law School barred military recruiters from its campus. And, as a community, VLS actively sought the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy directed toward gay and lesbian service members.
“It was a sustained, communitywide effort,” says VLS Professor Jackie Gardina.with recruiters, he signed up.
“The ban and our involvement in the repeal allowed us to live our mission. I’m proud that VLS took a stance and maintained that stance. I’m even prouder of how engaged the community—students, staff, faculty and alumni—became in changing the law, and how they remained committed through to the end.”
In its early years, VLS hosted JAGs from the armed forces once or twice a year, as it did other career recruiters. Professor Peter Teachout recalls day-long Army, Navy, and Air Force visits. That changed in 1985, when the school adopted an antidiscrimination policy that resulted in, among other things, a campus recruitment ban on the military because of its discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 1990, the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) began requiring all members to deny access to recruiters with discriminatory practices, which meant that for a few years the anti-bias ranks among law schools were strong.
Then, three years after the 1993 introduction of DADT, Congress adopted the Solomon Amendment, which called for the withholding of eight federal agencies’ monies from law schools and universities that barred on-campus military recruiters. In 1998, after Solomon was amended to include federal student loans and grants, the AALS rescinded its anti-discrimination requirement. The change in the law all but forced schools, including VLS, to allow military recruiters back.
Military recruitment visits that took place at the school during 1998 and 1999 occurred “amidst a variety of peaceful but forceful expressions of opposition,” according to a dean’s office memo from that time. When Congress lifted the grant/loan inclusion in 1999, VLS quickly reinstated its ban. The stance was a costly one: a loss of $300,000-$500,000 annually over the next 12 years. And VLS was largely on its own. After 2001, when Solomon was again amended to forbid funding from the eight agencies to an entire university if any part denied access, VLS was one of only two law schools in the nation to hold the line.
“It was the right thing to do,” says alumna Patricia Whalen, JD’79, a former family court magistrate and international judge who served on the war crimes tribunal in Sarajevo. “Law schools should stand for human rights and anti-discrimination. They have an obligation to speak out on ethical issues regardless of the price.”
During the ban, campus administrators tried to mitigate the effect on students. “There was discomfort for some about keeping the military at arm’s length and about what that meant for students who might want to join the JAG Corps,” Gardina says. For a couple of years, recruitment interviews were held at a school-owned building nearby and at a local bank. An administrative memo issued during that time made clear that the VLS nondiscrimination policy does not oppose the military mission or question the integrity of those who wish to choose military service. There was even a sense among some faculty that placing VLS grads in the JAG Corps might effect change more quickly. “We were very much aware that reform often comes from within,” says Teachout. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the VLS community supported the boycott, and many students and faculty members worked actively to repeal DADT. The school grew famous for its stance; The New York Times did a story, as did other news outlets.
Jack Sautter JD/MSEL’08/LLM’09 was already a Marine Corps officer when he entered VLS in 2005. He recalls arriving on campus “at the height of the Solomon Amendment and the height of Iraq”—and during intensifying efforts to repeal DADT. Sautter sensed that some people looked at him askance. “It’s not that people weren’t friendly and nice, because they really were,” Sautter says. “But I think there were those who made assumptions about me and who I am that were way off base. It was like, ‘Who is this guy, and what’s he doing here?’”
Sautter chose VLS with clear intentions, because of its values around service and environmental protection and, in fact, his work since graduation has encompassed both. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, serving with an infantry unit focused on rebuilding communities, a mission he found satisfying: “When I was in the back sand dunes of Helmand province teaching the local police how to apply the criminal code, teaching about civil rights, it was hugely gratifying.” He now works as special counsel for environmental law at Camp Pendleton in California.
Sautter says he respected the school’s stance on DADT, recalling meetings during which the ban was explained and the financial ramifications discussed: “It was costly because we weren’t connected to the mother ship like other law schools. I was proud of VLS for standing its ground. And, in fact, I think history has proven that inclusiveness is a good thing for the military.”
Not long after the 2011 repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Professor Kinvin Wroth, who served as VLS dean from 1996-2004, called the sacrifice in grant money “well worth the goal of nondiscrimination we were serving.” The negative effects were offset by the respect the school garnered for its position, Wroth said, by the incentive the ban provided VLS to advocate for the repeal of DADT, and by the sense of community that resulted from the united stance.
“There was something about standing on principle that brought the school together,” says Teachout. On several occasions, Gardina and other professors accompanied contingents of VLS students to Washington to lobby Congress, with bake-sale proceeds, donated travel money, and alumni-provided lodging. On campus, there were rallies and presentations. At a packed conference in 2005, student Alex Manning, who’d been discharged from the military for being gay, came out publicly. “I felt the comfort of being surrounded by 300 siblings,” Manning said later of the experience. “I felt the power of a community supporting me.”
"LAW SCHOOLS SHOULD STAND FOR HUMAN RIGHTS AND ANTI-DISCRIMINATION. THEY HAVE AN OBLIGATION TO SPEAK OUT ON ETHCAL ISSUES REGARDLESS OF THE PRICE.”
PATRICIA WHALEN, JD’79
The environment on campus never soured, perhaps because even dissenters understood the school’s stance was not in opposition to the armed forces in general. “Our motivation was anti-discrimination, not anti-military,” says Wroth. “Now, having held the line and having worked for the repeal of DADT, we’re glad to see our students again able to openly pursue the opportunity to serve.”
Indeed, when the ban was over, it was over. Less than a month after the September 2011 repeal, an Army recruiter showed up on campus, soon followed by others. They were warmly received. Within months, VLS was removed from the Excluded Parties list. Federal monies began to flow back into the school— and students could again meet on campus with recruiters. Last year about 30 students attended JAG Corps informational sessions and half of those sat for individual interviews.
On a recent spring day at VLS, sun evaporated the snow-melt and students hurried to their classes. Inside Chase, the Native American Law Students Association was hosting a lunchtime seminar on environmental issues. Upstairs in the library Navy veteran and 2L John Palomino reflected on his time at VLS. His nearby carrel was jammed with notebooks, texts, and mementos of his wife and nine-year-old daughter.
“Things have smoothed out, but it was a bit of a struggle in the beginning,” Palomino says. One problem was that veterans had to wait for disbursements for their living expenses until after the VA paid the school—weeks after other students had received their funds. To address that issue and others, Palomino co-founded the Veteran Law Students Association. “We need representation on campus not only to show that VLS is veteran-friendly but to create an atmosphere that supports veterans,” he says. Last year the group hosted Veterans Week during November, with observances, speeches and a symposium on women in the military.
Currently there are about 20 veterans and active officers on campus, “more than we’ve ever had,” says Teachout. “These are students with experience, and they add talent and a diversity of perspective.”
Given the school’s mission, perhaps it’s not surprising that, like Jack Sautter, many students who enter VLS with military backgrounds or become JAGs were service-oriented before they ever got to campus. “I’ve always needed to feel that I’m doing something to contribute to society,” says LLM candidate and Navy JAG Mary Pohanka. “I’m just not satisfied with a regular job. I like to feel that what I’m doing has an impact on something or someone in need.”
Pohanka’s career path shows she means it. She served in the Peace Corps as a nurse in the Nepalese mountains and, after commissioning in the Navy when her Peace Corps stint was up, on a hospital ship in the Persian Gulf. In 2006 she entered law school at George Washington University and, after graduation, deployed for 12 months to Afghanistan as a Navy staff attorney. Now, at VLS, Pohanka is studying environmental law at the Navy’s expense to augment her work as an expert in government and professional ethics at the Pentagon.
“Environmental law is extremely important for the military,” Pohanka says. “Every time I’ve deployed there have been environmental impacts from the activities on our ships and installations. There’s a real need for what I’m learning here.” Pohanka appreciates VLS’s progressive atmosphere— and its openness. “People are interested in my opinions,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of very positive interactions with my professors and my fellow students. There’s recognition that the military is taking a strong stand on a number of environmental issues, including climate change.”
Pohanka, Sautter, and Palomino all have used the word “welcoming” to describe the campus’s reception of them. It’s a different time, a different military from the one in 1985 when VLS instituted its first ban, but somehow there’s a sense of things having gone full circle. “Recruiters are on campus again,” Gardina says. “They’re here in uniform, standing in the Chase Breezeway along with the bar prep people and everyone else.”
Peter Teachout sees symbiosis in the relationship between the school and the armed forces. “For VLS graduates, the JAG Corps offers extremely important opportunities in the practice of law. And it’s important for the military to have students from a place like VLS who can be critics and reformers from within,” he says.
In the end, perhaps the long, storied history of VLS and the military shows the stuff of which the school is made: from its inception, it has taught its students that service is important—as are the principles upon which that service is based. Duty-bound to take a stand against the military’s discriminatory policies, to make real a commitment to fairness, VLS is now duty-bound to provide the opportunity for students to serve their country.
In the fall of his 3L year Bob Liu took an externship in the Region Legal Service Office at the Washington Navy Yard. He was there on the morning of September 16, 2013, when a gunman shot and killed 12 people and injured three others. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Liu helped the victims’ families access funds for financial support. “That at least was useful to them. It was a good feeling to be able to do something,” Liu says. The experience strengthened his conviction that he was on the right path. After graduating last spring, Liu passed the bar in August and received his Navy commission in September. He’s stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, furthering his legal training—now himself a JAG.