: The Blawgraphy
Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

Please note: I'm no longer updating this particular blog, but keep it around for archival purposes. Visit me at the current blog at

Judge Russell Austin, RIP

I just learned that another friend of the UHLC has passed away. Judge Russell Austin suffered a stroke over the weekend and passed away yesterday. Judge Austin received his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Houston and taught courses at both the University of Houston Law Center and South Texas College of Law. I had the pleasure of meeting Judge Austin only once but left impressed by his generosity and willingness to give back to the legal community through teaching and mentoring. I’ll consider myself fortunate if I have even half the impact in my career as he did in his.

Joe Vail, Recently Departed UHLC Law Professor, Remembered

Joe Vail, who ran the immigration clinic at the University of Houston Law Center for the past decade passed away on tuesday. The Houston Chronicle paid tribute in yesterday’s article, Joseph Vail, immigration lawyer (archived link). The funeral will be held Saturday, June 21 at the Sacred Heart Church in Havertown, Pa. The Law Center has established a memorial fund in his honor and is planning a remembrance at the start of the Fall Semester.

Joseph A. Vail, a well-known Houston immigration lawyer, judge and professor for nearly three decades, died Tuesday at his family home near Philadelphia. Vail, 56, directed the University of Houston Law Center’s Immigration Law Clinic, developing it into one of the largest in the nation after founding it in 1999.


Friends and colleagues say Vail’s work at the clinic was perhaps the most significant accomplishment in a career that included service as a federal immigration judge, running a private immigration practice and providing legal assistance to immigrant advocacy groups. In 1994, Vail was recognized by the State Bar of Texas for the free legal services he provided to indigent clients.

As a volunteer with AmeriCorps VISTA, the anti-poverty federal public service program, Vail assisted attorneys in the early 1980s who litigated the landmark Plyler v. Doe Supreme Court case that established the right of undocumented children to attend public schools.


Gordon Quan, a former Houston City Council member, described Vail as a saint whose conscience forced him to step down as a federal immigration judge, a post he held from 1995 to 1999, to open the UH immigration clinic. And he did it despite a large cut in salary.

”The guy gave up his judgeship because he felt the laws were unjust — I mean, how many people do that?” said Quan, an immigration attorney. ”He felt he was being a tool for the government in an unfair system, and everybody respected him for doing what he thought was morally correct.”

Looking for the Key to Unlock the Floodgates in Climate Change Litigation

Stephan Faris’ Conspiracy Theory in the new issue of the Atlantic posits climate change as this era’s Tobacco settlement, profiling the efforts of Steve Susman and Steve Berman.

As scientific evidence accumulates on the destructive impact of carbon-dioxide emissions, a handful of lawyers are beginning to bring suits against the major contributors to climate change. Their arguments, so far, have not been well received; the courts have been understandably reluctant to hold a specific group of defendants responsible for a problem for which everyone on Earth bears some responsibility. Lawsuits in California, Mississippi, and New York have been dismissed by judges who say a ruling would require them to balance the perils of greenhouse gases against the benefits of fossil fuels—something best handled by legislatures.

But Susman and Berman have been intrigued by the possibilities. Both have added various environmental and energy cases to their portfolios over the years, and Susman recently taught a class on climate-change litigation at the University of Houston Law Center. Over time, the two trial lawyers have become convinced that they have the playbook necessary to win big cases against the country’s largest emitters. It’s the same game plan that brought down Big Tobacco. And in Kivalina—where the link between global warming and material damage is strong—they believe they’ve found the perfect challenger.

If there’s a guy worth watching as a student for insight into the business of law, it’s Susman. After reading John Jenkins’ The Litigators, my passing interest is perhaps bordering on obsession. Although I’m skeptical of the merits and/or chances of climate change litigation, the fact that these guys are after it makes me more than a little intrigued, particularly about how exactly they plan to make such a case.

In February, Berman and Susman—along with two attorneys who have previously worked on behalf of the village and an environmental lawyer specializing in global warming—filed suit in federal court against 24 oil, coal, and electric companies, claiming that their emissions are partially responsible for the coastal destruction in Kivalina. More important, the suit also accuses eight of the firms (American Electric Power, BP America, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Duke Energy, ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy, and Southern Company) of conspiring to cover up the threat of man-made climate change, in much the same way the tobacco industry tried to conceal the risks of smoking—by using a series of think tanks and other organizations to falsely sow public doubt in an emerging scientific consensus.

This second charge arguably eliminates the need for a judge to determine how much greenhouse-gas production—from refining fossil fuel and burning it to produce energy—is acceptable. “You’re not asking the court to evaluate the reasonableness of the conduct,” Berman says. “You’re asking a court to evaluate if somebody conspired to lie.” Monetary damages to Kivalina need not be sourced exclusively to the defendants’ emissions; they would derive from bad-faith efforts to prevent the enactment of public measures that might have slowed the warming.

Congratulations to Dean Nimmer

who was officially appointed Dean of the University of Houston Law Center today after a year as acting Dean. Read the News Release announcing Nimmer as Dean from the Law Center.

New Profs at University of Houston Law

The Legal Theory Blog has posted its 2008 Entry Level Hiring Report: Version 4.0. Worth noting in the U. Houston community are three new hires

  • Brigham Daniels, JD 2003 Stanford University, PhD expected 2009 Environmental Policy Duke, MPA 2000 Public Administration University of Utah, Lecturing Fellow Duke
  • Gavin Clarkson, JD 2002 Harvard University, DBA 2004 Business Harvard University, MBA1992 Business Rice, Visiting Professor University of Michigan, Teaching Fellow;Harvard
  • Jim Hawkins, JD 2006 University of Texas

More here in the Dean’s Notes

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