Jay Tutchton, head of environmental law clinic, answers questions
What work do you do?
I am the director of the Environmental Law Clinical Partnership at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law. We introduce law students to the world of public-interest environmental litigation and train them in the basic skills of the trade, and we file the best lawsuits we can on behalf of our clients to advance environmental protection. Basically, we play David to the legal Goliaths of government and industry. We represent environmental groups and individuals who would otherwise go without legal representation because they cannot afford it.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I read, research, and write, occasionally interrupted by a law student with a question. Environmental litigation is not a thrill-a-minute. We appear in courtrooms infrequently. Most of our cases are won or lost based on the merits of the written legal arguments we present to the courts months before our brief shimmering opportunities for courtroom theatrics. It would not make good television, unless you hit fast-forward repeatedly. All that said, it beats the hell out of corporate law-firm practice, which is the unfortunate fate of most lawyers.
Weather permitting, I work in shorts and sandals. I listen to music, loudly, and swear frequently. I don’t worry about “billable hours,” and my clients are my friends. On a really good day, I get out of the office to visit the places we are trying to protect.
What are you working on at the moment?
Tonight, two lawsuits are littering my desk. One is an effort to protect the Louisiana black bear and the swamps in which it lives. Our clients are the most environmentally friendly Cadillac dealer you could ever imagine and a group of self-described “coon-ass” crawfishermen. It brings great leapings of joy to my heart to see such seemingly different people uniting to fight on behalf of a vanishing species and a vanishing way of life. The other is a long-running effort to get the federal government to purchase alternative-fuel vehicles. Our clients are the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Earth.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
Even though I long wanted to work for environmental protection, I did have a brief dalliance with corporate legal practice. Money tempts us all when we need it. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to get out of “the life” before it ruined my soul. I left as soon as I was offered an opportunity to sue corporate clients for their environmental misdeeds rather than defend them.
Two other thoughts have guided my career choices. The first is: Can you explain your job to a child? I tell my kids I work to save animals and special places. Second: Are you having fun? I’m having a great deal of fun right now.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
I’m determined to die with an empty inbox just to disprove the common wisdom.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Denver. I grew up two blocks away from where I live now. I went to college at Notre Dame, in Indiana, and law school in Los Angeles; both those places really suck for completely opposite reasons. I came back to Denver.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
For more than a decade, I’ve kept a few photos of some old-growth ponderosa pine trees, exhibits from a failed case to stop a timber sale. We saved some of those trees from chainsaws with a settlement agreement during our appeal. We had to split a forest. I keep the photos and hope that the trees in them still stand — I’ve never had the heart to find out which groves were saved and which lost. That case still bothers me.
What’s been the best?
Buried in my desk drawers are some yellowing cards and notes from former students who have written me over the years and told me I influenced their lives. That is the best a teacher can aspire to.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
The pope. Not as a religious man, but as an institution that continues to thwart all voluntary means of birth control that actually have some reasonable chance of success. Population growth is the elephant in the room that no one likes to talk about. It threatens to swamp all environmental protection advances.
What’s your environmental vice?
I have an energy-sucking hot tub.
What are you reading these days?
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I’m hairy, and I frequently smell bad. I don’t trust myself around sharp objects like razors, particularly in the morning. I ride a bike to work and neglect to change my shirt. If I don’t have a court appearance, I get mistaken around my neighborhood for a day laborer.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Surviving. It has been a rough few years.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?
We are perceived as an elitist, liberal group of weird freaks, overwhelmingly white in a world that is less liberal and increasingly brown. We need to connect better with differing cultural groups and with people of color. We need to move environmental protection in a less politically partisan direction or we lose half our potential allies right off the top. We all share the same earth.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I’d slap a tax on carbon emissions and swap out the revenue to buy more public land, in particular endangered species habitat.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
The Daily Show, ersatz news with real interviews. I’m afraid I like ersatz news better than the real most nights. Fight Club — you can get a woman to watch it with you if you tell her she will see Brad Pitt’s ass.
What are you happy about right now?
My dog. She doesn’t criticize me much and thinks nearly all my ideas are great. My children also bring me great joy, but I’m not so sure what I’m bringing them. I worry about the kids. My dog is going to be fine.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Ride a bike to work and take a hard look at the people in their cars — notice that they look unhappy and then ponder whether something about locking a human in a metal box makes them unusually aggressive and slowly degrades a civil society. Make your work worthwhile and fun — someplace you want to go in the morning. Live to make a difference.