Friday, February 21, 2003

UNM's New Law Dean Eager To Make a Difference

By Scott Sandlin

In her first 30-something days as dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law, Suellyn Scarnecchia:

Chaired eight Judicial Nominating Commission sessions in Farmington, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Silver City and Clovis to fill 11 vacancies on state courts;

Oversaw a half dozen interviews for vacancies on the law school faculty;

Attended the spring meeting of the American Bar Association to meet with fellow deans;

Visited her husband and son in Ann Arbor, Mich.;

Taught a weekly elective class, Access to Justice, that deals with how legal needs of the poor are addressed; and

Got publicly lambasted by the governor.

Good thing Scarnecchia brought enthusiasm to the task. Scarnecchia, named dean in March, started work Jan. 2 in Farmington heading up a nominating commission meeting for the 11th Judicial District, which includes San Juan and McKinley counties. It is a duty thrust upon her by the New Mexico Constitution and by a fluke of timing. She arrived at a moment of extreme flux in the state's judiciary and has of necessity been drawn into the highly political process of helping to rearrange it. The state constitution requires the dean of the state's only law school to act as the nonvoting chair of each Judicial Nominating Commission, and it was in that role that she became the focal point for the governor's ire. Gov. Bill Richardson rejected the short list submitted for a Court of Appeals slot, saying he found it "appalling" that no women were included and demanding another list. The panel reconvened but submitted the same list, from which the governor appointed a Hispanic attorney to the post.

Rough welcome
It was a rough welcome for Scarnecchia. The former associate dean and clinical law professor at the University of Michigan Law School told the Journal in an early January interview that one of the attractions of UNM Law was the diversity of the faculty and the student population. "The school presents an opportunity to really discover how we can improve legal education through diversity," she said. "It's something that we wanted to do at Michigan, but we're battling whether we can have a minimum of diversity." Scarnecchia is referring to a court case that has thrust the University of Michigan admission policy on affirmative action into the national limelight. Its policy of considering race as a factor is under challenge; the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument on the case April 1. "Here, because of the demographics of the state and history of admissions of the school, we have a really strong representation of numbers of different kinds of people," she said. UNM, Scarnecchia said, offers the possibility of seeing what happens after you get people in the door. Scarnecchia was also drawn by UNM's relatively small student body — a third that of Michigan — and the fact that it is a "true state school." Most of the law school's graduates remain in New Mexico to live and work. At Michigan, a top 10 ranked law school, grads gravitate to Chicago or to big firms on the coasts. Finally, UNM's clinical program was attractive to Scarnecchia, whose academic career started in a clinical program. Clinic, a required course at UNM, unlike many schools, puts students into real world lawyering roles under close supervision, handling everything from landlord-tenant to domestic relations cases. "The school is known as one of the best clinical programs in the country," Scarnecchia said, "so it was easy to attract a clinician."

Media case
Scarnecchia, who grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., started her law career in the Battle Creek, Mich., branch office of a small firm that specialized in representing workers in employment law cases. She joined the faculty at Michigan in 1987, in the clinical law program, where she ended up with perhaps the biggest case of her career. In 1992, a case that had been in litigation for more than a year was referred to Scarnecchia. It involved a child, known as Baby Jessica, who had lived with her adoptive parents since she was 6 days old and whose biological parents were seeking her return. The biological mother had placed the child for adoption, lying about the father's identity. Once the biological father learned of the existence of the child, he joined with the mother in legal action to void the adoption. In the end, they won. The case, Scarnecchia said, was referred to the clinic by a family lawyer in Ann Arbor who told Jan and Roberta "Robby" DeBoer, the adoptive parents, that no private attorney had the time to put into the complicated case. The clinic did, and Scarnecchia built a long-term relationship with the couple. "The legal issue was whether the child's welfare should be considered," she said. "By the time it got to us, the child had been with the DeBoers for two years." Throughout years of litigation, the child's interest was never considered except by the Michigan trial court, where the DeBoers won, Scarnecchia said. But the case, which was the focus of network television stories, pieces in The New Yorker, People and Newsweek magazines, and ultimately a made-for-television movie, highlighted a sensitive topic.

"This issue of parents' rights versus children's rights is an area of law still in its infancy," Scarnecchia said. "I like to think it will evolve, but it's been a very slow process ...We have a long way to go."
Strong emotion holds on both sides, she said. New Mexico decided a similar case, Roth v. Bookert, in 1995, she said. The New Mexico case awarded custody of the child to the adoptive parents. Scarnecchia said she cited that case in a brief she recently filed with the Kentucky Supreme Court, where the court is dealing with a case she characterized as "Baby Jessica in spades." "I did not understand this would become a major media case when it came to us," she said. But Baby Jessica gave Scarnecchia unusual experience, weathering media barrage and dealing with the attendant political fallout, both of which may be useful in her new role as dean.

Chairing the judicial nominating commissions, if wearing, has given her a taste of New Mexico politics and scenery, as well as introduced her to the vast distances between cities. It's also allowed her to meet a number of the law school's graduates, from whom she hopes to get direction on what needs improving as well as garner support for new initiatives.

For a while, she will be on her own here. Her husband, Steve, a four-termer on the Ann Arbor city council, will move to New Mexico after their son, a 161/2-year-old bass player in a rock band, completes high school. They "talk" frequently each day on the Internet.

Scarnecchia hopes to build new partnerships with outside entities, do more public relations and external fund-raising to build on successful programs already in place. "I think the school can have a huge impact on the state, because legal issues are so central and because lawyers end up being leaders in a state like this," she said.

Copyright 2003 Albuquerque Journal