Jim Dey: Former UI law prof 'having too much fun to retire'


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When Ron Rotunda feels like going out for a run, he does it.

If he wants orange juice, he can pick a few ripe ones from the six trees in his yard. If not, he can choose from peach and lemon trees.

Life is good in the Golden State, where the longtime University of Illinois law professor now resides. It's even better for those people with real money.

"You think you're well off until you move to California and see how the really rich live," said the 70-year-old Rotunda. "I thought the last place I would move to would be California, which is run like Somalia."

The state may be borderline ungovernable, featuring high taxes, water shortages and fiscal chaos as well as the super rich and desperately poor. But it's the latest stop for the itinerant legal scholar who left the UI law school in 2001, after a long career here, for stints at the George Mason University law school in Fairfax, Va., the U.S. Defense Department in Washington, D.C., and now the Chapman University law school in Orange, Calif.

He continues to work hard, teaching constitutional law and legal ethics while grinding out a steady series of scholarly articles and commentaries on hot legal issues for prominent media outlets like The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

"Sometimes I feel 70. But I still get up at 5 a.m. and go to work. I'm having too much fun to retire," he said.

Just a month ago, Rotunda wrote an article for the Journal about "Hillary's Emails and the Law," referring to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's decision to destroy thousands of emails generated while she served as secretary of state in the Obama cabinet.

"It is a crime — obstruction of justice — to destroy even one message to prevent it from being subpoenaed," Rotunda noted.

Clinton knew that, Rotunda argued, because she voted for the 2002 law "making the crime easier to prove."

"I got a ton of emails and radio and television interviews," Rotunda said.

Strangler for a student

One of his more unusual articles, published in the Journal in 2013, was "The Boston Strangler, the Classroom and Me."

It was a recollection of his 1966 experience as a Harvard undergraduate teaching rhetoric to prison inmates. Among them: Albert DeSalvo, the man identified by Massachusetts authorities as the killer of 11 women between 1962 and 1964.

The strangler killed his victims in their apartments, which showed no signs of forced entry. So how did DeSalvo gain entry to women's apartments in a city paralyzed by fear of a serial killer?

Rotunda recalled that DeSalvo was "gregarious and attentive" while his classmates were "often visibly disturbed and disheveled" and was "the only student who would help me arrange the chairs for class."

"DeSalvo had no trouble talking to strangers in a relaxed and gracious manner. And so he seems to have talked his way into the home of nearly a dozen trusting victims," Rotunda wrote, reminding readers that "you can't judge a book by its cover."

"He looked normal. What was so abnormal was his mind," Rotunda concluded.

Rotunda joined the faculty at the UI's College of Law in 1974 after stints as an assistant majority counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee investigating the Watergate scandal, which ultimately drove President Nixon from office.

While at the UI for more than 25 years, Rotunda joined colleague John Nowak in writing a multi-volume treatise on constitutional law while developing a national reputation as an expert on legal ethics. Rotunda also served as a legal advisor to Special Counsel Kenneth Starr, whose investigation of the Clinton White House led to the president's impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives and subsequent acquittal in a U.S. Senate trial.

Rotunda said that "I miss my friends in Champaign-Urbana" but felt compelled to leave the UI for George Mason because he had earned a generous pension.

"I couldn't afford not to leave," he said.

Going to Guantanamo

Teaching at George Mason was a pleasant experience, but his brief stay at the defense department wasn't as productive.

"I gave advice nobody followed," said Rotunda, recalling that he advised defense officials on detainee issues that included prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

"I was down at Guantanamo a couple of times," he said, stating that conditions there are not harsh.

Rotunda noted President Obama has repeatedly pledged to close the facility but that it remains open because there is nowhere else to place the dangerous prisoners who remain there.

"It's easier to run for president than be president. Obama has been president for six years now, and he hasn't closed it down," he said.

Rotunda left the D.C. area for California in 2008. While he said he "can live anywhere," Rotunda said his current home and job in the city of Orange provide a "great atmosphere."

A native of Blue Island and the son of Italian immigrants, Rotunda said he looks back with fondness at the Champaign-Urbana community. He said the UI's law school is clearly the most outstanding place he's taught and that Champaign-Urbana, despite its harsh winters and hot summers, was a great place to live.

He visited the UI last fall to give a talk at the law school and was struck by what he found.

"It was fun to be there," he said. "So much has changed."

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.