For four decades, Dennis Hutchinson created and followed his own unique path at the University of Chicago.
“One of the great things about the University of Chicago,” Hutchinson said late last year, “is that you don’t have to color between the lines. I didn’t have to limit myself to one groove.”
Hutchinson has retired as a senior lecturer at the Law School and the William Rainey Harper Professor Emeritus in the College. His career was marked by superb scholarship, remarkable teaching, and life-changing mentorship—a legacy that has radiated across the legal profession and academia in thousands of students and colleagues he’s taught, advised, and collaborated with over the years. He spent decades as an editor of The Supreme Court Review, the nation’s leading journal on Supreme Court jurisprudence; provided tireless and unstinting guidance to Law School students seeking judicial clerkships; and developed Law School classes in which he employed a teaching style that alumni still talk about today.
“Dennis worked in the classroom to open minds and create an unremitting passion for direct and disciplined argument,” said Julius (Jay) Richardson, ’02, a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. “My law school experience would have been much less full without him, my career would never have started where it did, and I am quite confident that I never would have gotten to where I am.”
While Hutchinson was the William Rainey Harper Professor in the College, he cocreated the interdisciplinary program Law, Letters, and Society, chairing and teaching in that program for 26 years after having led its predecessor program (Politics, Economics, Rhetoric, and Law) for 10 years. He was an associate dean in the College and master of the New Collegiate Division for 26 years, overseeing programs that drew faculty from a variety of disciplines to teach courses that did not fall under specific divisions. He chaired or participated on more than a dozen committees at the University and served as acting dean of the College five times.
“Dennis built a bridge between the College and the Law School that doesn’t exist at most other universities; it was a Herculean task that took decades,” said Andrew Hammond, BA ’07, a former student of Hutchinson’s who later became a colleague in the College administration and is now on a university law school faculty. Hammond was one of several people who spoke last year at an event honoring Hutchinson’s contributions to the Law School and the College.
Many alumni credit Hutchinson with helping them chart successful careers.
“It was as a student of Dennis Hutchinson that I saw what I wanted my own academic career to be,” said Ross Davies, ’97, a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. “He has been unfailingly generous in the 25 years since then in helping me to make the most of the path I’ve chosen.”
Italia Patti, ’14, who earned her bachelor’s degree from the College in 2008, took Hutchinson’s class American Law and the Rhetoric of Race while an undergraduate, as she was deciding whether to pursue a law career.
“It was a great class,” she recalled. “It not only helped me decide to go to law school, it helped shape the issues I wanted to address after I graduated.”
She is now an assistant federal public defender in Indiana.
Kelsi Brown Corkran, ’05, a senior lecturer at Georgetown University Law Center and the Supreme Court Director for Georgetown’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said Hutchinson provided instrumental guidance as she sought judicial clerkships. She clerked for Judge David Tatel, ’66, of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the US Supreme Court.
“At a lot of law schools in my day—and still today, I believe—getting a clerkship was a matter of savvy and connections,” Corkran said. “I had neither of those, but I had Dennis Hutchinson, and that changed my life.”
Jeff Wall, ’03, who heads the Supreme Court practice at Sullivan & Cromwell and has served twice as Acting US Solicitor General, had a similarly life-changing experience.
“From clerking, I found the work that I love,” Wall said. “In the story of my life, Professor Hutchinson played an important role—something many hundreds of other former students can also say. He has genuinely cared about generations of law students; he’s advocated for us; he’s helped us have more interesting and fulfilling professional lives; he has helped set us on paths that we have cherished.”
The ability to shape minds and careers is the mark of a great teacher, said Dean Thomas J. Miles, the Clifton R. Musser Professor of Law and Economics—and Hutchinson exemplified that quality throughout his career.
“Dennis’s contributions to our Law School, our University, and our intellectual life are many and long-lasting,” Miles said. “He deepened ties between the Law School and College, his teaching inspired and energized students on both sides of the Midway, his wise advice guided students seeking clerkships, his skillful editing illuminated Supreme Court Review, and more.”
Hutchinson attended the University of Colorado in his first two college years. As a full-time student, he also worked 40 hours a week as a newspaper reporter. He transferred to Bowdoin for his final two years, graduating summa cum laude. He initially planned to pursue a graduate degree in journalism but, he said, “those were tumultuous times for civil rights in America, and I noticed how often lawyers were helping to change the world, so I decided to go to law school.”
He started his legal studies at UChicago in 1969. The next year, selected as a Rhodes Scholar, he went to Oxford, where he remained for three years, earning a law degree. Returning to the US, he earned an LLM degree from the University of Texas Law School.
“Because of the nature of my Oxford degree, I still had to get a US degree to be eligible for the bar, and I had wanted to finish my studies at Chicago,” Hutchinson recounted. “But Chicago was probably going to want two years from me, and Texas only wanted one, and I was short on money and eager to get on with a career. As it turned out, going to Texas for that degree brought me two great, interconnected blessings—a wonderful wife and a path to the Chicago faculty.”
It was at Texas that he met and began dating Diane Wood. They both later clerked in Washington DC—Hutchinson for Supreme Court justices Byron R. White and William O. Douglas; Wood for Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun—and they were married in 1978.
After his clerkships, Hutchinson taught law at American University for one year and at Georgetown for three years. His first journal article, published in >Georgetown Law Review in 1979, is a magisterial 86-page analysis tracing the rise and fall of unanimity in the Supreme Court’s segregation cases of the 1950s, using many previously unpublished documents. David A. Strauss, the University of Chicago’s Gerald Ratner Distinguished Service Professor of Law, has described Hutchinson’s article as “tremendous original scholarship that remains important and influential to this day.”
In 1981, the Law School invited Wood to join the faculty, and Hutchinson was offered an associate professorship in the College and a lecturer in law position at the Law School. (Wood, to whom Hutchinson was married for 20 years, taught full time at the Law School until her appointment to the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in 1995, and she has continued since then to teach as a senior lecturer in law.)
The Supreme Court Review and Scholarly Work
Upon joining the Law School faculty, Hutchinson dove into work on the journal that would become an important part of his scholarly life.
“The university’s offer to me was greatly sweetened by the agreement that I would become an editor of The Supreme Court Review, along with two great professors at the Law School: Phil Kurland, who had founded the journal, and Gerhard Casper,” Hutchinson recalled.
Kurland welcomed Hutchinson’s addition to the editorial team, as he admired an article that Hutchinson had submitted for the 1980 edition of The Supreme Court Review about Justice Frankfurter’s influence on how the Supreme Court approached its work.
Until Hutchinson left the journal in 2017, it had had only five editors in its 57-year history. David A. Strauss succeeded Kurland, and Geoffrey R. Stone, ’71, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law, succeeded Casper.
“Dennis is a fantastic editor,” Strauss said, noting that Hutchinson had edited some of Strauss’s own submissions to the journal. “He has an amazing knack for understanding what you were trying to say and helping you to say it better. He did that for me, and he did it for many other contributors to the Review over the years. Several authors raved to me about how much Dennis improved their articles, and from my own experience with Dennis I knew exactly what they meant.”
Throughout Hutchinson’s time at The Supreme Court Review, it consistently was rated by careful studies as the most influential publication in its field.
“A great thing about editing that journal with so many great scholars was that it wasn’t a club, as those enterprises can sometimes be,” Hutchinson said. “And it wasn’t offloaded to staff, because we didn’t have any staff. We did the work and proudly stood behind every edition.”
Hutchinson’s own scholarship focused on modern American constitutional history and judicial behavior.
“[His scholarship] took legal doctrines and ideas seriously, and it took equally seriously the political, professional, and social struggles that shaped them,” said Christopher Eisgruber, ’88, who has been the president of Princeton University since 2013.
It was work that appealed to Hutchinson’s earlier career inclination.
“To me, this was a form of journalism,” he said. “There were great stories to tell.”
His 1998 book, The Man Who Was Whizzer White, was fully congruent with his scholarship goals and his storytelling bent: a New York Times reviewer said that it provided “a compelling picture of the changing rhythms of the Court over three decades” and “a fascinating account of a remarkable life.”
“I had a lot of admiration for Justice White, who was famously reticent,” Hutchinson said. “He worked so hard to suppress interest in his background and details about it. When I told him I wanted to write about him, he pounded the table—pounded it hard—and quoted Oscar Wilde: ‘Biography lends to death a new terror.’ But I knew that if I didn’t do it, someone else would, and they would probably trash him, and he deserved better than that.”
The 2002 book he edited, The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox: A Year in the Life of a Supreme Court Clerk in FDR’s Washington, was also lauded, with one reviewer describing it as “a rare and fascinating glimpse into the life of a Supreme Court justice and his clerk during the 1930s.”
In addition to those two books and more than 35 scholarly articles, he shared his knowledge widely through more than 150 presentations, panel discussions, commentaries, and publications in the popular press.
It wasn’t long after Hutchinson’s career began that his teaching chops became evident. In 1984 he was honored with the University’s Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. He later received the Amoco Foundation Award for Distinguished Contributions to Undergraduate Teaching. In two separate years, he was the University’s nominee for the professor of the year award sponsored by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
Among the other classes and seminars that Hutchinson taught at the Law School were The Constitutional Revolution of 1937 (a course he developed at the request of several students), The Roberts Court, Problems in Supreme Court History, History of American Legal Thought, and Elements of the Law.
Eisgruber remembered Hutchinson’s seminar on American legal thought as “the best and most memorable class that I took at the Law School,” and he described “innumerable personal conversations about life and law” with Hutchinson, beginning when he was a student and continuing to this day.
“Dennis was a brilliant teacher, both in the Law School and in the College,” said Stone, a former dean of the Law School and provost of the University. “Over the years, his students in both the Law School and in the College have raved about Dennis as both a teacher and as an advisor.”
Hutchinson created eight new courses that he taught in the Law School, the College, or both. Among his most influential offerings was American Law and the Rhetoric of Race, which he taught in both the Law School and the College.
“I derived enormous pleasure from teaching Rhetoric of Race, in part because students with very diverse political views seemed to like it and grow intellectually from having taken it,” he said.
Maggie Upshaw, ’16, testified to the course’s spectrum-wide appeal.
“My wife, Amy Upshaw [’16], and I were in Rhetoric of Race together,” she said. “We have very different political views. She’s a lot more conservative than I am. The class was a paradigm shifter for both of us. Professor Hutchinson just let the facts speak for themselves and let the conclusions follow. We talked about that class all the time.”
All of Hutchinson’s contributions to the Law School occurred while he was also teaching and leading in the College.
“Edward Levi would talk often about the idea of ‘One University,’ where any professor could talk knowledgeably to any other professor, regardless of their academic specialization,” Hutchinson said. “That’s a heck of a vision, and I feel like I was able to sustain it in some ways, despite all the pressures in the other direction.”
His own work at the Law School and across the Midway was an important component of that arduously built “bridge between the College and the Law School,” and he looked for ways to fortify the connections. Law School professors, including Bernard Harcourt and Tom Ginsburg, agreed to supervise theses by some Law, Letters, and Society undergraduates, and Hutchinson recruited law students, including Sarah Horvitz, ’05, and Jeff Wall as teaching assistants in courses he taught in the College.
“I’ve had the fortune of developing an undergraduate program, of creating new courses in the Law School and the College, and in doing so I think I have learned a great deal and have set a path for myself and others in terms of intellectual exploration, and there’s a lot to be said for that,” Hutchinson said. “At what other university could half a dozen scholars get together and create a course called Sports, Society, and Science? That’s the kind of thing the University has allowed me to do.”
In the mid-1990s, viewing clerkships as an opportunity for graduates that had not been fully developed, Hutchinson joined the Law School’s faculty clerkship committee, becoming its chair a few years later.
“Things were pretty haphazard in those early days,” Hutchinson recalled. “My principal goals were to centralize the function and give more publicity to the value of clerkships, because they are a great way to start any legal career. You get insight into how the sausage is made.”
Centralizing the function meant in part that from the mid-1990s until his retirement, he met with virtually every student seeking a clerkship, and he helped them find the right match among the very large roster of federal judges he knew. Other faculty members have played a large role in recent years as the clerkship program continued to grow.
Maggie Upshaw, who is an associate in the appellate practice at Latham & Watkins, credited Hutchinson’s encouragement and advice for the clerkship she obtained on the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
“His guidance started with an email he sent me after my first year and continued right through—and beyond—my acceptance by Judge [William] Fletcher,” she said. “Dennis had an uncanny ability to match clerks and judges, and he knew a vast network of judges for making those matches.”
Matthew Tokson, ’08, who clerked for Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter, said recently that Hutchinson “seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of appeals court and district judges, and he knew which judges were a pleasure to work for and those who were not.”
Lois Casaleggi, the Law School’s associate dean for career services, observed that when she came to her position in 2004, part of her charge was to provide administrative support for Hutchinson’s efforts, and today three staff are focusing their activities on clerkships.
“For a long time,” Casaleggi said, “Dennis was doing most of the heavy lifting for clerkships, and his commitment, year after year, seemed inexhaustible. He wanted our students to have this great experience, and he meticulously created the right match between clerks and judges, which resulted not only in judges coming back to us wanting more clerks, but in other judges wanting clerks like the UChicago ones their colleagues had worked with.”
Mentoring and More
Hutchinson’s mentoring extended beyond clerkship guidance.
“Dennis provided the kind of mentorship that students treasure and universities celebrate,” Christopher Eisgruber said. It was “built on a deep and intuitive understanding of the human character of the educational enterprise, the importance of exciting aspiration and imagination, the benefits of genuine feedback, and the capacity of students to grow both as people and as thinkers.”
Ross Davies was one of the founders of the law journal The Green Bag, and Hutchinson served on the journal’s advisory board from the beginning.
“There’s so much sludge published in legal academe,” Hutchinson said, “but here were the interesting twists and turns and quirks.”
Davies provided a metaphor for his 25-year relationship with Hutchinson.
“In the Harry Potter stories, Hermione has a small bag that contains vast numbers of magical items. That’s what it’s always like, talking with Dennis: He always seems to be able to reach into a magical bag and pull out just the right observation, insight, advice, quotation, or resource that enables you to get on with what you were doing in ways that are deeper, broader, better, and perhaps even wiser. You never leave an interaction with Dennis without some kind of gift.”
Hutchinson always had an ample plate of additional activities, too.
High on that list has been serving the American Rhodes Scholars program for 44 years, as a board member and as a member of regional selection committees. He received the organization’s highest award in 2018.
“Working with the Rhodes program was another occasion for encountering very bright, ambitious students and possibly making a difference in their lives,” Hutchinson said.
He contributed to the governance of his college alma mater, Bowdoin, as a trustee and in other capacities for 30 years.
In many ways, Dennis Hutchinson’s career has been defined by his passion for storytelling, not only through his scholarship but through the hundreds of stories he has helped shape.
“Dennis’s legacy ripples in ways that none of us can fully appreciate,” Jeff Wall said. “We are all so lucky to have been made better by him.”