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Alumni Spotlight

Randy Abate JD'89: Teacher of Justice

“I learn as much from my students today as I did when I began my teaching career more than two decades ago,” said Randy Abate JD'89, a full-time professor at Florida A&M College of Law and the author of several books, law review articles, and amicus briefs. “Teaching is far more than imparting substantive knowledge; it’s also about inspiring students to pursue their dreams, mentoring them with encouragement and guidance, and providing them with skills to succeed in the legal profession.” Randy began his law teaching career at Vermont Law School as a full-time Legal Writing instructor.

In addition to his teaching at Florida A&M, Randy is also the director of the Center for International Law and Justice, extending the mentorship approach he takes in teaching to his facilitation of program building and international and environmental law internships. His legal, writing, and teaching passion lies in climate justice and indigenous peoples.

Randy took some time recently to answer questions from the Alumni Office.

Describe for us briefly what your daily work is like, as both professor and director of the Center for International Law and Justice?

At Florida A&M College of Law, I teach a full-time course load that includes several domestic and international environmental law electives, Constitutional Law I and II, and animal law. I also am actively engaged in program building and supervising student activities in our international and environmental law programs. I have pursued multiple scholarly writing projects in the past five years, publishing three books and five law review articles addressing a wide range of domestic and international environmental law issues. Since 2010, I also have taught international and comparative environmental law courses, and delivered lectures and presentations on climate change law and justice, in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Kenya, Spain, Ukraine, and the Cayman Islands.

Where does your interest in justice and indigenous people, especially in relation to climate change, come from?

Teaching and writing about environmental justice issues at Florida A&M led me to my interest in climate justice and indigenous peoples. The turning point for me was when I attended a climate justice conference at the University of Utah College of Law in 2007. The keynote speaker was Shelia Watt-Cloutier, the visionary leader of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference who spearheaded the Inuit petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in the year before the conference. I teared up as I listened to her heart-wrenching story in words and pictures about how climate change impacts in the Arctic has devastated her people and their way of life. From that day, I resolved to commit myself to their cause and I haven’t looked back. I co-edited a book, authored or co-authored several law review articles, and delivered presentations and lecture series on climate change and indigenous peoples throughout the nation and the world. I also participated in drafting amicus briefs in support of indigenous peoples’ positions in climate justice cases in federal courts. But this interest in indigenous peoples traces its origins to my time at VLS when I was a full-time legal writing professor in the early 1990s. After teaching a moot court class for a full semester that focused on a pending U.S. Supreme Court case addressing interstate water pollution (Arkansas v. Oklahoma), I drafted an amicus brief representing the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma’s interest in the litigation as the downstream recipient of unwanted water pollution from sources in Arkansas.

Imagining an ideal world, can you describe an ideal legal project that would “build capacity and increase and generate human knowledge and understanding of pressing legal, socio-political, and economic issues” in one of the areas that the Center for International Law and Justice focuses on?

Much of the teaching and scholarly writing that I do is focused on building bridges between substantive areas within the law, and between the law and substantive areas outside the law. Two projects that I have worked on recently reflect this purpose. The first is the NOAA-ECSC Fellows in Ocean and Coastal Law that I co-coordinate at Florida A&M College of Law. This initiative is a multi-year federal grant from NOAA that funds several universities who work collaboratively to promote the advancement of minorities in NOAA-related fields. The program supports and mentors students in environmental science, environmental policy, socioeconomics, and law. This interdisciplinary focus across many schools has made this program meaningful and educational for me and my students in the programs. Lawyers have so much to learn from non-lawyers on environmental issues, and the non-lawyers have much to learn from the lawyers, too.

Another cross-cutting context is finding areas of synergy within the environmental law field. My teaching and writing on this front has led me to the field of human rights and the environment, with an emphasis on climate justice. Environmental law used to be about protecting human health by reducing contamination of air, water, and soil. Now it’s more about promoting sustainability and how environmental protection is inextricably linked to the protection of basic human rights, especially in the context of adapting to climate change impacts.

What’s the most compelling aspect of teaching law? What lead you to teach in the first place?

From as early as I can remember, my parents instilled in me an appreciation for the value of education, not just for how it opens door for professional opportunities, but as an end in itself. I learned that the process of learning is a gift to be enjoyed and shared. I always enjoyed teaching, tracing back to my youth when I would coach others in the sports that I played or tutor others in certain subjects at school. When I was in college, I knew that teaching and research would be the focus of my career because I loved investigating topics, writing about them, and presenting about them to advocate ideas to an audience. Law school seemed like an ideal fit for these interests, coupled with my passion for social justice issues. The inspiration and knowledge that I acquired from several outstanding teachers and coaches in my life led me to want to give back by doing what I love. I believe that teaching is the ultimate service profession. At all levels of education, good teachers don’t simply impart wisdom; they help build life skills and values in those that they teach. But people often overlook how much inspiration and satisfaction teachers receive from the privilege of giving as teacher. What goes around comes around, many times over.

Can you give us an example of the kind of teaching you do that earned you a university-wide Teaching Innovation Award Nomination in 2014?

The Teaching Innovation Award recognizes professors who have an impact on students within and outside the classroom. My law teaching career began at VLS as a full-time Legal Writing Instructor after having served as a teaching assistant in the Legal Research and Writing Program. Starting my path in legal academia from “the trenches” of the legal writing track was consistent with my student-centered teaching methodology. I learn as much from my students today as I did when I began my teaching career more than two decades ago. To me, teaching is far more than imparting substantive knowledge; it’s also about inspiring students to pursue their dreams and mentoring them with encouragement and guidance and providing them with skills to succeed in the legal profession. My focus on student mentoring has enabled me to assist more than two dozen students at Florida A&M College of Law in the past three years to have their environmental law papers prepared in my seminars published in academic law journals in the U.S. and abroad. Eight of those students also won or placed in national or statewide legal writing competitions on environmental law topics. Also in the past few years, my moot court teams have advanced to quarterfinal and semifinal performances at major national moot court competitions and have earned best brief and individual oralist recognition. As Director of the Center of International Law and Justice, I supervise and mentor students in international and environmental law internships in the U.S. and abroad, guide them in course selection and completion of certificate requirements, and assist them with job placements and career transitions after graduation. Finally, I have served as faculty advisor to the Florida A&M Law Review and to student organizations focused on environmental, international, and animal law.

Was there a particular professor or course that stands out as especially memorable or influential during your time at VLS that directly affects the work you’re doing now?

Professor Dick Brooks was a mentor to me in my time at VLS. By example more so than by his words, he helped inspire my passion for environmental law as a substantive area of focus and my interest in environmental law academia as a career path. I was drawn to how he approached everything he did with indefatigable passion and purpose—developing and directing the best environmental law program in the nation, undertaking nationally recognized scholarly writing projects, teaching and mentoring students, and being a pillar in the VLS community and in the larger legal and environmental law community of scholars and practitioners. He was driven by irrepressible ambition to advance knowledge and inspire others to pursue the important field of environmental law. One of the courses that I took with him, Ocean and Coastal Law, has become a focus area in my teaching and research. To be able to say that my career resembles his in any way would be a tremendous vindication of my efforts.

Randy Abate JD'89

Randy Abate JD'89

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