Federalist Society honors Elder Dallin H. Oaks, JD’57

“If you only do in the legal profession what you get paid for, you will miss some of your choicest opportunities,” said Elder Dallin H. Oaks, JD’57, a distinguished Mormon leader, to a group of University of Chicago law students.

The students had gathered at the Law School on May 3 to present Oaks with the Federalist Society’s 2012 Lee Lieberman Otis Award for Distinguished Service to honor his years of dedicated public service.

His turn toward a life of service came as a young associate in a Chicago law firm when he accepted a hopeless pro bono case defending an accused robber. While pro bono work is now part of law firm life, it was the first time his firm had ever allowed it.

“As I reflected on the satisfaction I had handling that case for that indigent Polish boy and compared it to the level of satisfaction I was experiencing representing large corporations, it turned my thinking around on how I wanted to spend my life.”

Since 1984, Oaks has served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He also practiced law at Kirkland and Ellis in the late 1950s, was a professor and acting dean of the Law School in the turbulent 1960s, president of Brigham Young University from 1971 to 1980, and a justice of the Utah Supreme Court from 1980 to 1984.

“We chose Elder Oaks for this year's Otis Award because of his passion for principled service,” said Dennis Ng, a 3L who is vice president of the UChicago Federalist Society. “He has played key roles throughout the public sector.”

In accepting the Otis award, Oaks reminisced about his years at the Law School, from being a student paying $55 a month to live in former army barracks near the Law School with his family, to his years on the faculty, including when he was asked to lead the 1969 faculty committee deciding the discipline of student protestors who had taken over the University administration building for 14 days.

While at the Law School, he taught classes such as criminal procedure, wills and trusts, estate and gift tax, and American legal history. His legal research focused on the criminal justice system.

“I’ve been so grateful that I went to a quality law school,” said Oaks. “Under Edward Levi’s leadership—he was a man I considered one of my fathers-in-the-law—the education in this law school was just not an education to practice law, it was an education to participate in the highest level of law-making and policy consideration, whether in the legal profession or not. It was a broad education.”

He also spoke of his work as legal counsel to the Bill of Rights Committee of the Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1970; his friendship and respect for one-time Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, AB’48 and JD’53; and his clerkship with Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren: “I adored him as a person and I had immense respect for him as a Chief Justice of the United States, but more often than not, I disagreed with his decisions.”

The Otis award is named for Lee Lieberman Otis, JD’83, one of the founders of the Federalist Society, a 40,000 member-strong organization of lawyers, law students, and scholars established in 1982 by the UChicago, Harvard, and Yale law schools. The award recognizes alumni who have shown dedication to public service and a commitment to the ideals of the Federalist Society: individual liberty, traditional values, and the rule of law.

Oaks’ achievements also inspired the Dallin H. Oaks Society at the Law School, whose mission is “to increase awareness within the Law School community of the presence, beliefs and concerns of law students who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

This is the third year the Otis Award has been given. The first recipient, in 2010, was James C. Ho, JD’99, former Solicitor General of Texas. The 2011 honoree was former U.S. Senator and Attorney General John Ashcroft, JD’67.