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Board of Governors Professor George C. Thomas III

Criminal law and procedure is one of the broadest fields in legal education and those teaching and writing in the area generate a substantial number of books and articles each year. George C. Thomas III, Professor of Law and Judge Alexander P. Waugh, Sr. Distinguished Scholar, is widely acknowledged as one of the very top scholars in his field, a prolific writer of unassailable quality and irrefutable influence. 

In February Rutgers University recognized his contributions to the many areas of criminal procedure by naming Thomas a Board of Governors Professor, one of the university’s highest honors. The Board of Governors Professor of Law resolution notes that Thomas has written the definitive work on Miranda and confessions and that his insightful analysis of the concept of double jeopardy has shaped the debate on the issue since the early 1990s.

George C. Thomas III 

 George C. Thomas III

Thomas is the author or co-author of four books and more than 60 articles on criminal law and criminal procedure. His most recent book, The Supreme Court on Trial: How the American Justice System Sacrifices Innocent Defendants (University of Michigan Press, 2008), suggests a series of reforms to address the disturbing problem of wrongful convictions. His next book, The History and Future of Confessions (with Richard Leo), will be published in 2010 by Oxford University Press.  

Thomas has a B.S. from the University of Tennessee, an M.F.A. and J.D. from the University of Iowa, and an LL.M. and J.S.D. from Washington University in St. Louis. He practiced law in Tennessee and was a member of the University of Tennessee faculty prior to joining the Rutgers faculty in 1986. 

Thomas discusses his teaching and scholarship in the following Q&A:

What changed your career path from earning an M.F.A. in creative writing to studying law?
My undergraduate field was education and I love to write, so I first thought that I would teach writing. It wasn’t until I discovered that there were few college-level opportunities for creative writing instructors without a Ph.D. that I decided to enroll in law school. My father was a lawyer and often talked with a lot of enthusiasm around the dinner table about his practice. Still, I didn’t expect to find law school interesting. The first case we studied in law school was The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens, an 1884 case where sailors spent 20 days in a lifeboat without food or water and ultimately killed and ate the cabin boy as the only way to stay alive. No case law existed at that time that addressed the question of whether the likelihood of starvation justified taking an innocent life. I found it fascinating and was hooked on law from then on.

What area of law did you pursue after graduating from law school?
I decided that, instead of working for a big-city firm, I would join my father’s general practice in Dresden, Tennessee. I had a romantic notion about small-town lawyers helping local people in a less demanding environment. I soon came to realize that, in a small community, most people go to a lawyer only when something terrible has happened to them. It can be very difficult representing them in those circumstances. Just I was becoming disaffected with practice, I heard that the University of Tennessee at Martin was looking for someone to fill a one-year position teaching Constitutional Law, which had been my favorite course in law school. After that I taught criminal justice. I discovered that I loved teaching and trimmed my practice to accommodate my teaching load.

You’re one of the leading authorities on double jeopardy and on confessions. What do you find compelling about those topics?
I’m interested in history and philosophy as much as legal doctrine and my books and articles on those subjects let me do research in all three areas. My work on double jeopardy grew out of a suggestion by the thesis adviser for my doctor of science in jurisprudence that it was fertile ground for academic investigation. I discovered that the concept that a person should not be tried twice for the same offense has been around since Demosthenes. What began as a philosophical principle put forward by a Greek orator develops into the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution! I wanted to trace the path and see how that happened.

There’s a similar dynamic to my writings on police interrogation and confessions, I first looked at what, if any, effect the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court Miranda decision had had on police interrogation. I decided to broaden my inquiry to the philosophy of confessions. What does it mean to say that a confession is coerced? In studying the history, I’ve found that the idea that the courts shouldn’t consider involuntary confessions or should restrict their use begins to appear in the 13th century in English law and 300 AD in Roman law and even as early as the Roman Republic. Of course every confession is ultimately a chosen act. One chooses to confess rather than endure torture, for example. Thus, the issue of confessions becomes a moral question about what choices we are willing to allow the authorities to force on suspects. Torture obviously is not a legitimate option, but a long interrogation, once the suspect has waived his Miranda rights, is a choice that we permit in this country.

Do you find it easy to juggle the demands of teaching with your scholarship?
One of the advantages of teaching is that it’s structured to give you incentives to write. And the more I research and write the more intellectual capital I accumulate, which in turn makes the writing easier. Interactions with students can also spark an idea for an article. I wrote “Time Travel, Hovercrafts, and the Framers: James Madison Sees the Future and Rewrites the Fourth Amendment” (University of Notre Dame Law Review, 2005) after a lively classroom discussion about the U.S. Supreme Court decision that the police did not need a warrant to conduct helicopter surveillance of marijuana plants growing in a greenhouse. The idea was to ask how James Madison would have written the Fourth Amendment differently if he could have foreseen modern technology.