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Former Public Advocate Ronald Chen Returns to Rutgers as Vice Dean

Ronald K. Chen ’83, who as Public Advocate of the State of New Jersey led the rebuilding of an executive branch agency charged with providing “a voice to the voiceless,” has returned to Rutgers School of Law–Newark as Vice Dean. It is in effect a homecoming for Chen, who joined the faculty in 1987 and was appointed Associate Dean in 1995. Since leaving for Trenton in early 2006, he continued to teach as an adjunct professor at Rutgers, which he fondly described at his ceremonial swearing in as the place “which taught me the majesty of the law as a student for three years, and which then continued to teach me even as I have endeavored to teach others for the past 18 years.”

Dean Chen earned a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and graduated with high honors from Rutgers School of Law–Newark, where he was editor-in-chief of the Rutgers Law Review and the Saul Tischler Scholar. After graduation, he clerked for the Honorable Leonard I. Garth, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Before joining the Rutgers faculty, he was associated with the New York law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore.

   Corzine and Chen
  More than 250 members of the legal community, representatives from public interest organizations, friends, alums, former colleagues, and students attended the March 2006 ceremonial swearing in by Gov. Jon Corzine of Public Advocate Ronald Chen.

At the time of his nomination to head the Department of the Public Advocate, Chen was the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, responsible for overall academic and curricular operations and policy. Besides his administrative responsibilities, he taught Contracts, Federal Courts, Constitutional Law, and Church-State Relations. He also provided pro bono legal representation to Constitutional Litigation Clinic clients on a range of civil rights and constitutional law cases. An active lay leader of the American Civil Liberties Union, he had served since 2002 on the organization’s national board and national executive committee.

Chen’s areas of focus as Public Advocate included eminent domain reform, voters’ rights, affordable housing, childhood lead poisoning prevention, deinstitutionalization of persons with developmental disabilities and mental health services’ consumers, and affordable energy for ratepayers. In 2007 he was named the New Jersey Law Journal’s “Lawyer of the Year,” in large part because of his work in using state constitutional principles to prevent eminent domain abuse.

The Public Advocate job was “in some ways a public interest lawyer’s dream,” Chen said at the Alumni Recognition Dinner at which he received the 2009 Fannie Bear Besser Award for Public Service, “and one of the few things that could have drawn me away from my daily life at the law school.” In the same speech, Chen’s continuing attachment to the law school was evident in his confession to missing colleagues, students, and “the regular vortices of controversy, debate, and deliberation that distinguish an academic community.”

At the Alumni Recognition Dinner, Dean Chen shared some personal history that future first-year Rutgers law students are sure to hear: “I came to the law school in the fall of 1980, not having the faintest idea of what to expect of law school or even whether I really wanted to be a lawyer. Like so many young people fresh out of undergraduate college, I did not have a clearly established vision of what to do with my life. Rutgers Law School gave me that vision, and provided tangible proof in so many ways of how the law can and should be used as a positive tool for social justice. To the extent that I have been able to play some role in making the legal system more receptive to the needs of the public, and particularly those constituencies that have been traditionally underserved by traditional social and civic institutions, I, and all of us in the room who similarly benefited from a Rutgers legal education, owe that ability to make a difference to Rutgers.”

Dean Chen discusses his accomplishments as Public Advocate and his return to the law school in the following Q&A:

What drew you back to Rutgers Law School as Vice Dean. How would you describe your new role?

There really was never a question in my mind. After a four-year adventure in Trenton, I have come home.

As far as my new role as Vice-Dean, while I will be resuming a lot of the duties that I performed before, I also look forward to helping Dean Farmer projecting a renewed commitment of the law school to engage in the public issues of the State. Hopefully, with my recent experience as Public Advocate, I can be of assistance in that endeavor.

What about the law school did you miss most while serving as the Public Advocate?

Day-to-day contact with students. I have missed an entire generation of students, although after the first year as Public Advocate, I began teaching pro bono at night so I kept some connection with the daily life of the school.

You spent four years in Trenton as the Public Advocate. How do you expect that experience to inform your teaching and administrative responsibilities?

In too many ways to describe fully. I was an avid student for four years, learning how formulation of public policy and the legal system interact. I return with a much better understanding of the legislative process, of administrative rule-making, as well as traditional judicial processes, and I have new experience in a number of substantive issues, from utility law to elder law to mental health law to protection of persons with disabilities.

As far as administrative responsibilities, you do learn a few techniques as head of a principal department of state government, with responsibility for 170 employees, and six divisions and a $16 million to $20 million budget, and I may try a few of them out.

Of what accomplishment as Public Advocate are you most proud?

Probably our success in reforming eminent domain was the clearest example of how focused legal advocacy can change the landscape in a short period of time. With the courts’ intervention we were able to enact reforms that were constitutionally based, so that they cannot easily be altered. Now other states such as New York are citing New Jersey cases as precedent for changing the paradigm for redevelopment of economically disadvantaged communities.

You have on many occasions noted the strong call to public service that the law school issues to both students and alumni. How will you continue your public interest advocacy at Rutgers?

Public interest advocacy is at the core of the Rutgers Law School tradition. I want to help Dean Farmer find new ways to express that tradition through partnerships with the Bench and Bar and other public interest advocacy organizations with whom I have built relationships as Public Advocate.