Professor Tom Devine ’80 has been part of the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law community for nearly its entire 50 years. As a first-year law school student, Prof. Devine helped to organize the clinic that eventually became today’s Whistleblower Protection Clinic. He has served as the Legal Director of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) since 1979, the first year of the clinic’s operation.
In honor of our 50th anniversary, The Advocate spoke with Prof. Devine about his storied career and lifelong commitment to UDC Law.
The Advocate: How did studying at UDC Law prepare you to teach in the clinical program?
Tom Devine: It gave me the academic freedom to help organize the clinical program and advance academic contributions for Whistleblower rights. What was critical about that was that we had the freedom to create our own education [at the law school] because leadership valued that. So, when I found something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I was able to customize a law school education around it. And that meant starting the Whistleblower Protection Clinic at [UDC Law’s predecessor school] Antioch [School of Law].
The Advocate: How did you personally become interested in whistleblower protection law and the avenue you have taken in your career?
Devine: I think maybe it’s in the genes or something. Even when I was in middle school and high school, I was championing people who had dissented against the power structure and our schools. If I weren’t a lawyer for whistleblowers, I would have probably ended up being a whistleblower. I don’t have a martyr complex. It’s just always been an instinctual thing to help individuals challenge an organization that was abusing its power.
The Advocate: Can you give the back story of the Whistleblower Protection Clinic? Start at the beginning and just kind of walk us through the history to where we are now.
Devine: I think part of it is my own personal history. I became very interested in being a political activist when I went to Georgetown University and during the student strike in 1970. Instead of going home, I became one of the leaders for a successful campaign to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. Then I led a voter registration drive for people to take advantage of it and just really got into it. After my freshman year, I got much more immersed in being on the debate team and developed the skills to become an advocate, an activist for the rest of my life.
I took a year after graduating from college to develop my values, hitchhike around the country and do a lot of reading.
That’s when I decided I was extremely interested in being an environmental activist related to nuclear power plants. I became very concerned with the nuclear threat to survival of the planet, so when that year was over, I took some jobs just to decide whether the best approach was to be a lawyer or an investigative journalist. I ultimately realized that I wanted to be a lawyer. An investigative journalist got access to all the hidden truths behind the propaganda, but all they could do was write about it. The lawyers got to get right in the front lines and fight the battles and defeat the things the journalists were writing about. And so that was much more appealing.
I decided to go to law school and applied to some conventional law schools and was accepted but, one of my friends from the debate team in college invited me to check out Antioch law school and recruited me to attend. He explained that I could create my own education at Antioch. One of the people that inspired me was Kitty Tucker, one of the law students there, and she was getting her degree for creating something called the Supporters of Silkwood, the challenge to the death of Karen Silkwood, the nuclear whistleblower who was killed. I thought well, this is where I’d be by far the happiest. I didn’t want to drop out of society for the next three years in order to be a lawyer. At Antioch, I didn’t have to drop out of society.
But I was concerned that, when I talked to places that hired public interest lawyers, they said, “Oh, well, get the pedigree. We have so many more applicants from Harvard and Yale and Stanford and Berkeley than we can accept for jobs. You have to have one of those top law school degrees if you want to work for Ralph Nader or for any of the top environmental groups.”
And so, I raised this with the admissions director at Antioch and she convinced me immediately to go to Antioch because she said the experience is more important than the pedigree and explained that the top jobs in Washington, D.C., for law school graduates are working in the U.S. Attorney’s office for the District of Columbia. That’s the most coveted job that there is. And the previous year, three out of five new hires at the U.S. Attorney’s office were Antioch graduates because they’d proven themselves, they’d done internships there and they’d made themselves invaluable. Now other people knew that these were going to be excellent lawyers. They weren’t taking a gamble. That convinced me to come to Antioch, and it was the best decision of my professional life.
The Advocate: How has the work you did at the beginning of your whistleblower protection clinic days changed? Is working with the non-law careers, paths and industries different now when it comes to whistleblowing? Take investigative journalist for example – where it used to be writing about what was just happening and as attorney you can make the real impact. Do you think that’s changed for that career and other adjacent paths?
Devine: Well no. Think about it as an advocate in whistleblowing. You almost have to be immersed in the rules of the game and the rules of the power structure used to sustain its authority within society. For lawyers, that’s their world; it’s the rules of the game. The underlying strategy for our whistleblowing cases is forcing the power structure to enforce the rules it imposes on the rest of us and to obey its own rules for itself. You really can’t do that effectively if you’re not a lawyer. If you don’t have the pedigree, you’d have to have all the knowledge of a lawyer and the research skills for it in order to uncover all those rules. If you want to fight abuses of power, you’ve got to immerse and get in the weeds and learn what all the rules are in order to hold the power structure to them. That almost always requires you to be a lawyer.
The Advocate: The Netflix documentary Meltdown that came out just a few months ago, previous clinic students – yourself included – appear in an episode. The way the documentary seems to set it up, this was a new thing for you all. So where did that fit into the timeline of the clinic?
Devine: Well, the clinic was started in January 1979, and we started focusing really intensively on nuclear power in the summer of 1981. In the fall of 1982, we had successfully managed to get construction suspended for the very highly controversial Zimmer nuclear power plant that alerted some other whistleblowers in the nuclear community of our work. So, in March 1983, when they were closing in on what was a seemingly reckless handing of the Three Mile clean up, those whistleblowers knew about Antioch and our work on Zimmer and the Midland facility in Michigan which we successfully stopped. They got in touch with us as the group that might be able to make a difference in the emergency. And they were right, it was basically an Antioch production. Then the first person who met the pioneer whistleblower, Billie Garde, was an Antioch Law student. My partner conducting the investigations and typing up the affidavits and analyzing the documents was Maria Young, who was an Antioch law student. They were all part of the clinic.
The Advocate: That’s such an amazing feather to have in your hat because it is such important work. And you talked about opening the doors for additional whistleblowers. How did they hear about your work with previous whistleblowers in previous cases?
Devine: Well, I think the predicate to your question is our strategy. At GAP, we don’t really just do legal cases. But we do legal campaigns. It’s the whistleblowers who are challenging the status quo. And the legal system’s point is to preserve the status quo. It is a valid reason: values and stability are very important for society. But it means that mitigation is probably the most alien territory if you’re trying to change the world, and you have to interact with the legal system because that’s where the authoritative decisions are made. But if you count on the legal system in isolation, you’re probably going to be beating your head against the wall. So, the lawsuit is the beach head for a much larger campaign of solidarity trying to unite the isolated whistleblowers with all the stakeholders in society who should be benefiting from their knowledge.
When that happens, and everybody kind of realizes what’s being done to them in secret, instead of a hostile bureaucracy surrounding isolated whistleblowers and individual employees, its society surrounding them. And that’s how we were able to kind of turn the tables and reverse the balance of power so the truth became powerful instead of someone who’s just threatening to know too much. That’s how we were able to defeat the Bechtel corporation in three different cases which was Three Mile Island, Zimmer and Midland.
Sometimes I would get the evidence and I’d be all excited and I’d want to phone back to camp about it and couldn’t talk to anybody cause the phone service had been cut off. You know, we couldn’t pay our phone bills, but the Bechtel corporation was the most wealthy, politically powerful construction company in the world. It’s a strategy that’s worked over and over and over again in getting the word out to everybody who should be aware of it.
The reason that’s a predicate answer to your question is because that’s how the whistleblowers at other nuclear plants knew about us. In the opening Zimmer campaign, I think we had three or four congressional hearings that were pretty well publicized. It was on the national nightly news four or five times on different TV news productions. I was giving them advanced copies of the reports and the evidence. We had an explosive newspaper partnership with Gannett, who was running all of our evidence. There were front page stories in the towns where the plants were being built and prominent stories in USA Today. So we were very visible and people didn’t really have to do too much research to find out that this might be a good fit for them.
The Advocate: So, the final question is going to bring us to the 21st century law student at UDC Law. Tell me if and how the students today are different from the students you worked with early on in terms of their motivation to do this work, the types of issues they’re interested in, and what they think their path might be. How has that evolved since the beginning?
Devine: The student body continues to develop and grow. The evening students are long-term career professionals from federal agencies and general counsel. One of my students last semester was a D.C. school principal. A number of students were whistleblowers in their own professions and wanted to learn how to defend themselves. Numerous people were investigative journalists who wanted to get a law degree. Numerous students could even be my teachers in their own profession. The students are highly responsible because they are professionals who are used to having heavy responsibilities and deliverables. It’s been very good synergy.