An Accidental Academic: Meet Frank R. Strong Chair in Law Joshua Dressler
Joshua really wanted to become the next Vin Scully, broadcasting baseball games for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But, UCLA's broadcasting program turned out to be far less interesting to Joshua than political science. At that point, the choice of a career in law seemed natural. His father served as the chief of parole for the State of New York, and Joshua soon turned to a life of crime--the study of crime, that is. Being a child of the sixties, Joshua's first thought was to be a criminal defense attorney.
"I always tend to side with the underdog," he says. Joshua was all set to work in the Los Angeles Public Defender's office when a budget crisis put his position on hold. Joshua decided to bide his time teaching as an adjunct at a Los Angeles area university, waiting for the budget crisis to subside.
The Public Defender's office is still waiting for Joshua, but Professor Dressler has never looked back. Joshua quickly discovered his true calling: educating the legal community about the moral dimensions of criminal law.
The critical issue for Joshua has always been when it is appropriate for persons to be held criminally accountable for their actions. "That is principally a question of moral philosophy, and one that I have tended to answer by building on Kantian theories of free will and responsibility." As Professor Dressler explains, criminal conviction is the state's declaration of its moral values. It is therefore vital that the state punish those who transgress those values, but only when the transgressors act in a way that makes them culpable.
"I believe in mercy; in the law being compassionate. But, before the law can exercise mercy and forgiveness, there must be a recognition of responsibility." He believes, as well, that society's punishment of wrongdoers need not inevitably come in the form of incarceration; "a criminal conviction is our way of condemning the wrongdoer for his or her actions; the form of punishment should not violate human dignity."
Professor Dressler's career has paralleled the trend in criminal law to identify an increasing number of excuses and justifications for conduct of criminal defendants. Terming himself an "enlightened traditionalist," Professor Dressler's writings have insisted that these novel defenses hew to the principles that have traditionally defined recognized excuses and justifications. Although always being willing to approach new defenses with an open mind, he has subjected each to his penetrating analysis. Some have withstood the onslaught; he exposed the flimsy philosophical foundations of others. His scholarship is not limited to the philosophical side of the street, however; he has also conducted fascinating empirical research on, for instance, whether lawyers tend to think differently than lay people about criminal behavior. (They do.)
While Joshua respects and admires the dedicated prosecutors and defense attorneys who practice in the courtrooms of our country, a legal educator has the luxury of time and space to think at a deeper level than most practitioners. And, Professor Dressler has taken full advantage of it. Moreover, Joshua approaches that task with intellectual rigor and honesty. Although he entered law school with a criminal defense bias, Joshua is an equal opportunity offender when it comes to his scholarship, sometimes agreeing with the criminal defense bar, but often times, not.
Professor Dressler admits under prodding meant to overcome his modesty that there is a jury instruction in Australia on the heat of passion defense, which some have termed the "Dressler instruction," based on a recommendation in one of his articles. Another aspiration, if not an accomplishment, is that his "casebooks have always stressed the importance of proper terminology. Words are a lawyer's tools, so we need to use them with precision. In particular, I have always thought it to be very important for law students and lawyers to be sensitive to the moral distinction between matters that excuse conduct and those that justify conduct. I hope that I have had some effect on the legal community in keeping these terms and concepts straight."
When asked what attracted him to the Moritz College of Law, and what his initial impressions have been, his answers reflected more on others than they focused on him. Joshua was greatly impressed with his colleagues in the criminal law area at Moritz, and saw that as a major draw for him. "I have taught at roughly ten schools and I have never encountered a more collegial, nurturing or pleasant institution." Joshua has also been deeply impressed by the students at the Moritz College of Law. He expected students who are smart and engaged in the study of law, and he has found that to be true. But to his delight, Professor Dressler has discovered that the students are also most congenial.