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Robinson Casts a Wide Net for Legal Puzzles


By Cullen Couch

It might be in the middle of the night, or after a conversation with a colleague. It might arrive with the morning paper, or during a professional workshop. Professor Glen Robinson really can’t say how, or what, will trigger his mind to uncover some anomaly in the law that cries out for explanation. But when it happens—and it does so at a feverish pace, according to his colleagues—his intellectual flexibility lets him probe widely to find the answer. In an age of increasing specialization in both the academy and the legal profession, Robinson stands out as a nimble scholar adept at using the tools available in any variety of methodologies or movements to get his answer.

Though known for his work in communications and administrative law, Robinson resists being typecast as such. In law, Robinson has found fertile ground for scholarly inquiry, and doesn’t let his relative unfamiliarity with the nuances of a subject daunt his enthusiasm.

“Glen is very productive, incredibly interesting and energetic, and interested in the power of ideas,” says Law Professor Daniel Ortiz, a colleague who has worked and taught with Robinson for many years. “He has an almost childlike enthusiasm—which is really wonderful—about exploring new areas, applying new methodologies to old problems, and thinking across boundaries. He does all of that very well.”

“One of the things I enjoy about the law is that I like all of it,” says Robinson. “I really enjoy it when somebody presents a paper in, say, criminal law, or evidence law—neither of which are my fields—and has an interesting way of looking at an issue. Essentially, I like the puzzle when somebody asks why is the law like this, or why isn’t it like that? The idea is to answer the puzzle, but I also like it sometimes when you can’t. For me, it’s the puzzle, more often than the answer, which engages my attention.”

Beyond his expertise in communications law and administrative law, Robinson has taught and written extensively in a number of fields, including antitrust, property, and torts. He currently teaches antitrust, Internet law, communications law, and property. Robinson has written five books, including The Administrative Process and American Bureaucracy: Public Choice and Public Law, as well as 46 articles, book chapters, and reviews.

“Glen is one of those scholars with a certain quirky intelligence who is interested in the satisfaction that comes from figuring something out, having an interesting idea, seeing where something leads you,” says Ortiz. “Sometimes it’s a little more difficult to build a reputation that way because you can be seen more as a jack of all trades, but Glen has overcome that.”

Robinson graduated with honors from both Harvard University and Stanford Law School. He joined Covington and Burling after graduating from Stanford in 1961, and worked there until 1967, primarily on communications law. His experience there pushed him into a new career direction that he had been contemplating for some time.

“When I arrived at my law firm they assigned me communications law and I did that for the better part of four years,” he says. “I actually didn’t like it; a lot of our work was filling out license forms.We represented broadcast stations while the industry was fighting in a desperate struggle to suppress cable television. I was in the thick of that, but I just didn’t like the kind of work we were doing. I thought our clients tended to be on the wimpy side, always whining about cable television. I left to go into teaching—which had always been in the back of my mind.”

Robinson joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota in 1967 and taught there until President Richard Nixon appointed him as a commissioner of the FCC in 1974. He served there for two years, and then joined the Law School faculty in 1976. His experience with the FCC taught him a great deal about the Washington bureaucratic maelstrom, and he appreciated the high contrast between that environment and the quiet scholarly enclave of Charlottesville.

“Glen is one of those scholars with a certain quirky intelligence who is interested in the satisfaction that comes from figuring something out, having an interesting idea, seeing where something leads you.”

“When you’re in Washington,” says Robinson, “you always feel like you’re in the center of a whirlwind of action. Coming down to Charlottesville brings a different sense. You don’t feel like you’re part of that whirlwind at all, but there is a different kind of intellectual excitement about this place. Virginia really is an intellectual powerhouse, and I just like that stuff. The academic environment here is as good as anywhere, and from what I’ve heard it’s better than the other top law schools in terms of a sense of academic community. People are around a lot and they are very supportive. I have wonderful colleagues. Good atmosphere. Good sense of academic values.”

“I had a great deal of fun at the FCC … I would have stayed on but I had an offer to come here and it was too good an opportunity to pass by,” he continued. “But for those two years it was very exciting. A lot of things were happening. There was competition coming into the telephone world for the first time and AT&T was very exercised about it. There was a lot going on in the broadcast world.Multiple ownership rules were before us. Cable television was emerging—struggling to emerge—but emerging. There was always somebody outside the door. They were ubiquitous. You’d talk to the broadcasters, and then to the cable people and you had to be pretty balanced.”

Once Robinson left the FCC, he realized communications law had become an interesting field in its own right, unlike his days at the University of Minnesota when it had never occurred to Robinson to teach it as a separate subject. He began teaching administrative and communications law at the Law School and since then, communications law has become increasingly complex with the explosive growth of cable, wireless telephony, and the internet. The First Amendment figures prominently in almost every application.

“When I first got into the business,” says Robinson, “the First Amendment played a relatively small role in the area of regulated communications. People thought that regulation almost displaced the First Amendment. You had regulation or you had the First Amendment, but not both. But the way it is now, the First Amendment gets dragged into every dogfight over rate regulation, service regulation, telephone carriers. Everybody in the communications business has a First Amendment claim no matter how little content they control. So, on those grounds, they quickly evoke the First Amendment as a shield and in a lot of those controversies, it just doesn’t fit.”

In 1979, Robinson took a leave of absence from the Law School after President Jimmy Carter appointed him to serve under Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher as Ambassador and U.S. Representative to the World Administrative Radio Conference in Geneva. He led a team of over 100 lawyers and engineers that negotiated an international spectrum treaty for the International Telecommunication Union of the United Nations. The treaty involved allocating broadcast frequencies to the global community. He traveled and negotiated throughout the world and had a ringside seat on the arcane maneuverings within the diplomatic corps.

“I watched from the inside the process of creating diplomacy. At any given time, the state department is filled with ambassadors running around looking for assignments. An awful lot of people didn’t know what to do; a lot of people who had returned from assignments abroad were waiting for another one. And the State Department is extraordinarily bureaucratized. For me to send a message to Warren Christopher, it had to be specially formatted, cleared by a half dozen different bureaus, and go through three or four assistant secretaries for their approval. It was unbelievable.”

Not trained as a diplomat but expected to act as one, Robinson found himself in the midst of some of his oddest moments: mediating between the North and South Koreans over the usage of call letters with symbolic overtones; announcing at a conference with the Soviets that we didn’t recognize their casting a vote for Lithuania. “I was instructed to actually make the announcement at a committee meeting. I told the Soviet delegate beforehand that I was going to have to say that, and he gave me a puzzled look—he was not really a diplomat, either—and said, ‘but … we wouldn’t say that about Utah!,’” recalls Robinson, laughing about it. “You got me, I thought. It turns out it was longstanding policy going back to the fact that there were a lot of Lithuanians in Chicago who had never quite accepted the fact that they were part of the Soviet Union.”

Robinson returned to the Law School in 1980, diving into his scholarship at a prodigious level of productivity. His inquisitive mind never seems to slake its thirst, and he pursues legal puzzles with zeal. But his is not an obsessive quest at the exclusion of his deep sense of community. He gives back as much as he takes from the academic environment.

“Glen is extremely valued within the faculty,” says Dean John Jeffries. “He is a senior guy and frankly most people in law teaching at that age are doing what they’ve always done. Most are drawing down on the intellectual capital they have invested over the years. Glen Robinson is singular, if not unique, in his continuing scholarly activity and his continuing intellectual ambition. Glen has learned new subjects—he now teaches internet law—and new technologies. He is still growing. He is active in our faculty workshops. He is active in helping junior faculty with their scholarly projects. He is a model citizen and a key member of the intellectual community.”

Dan Ortiz agrees. “It’s seldom that you find that kind of continuing enthusiasm from someone who has been at any line of work for a long time, and he’s a model for all of us. And it’s not just that he’s still enthusiastic, but that he’s still coming up with new ideas.”

A tall, slender man with a ready laugh, Robinson looks back at his life’s work with humility, but forward to his next insight with eagerness. In many ways, he seems to live for the intellectual moment, appreciating his past work with at best a sense of ennui as he waits for the next inspiration.

“Sometimes in the quest for originality, you play the notes differently but they don’t necessarily make music. They’re just different and the scholarship can be flat. To get it right, you not only have to play the notes differently, you have to play them in a way that makes some sense. When that happens, it’s very exciting.”

As a recipient of a Harrison Chair, Robinson feels both a strong sense of responsibility and a deep gratitude for his colleagues and the Law School.

“You always wonder with something like this why you received it. There are so many good professors here, but every prize is like that if you have a decent amount of modesty. My colleagues have been extremely supportive, and I couldn’t have had a better succession of deans: Emerson Spies, Dick Merrill, Tom Jackson, Bob Scott, John Jeffries; they have all treated me better than I would have any reason to expect. So, looking back at my career, boy did I ever make the right decision to come here. I’ve never had any second thoughts. I’m enthusiastic. I’m a booster about this place and always will be.”

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