Oliver Austin Houck: Catching up after 40 years

Dear colleagues, the first thing I want to note is that there are many of us still standing. And even if retired, still living useful lives. I am writing now, because my last entry was nearly 40 years ago. So here goes.

First of all, the common thread of my life has been good luck. After graduation, I went on to the law school which turned out to be deep slog into such arcane topics as the conveyance of Greenacre in “fee tail, and a “holder in due course”. Come Spring I went down to the Army recruiting station in Boston and signed up.

I went through infantry training, but when someone learned I had actually gone to college, they sent me to intelligence school instead. After which, I was posted to my last choice of options, Korea, in a town just south of the DMZ called Uijongbu. The war had had just ended, and the community was largely supported by G.I’s who were spending their money on Korean women, who were, in turn supporting extended families. My assignment, believe it or not, was to find out whether these girls were communists. I never found one, but I came to know several of them and admired their spunk. Toward the end, I was transferred to a unit in Seoul that was, in effect, spying on the newly-installed military government. At this point I knew the language passably well, and even had a girlfriend. After several extensions, however, my commander had the good sense to send me home to finish law school.

And so I did, attending night school at Georgetown and working in the day for the Defense Intelligence Agency, which, despite my familiarity with Korea, put me on North Africa instead. I happened to know French, which was useful, but I had also time to study, and, on graduation, found a clerkship with a new Judge named Tim Murphy, who, by coincidence, had also served in Korea. When the clerkship ended, I joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C, where I cut my teeth as a prosecutor in the Court of General Sessions, which handled misdemeanors. The trials themselves were a challenge, reading the police report while the judge was empaneling the jury, but the cases themselves were a surprise a minute. Graduating to the Big Court for felonies, my most interesting case was a narcotics conspiracy with defendants street-named Rabbit, Beaver, Twitty, Fat and Nasty, and Big Joe Cunningham. We got a conviction, of course, but by the time I left the Office I’d concluded that the greatest mistake of criminal law was the criminalization of narcotics. All it did was fill the jails and subvert governments abroad.

As this stint was ending, I stumbled into an old high-school classmate, now married to the General Counsel for the National Wildlife Federation. Of all things, he was looking for an environmental litigator, just as the field was beginning to open. The case I best remember targeted a large swamp in Louisiana called the Atchafalaya. Unfortunately, the Army Corps of Engineers was draining it, which was a bonanza for the landowners but a wipeout for the alligators, crawfish, and other species that had lived here well before humans arrived. I represented the local Federation affiliate and other groups in what turned out to be a feisty argument with the Corps and the landowners over the next ten years. At this point we all were ready to negotiate, but I had to be here in Louisiana to do it.

I sounded out several law schools and got nowhere. My last shot was to a school I’d never heard of, Tulane, where the Dean was just back from a summer vacation. As my call came through, he was reading a resignation letter from his Criminal Law Professor. Classes would start in less than three weeks, and he was empty-handed. Knowing none of this, I told him I was looking for a place to be for about a year, adding that I’d taught several adjunct courses and had been a federal prosecutor up in D.C. Which turned out to be the right buttons. He asked me to stop by the next morning.

I have just retired from teaching at Tulane as Emeritus Professor of Law, and Chair in Public Interest Law. As with my other lives, I ended up loving this one too, both the teaching and my students, with whom I have shared many outdoor adventures.

Over this period, I have also published several books, “Uijongbu” (service in Korea); “The Court of General Sessions” (service in D.C.); “Down on the Batture” (life along the Mississippi River), “Downstream Toward Home” (canoe trips on rivers ranging from Louisiana to the Arctic); and “Taking Back Eden” (seminal environmental cases abroad). Now pending are “Waking up the Dream State” (similar cases in Louisiana), and “The Most Dangerous Branch: The Supreme Court’s Slash-and-Burn Expedition through Environmental Law” (which speaks for itself). I hope that I do not offend by saying that this Court is, for increasingly obvious reasons, the most dangerous in our history.

I will close with one last serendipity, indeed the most enduring of my life. On July 4, 1969, my parents and I were visiting friends in Vermont when I met their youngest daughter, Lisa. We married three months later, virtual strangers to each other, and like so many other decisions it simply seems to have worked. One reason is Lisa’s experience success in social work therapy, which has kept us on an even keel as well. Another is that we have two hard-working and loving boys, Cyprian and Gabriel, and have taken more adventures with them than we can count.

Then there is New Orleans itself with its own attitude about life and talent to spare, the Mississippi rushing by topped by a bike path that goes on for miles, fog horns from the tankers passing at night, railroads whistling at a dozen crossings, and lines of ibis flying in to roost against an evening sky.

All in all, it has been a beautiful ride.