In Memoriam: Professor John Copeland Nagle

With John Nagle at the Notre Dame Law School Commencement, May 20, 2007

I had John as a first-year student in Property in the Spring of 2005. But in my first year of law school, he was more than that. He was the advisor to the Christian Legal Society, a small group of students at Notre Dame, and he hosted occasional gatherings at his home. At an early September 2004 barbeque, he’d run the grill and host dozens of students, the first of my many visits to his home.

In Property, he’d bring in his daughters’ stuffed animals as props on the day we covered animals as property—cheesy, maybe, but a student couldn’t help but smile. He was self-deprecating in the best way—he was one four co-authors on a casebook, and he said he was only put on it to “do one chapter on environmental law and submit pictures to accompany the other cases.” (And how he loved pictures to accompany the law!)

On top of that, he told us that his daughters (Laura and Julia) picked out who’d be called upon each class, defining the cold call roster and ensuring that he could remain blameless (or, so he believed). It’s a small and amusing choice that I adopted in my own teaching for first-year courses.

In the upper division, the least likely elective I took was Biodiversity & the Law, because John taught it. His exam was, in a way, miserable, in the sense that it was a 24 hour take-home on some fairly open-ended questions about how one would go about protecting an animal species in a fragile ecosystem given existing law and competing concerns. But talking the exam over with Emily, my wife, after the fact, she reflected, “It sounded like a genuine question, and he’s really interested in hearing what you think about it.” And it’s true. It’s the kind of exam I’m not sure I’d ever be capable of writing. But he wrote an exam that showed a love of the material and a genuine open interest in seeing how we handled a situation that he himself may have well viewed as uncertain. He wanted to see what we’d do with it. Miserable, maybe. But the rare exam that felt like it was helping the professor think through the world and the law.

John gave me my Note topic—out of his own curiosity. He wondered why “public necessity” would allow destruction of property for the public benefit, but that the property owner wouldn’t receive compensation. It was a topic that took me deep into 17th century original sources and admiralty law. It was also my first opportunity to learn that I liked writing legal scholarship enough to pursue academia one day.

John was also a deeply valued mentor for me in my path into academic. He had a somewhat unorthodox entry into law teaching, and he was extraordinarily supportive as I made my way to the market (particularly as only a few from Notre Dame go on to teach). But my biggest encouragement came in an exchange, one he maybe never knew how powerful it was. As one still unsure whether I’d make it on the hiring market but with some modest publications and work in progress, he invited me to a dinner with a couple of other law professors at a conference. They asked me about my work, and I described one recent project, to which John responded to the others, casually but sincerely, in the middle of a bite of food, “You should read it, it’s really good.” That’s when I felt like I might be able to make it—if John could read it and share, so genuinely and spontaneously, that sentiment with others, I could do okay.

It helped, too, that my first year at Pepperdine was also the first year of Dean Deanell Reece Tacha—for whom John clerked on the Tenth Circuit. He fondly recalled his clerkship with her and held her in the highest esteem. It made his visits to Pepperdine to present papers or participate in a conference all the better.

John’s scholarship was remarkable for reasons I may dive into at depth another time. But I’ll reflect on this small thought now: he was a man who had ideas and wrote about them, ideas that reflected a deep interest across disciplines and that drew comparisons across things. That sounds simple, but it’s something that is all too rare.

His primary research was in environmental law, and he had a number of terrific pieces in election law, too. But how to come up with the piece Pornography as Pollution, taking a very environmental law-centered concept and applying it to the pervasive problem of sexually explicit material? Or merging environmental law and election law, Corruption, Pollution, and Politics, using the old metaphor of “pollution” for political corruption and using it within the environmental law framework for addressing campaign finance regulation? Or A Twentieth Amendment Parable, which opens with the avowedly biblical allusion and offers in its second footnote to the statement, “The definitive law review article on the Amendment had yet to be written,” this sentence: “This isn’t it.”

These are some (I’ve already gone on too long) of the articles of John’s I remember. I often feel like I barely remember some of my own, much less others’. And in the months ahead, I’ll dig into some of his other work I don’t remember. But these, among others, were wonderful because they said something interesting. They were—are—memorable. They drew comparisons I hadn’t thought about before—and assuredly never would have.

This whole reflection is a bit surreal to write. I suppose that’s what happens when someone young passes away unexpectedly. But more to the point, I’m visiting at Notre Dame in the Spring 2020 term and looked forward to spending time with John in particular, in part because I hadn’t seen him much in the last couple of years. I’d already been in contact with him about possible housing options in the region.

Not long ago, I recently asked if he was going to be at AALS, my usual opportunity to try to catch up with people. But he wasn’t, as usual. He wrote in this email, “I've gone from missing the AALS because of Laura's basketball schedule to missing the AALS because the girls are home from college.” We’d just have to connect another time.

I am tearing up as I write about this. John loved his family and knew how to dedicate time to spend with them. I’m so glad he did. And I’m confident he was glad he did. It’s also a reminder to myself to carve out the time needed with loved ones.

To close what’s already starting to feel like my rambling thoughts: a big reason I valued John so greatly as a friend and mentor was that he was a Christian. It’s sometimes hard to think about how faith and vocation fit together for a Christian in any given discipline. But John lived a life committed to his faith and his God, and he thrived in his work. He saw God’s glory in all the world—it’s impossible to separate John’s passion for visiting national parks, for writing about the wilderness and rare animal species and protection of nature, unless one looks at his heart rejoicing in the beauty and awe of creation.

I recall pointed questions in Biodiversity & the Law about why we like the “wilderness,” a term that’s usual fraught with danger; or why we’d protect endangered species, perhaps something beyond aesthetic enjoyment (given we may never see them) or utility (given we may not find the “use” of all animals). In both—and it’s a reason I chose to attend Notre Dame—he gently suggested that perhaps our faith, and specifically the Christian faith, could provide answers. That maybe the wilderness, while often a biblical place to be cast out into, is also a place of spiritual retreat and prayer. That animals are all a part of God’s creation, and our dominion and stewardship over them should include their protection regardless of any utility.

John helped me recognize that my Christian faith—importantly, a good, deep faith—of necessity extends beyond the personal life, and even beyond thinking about a moral code of right and wrong, into reflecting on just about anything in the world around us. I admit, I’m still not great at it. But he was very good at it—although I imagine, in characteristic humility, he’d say he was only struggling to figure it out, too. It encourages me as I write this to go deeper still.

My heart aches for Lisa, Laura, and Julia as they mourn a devoted husband and a loving father who has passed away. But with John, may we find comfort in the assurance that nothing “in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We await the new heaven and the new earth, where God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more.” Rest in peace.