The Unfortunately Forgotten Vernon X. Miller

Who was the first Marquette University law professor to have clerked for a justice on the United States Supreme Court?  (Hint: the answer is not current dean Joseph Kearney.)  Who was the first, and only, Marquette law professor ever elected president of the Association of American Law Schools?  Who was the only Marquette Law Professor to have studied at Yale Law School during the heyday of legal realism and to be described by legendary Yale law professor Myres McDougal as a “confirmed American legal realist”?  (Hint:  Not David Papke.)  Who was the second Marquette law professor to become dean of the law school at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.?  (Hint:  John McDill Fox was the first.)  And finally, who was the first Marquette law professor to have been widely recognized as a leading national figure in the field of torts? (Hint:  Jim Ghiardi was the second.)

The answer to all of these questions is, of course, Vernon X. Miller.

Miller was born in 1902 in St. Paul, Minnesota.  He attended college and law school at the University of Minnesota where he earned both a bachelor’s degree (1923) and a law degree (1925), as well as membership in Phi Beta Kappa and Order of the Coif.  He also served as editor-in-chief of the Minnesota Law Review.

After law school, Miller clerked for Minnesota-native (and fellow Roman Catholic) Pierce Butler of the United States Supreme Court.  After his clerkship, he returned to the Twin Cities where he worked for the Minnesota Crime Commission and taught as a law professor at St. Thomas College (1926-28).  He then spent a post-graduate year at Yale Law School during the heyday of the legal realism movement.  (At Yale, he overlapped as a fellow with the above-mentioned McDougal and they remained friends for the rest of their lives.)  As a graduate law student, he earned a perfect 4.0 grade point average and received a J. S. D. degree in 1929.

After receiving his Yale degree, Miller returned to teaching at St. Thomas for one year and then practiced law with the Minneapolis firm of Rockwood & Mitchell.  In 1930, he joined the faculty of the University of Oregon as an associate professor of law, but he remained at Oregon for only one year, leaving in the fall of 1931 to join the Marquette Law School faculty as a full professor.

At the time of his appointment, the Marquette Law School was led by Dean Clifton Williams, who had assumed the deanship in 1927, following the tragic death of his friend and law partner, Dean Max Shoetz.  The AALS Directory of Law Teachers for 1937 lists Miller as a member of a 15-man law faculty, although only a handful of the group taught law full-time.  Over the next seven years, Miller taught a wide array of courses, including Torts, Bills and Notes, Conflicts of Law, Agency, Personal Property, Real Property, Equity, Introduction to the Study of Law, Corporations, Damages, Insurance, Partnership, Common Law Pleading, Sales, Securities, Creditor’s Rights, and Corporate Reorganization.

Miller left Marquette after the 1937-1938 academic year to join the faculty at Loyola of New Orleans.  The reason for his departure does not appear to have been recorded.  He was replaced on the faculty by Otto Reis, a Harvard Law School graduate who had previous taught for a number of years at Creighton University.  (Miller’s departure was noted in the 1939 Hilltop, the university yearbook, a publication that normally did not provide much coverage of the law faculty.)  Whether or not his departure involved his relationship with new dean Francis Swietlik is not clear, although both major scholarly figures on the faculty, Miller and Carl Zollman, both departed at the end of the 1930’s, and issues with Swietlik seemed to have clearly affected Zollman’s decision to step down from the faculty.

Miller remained at Loyola-New Orleans for 13 years, serving as dean from 1945-1951.  Following his time at Loyola, he moved to the University of San Francisco, where he was dean of the law school from 1951-1954, and from San Francisco, he moved to Washington D.C.’s Catholic University Law School.  At Catholic, he served as Dean until 1968, and became widely recognized as a leading figure in American legal education.  He stepped down as dean in 1968, but he remained on the Catholic faculty until 1972.  His final year of full-time teaching was spent as a visiting professor at McGeorge Law School in California in 1972-1973. After his retirement, he continued to teach at Catholic as an emeritus professor until 1982.

Miller authored two books on Tort Law and many articles on topics related to law and legal education.  He was particularly prolific when it came to legal issues involving trains.  He was also an avid reader of lawyer related fiction and a great baseball fan.

In addition to serving on a wide array of public commissions, Miller served as Secretary-Treasurer of the Association of American Law Schools in 1962 and 1963, and in 1965, he was the president of that organization.  He was also a long-time member of the American Bar Association’s Committee on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar.

Miller died at age 83, at his home in Maryland in February, 1986, nearly a half century after his time at Marquette.  His papers currently reside at the University of Illinois, but they unfortunately contain virtually nothing about his Marquette years.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Timothy S. McKinley

    I was fortunate to be one of Dean Miller’s students in that 1972-1973 period when he taught, mentored, and loved his students at McGeorge SOL.

    I will never forget the many kindnesses he extended to me and his efforts to make us the best lawyers he could. He taught the law, but more importantly he taught the soul and strength behind it.

    There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of him and Mrs. Miller.

  2. Henry Hanley

    I was a student of Dean Miller’s at Catholic University Law School during the 1965-1966 academic year. Dean Miler taught torts. His enthusiasm for the subject was amazing as he inspired us, his students, to look at torts as a field of law that was constantly evolving. He knew every student’s name and background from Day 1. His love for baseball and trains was evident every day. My first one-on-one encounter with Dean Miller was an early Saturday morning in September 1965, as I waited for the door to the “old Law School” located on 18th Street in D.C. to open, so I could try to figure out my first law assignments.

    As a very scared and tentative first year law student came face to face with Dean Miller, he asked me, “Wasn’t there a third baseman named Hanley that played for the Washington Senators?” Right then, inexplicably, I knew that I would make it in law school.

    Henry Hanley
    Catholic University of America
    J.D. 1968

  3. reuben j donig

    Not forgotten by me. Indeed, I am now writing a biography which will focus on my first year at law school, with my Torts professor being the wonderful Vernon X. Miller.

    Reuben Donig
    McGeorge/ University of the Pacific School of Law, class of 1975.

  4. Albert Grady

    I see my friend and classmate, Henry Hanley, found his way to this location to express appreciation for Dean Miller. I do so now. Hank and I were in the same tort class at Catholic U Law. I recall Dean Miller for chastising me when I said “foreseeability” for the contributory negligence defense to the mailman’s suit when he delivered mail to a box with many bumble bees swarming around and was then stung. The Dean was fond of abandoning legal tags and reducing legal concepts to the simple and straight forward. language. Dean said “you don’t put your hand in a mailbox when there are a whole bunch of bees on the outside because there are some that are likely to be on the inside”.

    Skip Grady Catholic U ’68

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