1983, Jeff Sutton – Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

I had few doubts about majoring in history. History seemed like the perfect fit for a liberal arts student: The subject at some point touches on virtually every other subject, and I thought (or at least I hope I thought) that the major would be helpful in developing critical-thinking, writing and researching skills. Just as importantly, the department was quite strong, and I became fond of several professors there, including John Hyde and Bob Waite. My wife and I both took Bob Waite’s 301 class and were energized by the passion he brought to the subject. John Hyde became a mentor to me, pushing me on some days and encouraging me on others, but above all taking an interest in my development as a student. By the time John Hyde told me during my junior year (or so) that I needed to work on my writing, I was as interested in improving my writing for its own sake as I was in impressing him that I could do it. Had Hyde and Waite been teaching in the theater department, I might well have majored in theater, giving the department its first major who can’t sing, dance or act.

Unlike my decision to major in history, I struggled with career choices. I stayed in Williamstown for a semester to be Mike Russo’s assistant soccer coach; I worked as a paralegal for a year and a half in Washington, D.C.; I spent a summer working on an archeological dig in Jordan through a State Department cultural exchange program; and I taught high school history and middle school geography for two years. Eventually I settled on law. I attended Ohio State’s law school, spent eight years in private practice, divided by a three-and-a-half-year stint as the State Solicitor for Ohio, and became a judge five years ago.
My current job, it seems to me, is a perfect fit for a history major. While lawyers and judges rarely talk about secondary and primary sources, much of what I do turns on determining which parts of a factual record I can trust and which ones I can’t. The same is true of debates about the meaning of laws. Efforts to uncover the meaning of the Constitution or a statute not only require historical research but also generate all manner of debates about theories for interpreting that record. What I perhaps like most about my job, however, is the puzzle-solving component to it: trying to think creatively about the fairest and most satisfactory way to resolve a wide range of conflicts. Oral arguments, whether from the perspective of a judge or an advocate, are reminiscent of the intellectual tennis that goes on in a good seminar, as the parties and court try to develop and defend a coherent position. And of course I write and write: On average, I am responsible for writing one to two ten-page opinions a week. If someone had told me in high school that this is what I would end up doing for a living and that I would like it (particularly the writing), I would have laughed. I have Williams to thank for the change.