Santa Clara University School of Law Professor
Gerald Uelmen has devoted his entire career to criticizing and critiquing the criminal justice system. Now, he is facing a new challenge: to bring a group representing all aspects of the criminal justice system to consensus regarding problems in the system and recommendations for solutions.
In 2006 Uelmen was appointed executive director of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, established by the state senate to study the causes of wrongful convictions and to recommend reforms. The commission is made up of nearly two dozen men and two women from a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and education levels: rank and file police officers, police leadership, public defenders, private defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, victims’ rights advocates, and even a rabbi.
With the charge of consensus, advocacy is not the right approach. The task requires, in Uelmen’s words, “a lot of persuasion, patience, and putting aside your own agenda.” The commission identified specific things that lead to convictions of innocent people, including false confessions, false eyewitness identifications, and false testimony from jailhouse snitches.
The next step was to recommend solutions. This is where, Uelmen says, compromise was required. “In every context I could have gone further,” he says. For example the commission ultimately recommended audiotaping all confessions while Uelmen wanted them videotaped. It recommended a jury instruction on identifications from bad line-ups rather than excluding the evidence altogether, as Uelmen preferred.
“This was not a question of whether I win or lose on my agenda,” says Uelmen, “but the recognition of a broader purpose.” The commission has released three of eight reports designed to improve the criminal justice system. The rest are to be completed by the end of the year.
Robert Cullen, teacher of leadership for lawyers courses at SCU, says that Uelmen, in his service as executive director of the commission, “has shown one of the most important aspects of leadership: the ability to inspire a shared vision and to move away from advocacy to cooperation.”
“Working diligently toward developing a shared vision with people who have largely different views requires a high level of listening skills, cooperation, and creative problem-solving,” says Cullen. Uelmen concurs that communication is paramount in working with a diverse group. “It is very important to listen to the views of everyone. If you leave a group out, it is going to create opposition,” he says.
Though Uelmen credits much of the leadership on the commission to its chair, former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp, he says that his own experience as dean of Santa Clara Law provided him with many of the skills of cooperation that have been essential. Uelmen served as dean from 1986 to 1994. He holds a B.A. from Loyola Marymount and a J.D. and an LL.M. from Georgetown University Law Center.