By Amber Nelson
Over the course of his career, Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law, has been a part of the vanguard that established immigration law as a legitimate career path. Growing up in a heavily Mexican community, he was always aware of immigration and civil rights issues and he saw the way the law impacted those around him.
When family suggested he study law, he began to see the connection between a career and improving the lives of people like those in his hometown.
“I thought about how you might bring about change in the law,” he said, and “how practical being a lawyer could be.”
A first-generation college student, he earned a bachelor's degree in economics from University of California, Berkeley and a law degree (magna cum laude) from Harvard Law School, where he also served as an editor for the prestigious Harvard Law Review. He began his law career as a clerk to Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and then joined the law firm of Heller Ehrman White and McAuliffe, where his professional work on immigration began to take hold.
Starting with pro bono cases for those seeking asylum from the war zones of Guatemala and El Salvador, Johnson found himself representing a large immigration class action suit among other cases. “The work really tapped into my experience,” he said. Over time, Johnson established himself as a nationally known civil rights scholar, an expert in Chicano/a studies and immigration law.
Seeing another way to impact change, Johnson took a position teaching law at UC Davis in 1989. In 1998, he accepted the role of Associate Dean and in 2008 he became the first Latino to lead a law school in the UC system.
“I came to a public university thinking about what a law school can do,” Johnson explained.
It turns out, such an institution can do a lot. Today, Johnson leads the strongest
immigration law program in the country. “We’re in a part of the state where immigration is a big issue,” he said. Providing legal clinics that both help the local community and offer valuable experience to law students in just one of the ways Johnson strives to improve the lives of real people through the law.
Last spring he offered his students another hands-on opportunity. As a part of a project to simplify and modernize an important California law, A handful of aspiring attorneys dedicated their fresh perspective and passion for the law as editors of the state's Political Reform Act (PRA).
“Educationally, it was a good thing for our students and consistent with my beliefs in making government better,” Johnson said. It was also consistent with his decades-long drive to increase access for minorities and the financially disadvantaged.
His students partnered with a team from UC Berkeley under the supervision of David A. Carrillo, executive director of the California Constitution Center at the UC Berkeley School of Law. The revision project was spearheaded by the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) in collaboration with California Forward.
“We were thrilled to have Dean Johnson’s support on this project and the dedication of the law students at UC Davis and Berkeley”, said FPPC Chair Jodi Remke. “The law students, under the direction of David Carrillo from Berkeley, provided a unique opportunity to have legally trained drafters with a fresh perspective review the law for improved clarity and readability.”
While many regard California’s Political Reform Act (PRA) as a guide for those engaged in political life as candidates, lobbyists and office holders, Johnson also sees it as a tool to support civil rights.
The PRA is “a very complex document that has been incrementally changed over the years,” Johnson said. Those changes have resulted in a document full of contradictions. The PRA, intended to serve as an ethics and campaign finance rulebook for the state’s lobbyists, candidates and public office holders, isn’t readily understandable to those it seeks to govern.
“One of our main goals of the project is to engage more people in the political process to promote trust in government,” said Remke. "So working with law students was a perfect way to kick-start this project and foster that vital goal, as these students are the next generation of lawmakers and public officials."
Johnson’s students worked on the project for academic credit and the FPPC has guided the revised document through a months-long process. This year, the FPCC plans to present a new, plain-English version of the PRA to the state legislature. The resulting law will impact those in public service, some of whom may be Johnson’s students.
As dean, Johnson helps students create or find the jobs they want. He acknowledges the difficulties in the job market for those pursuing careers in immigration law. Many of those practicing immigration law, including Johnson’s students, launch their own small firms to serve individuals and small groups as they work through the legal issues around immigration.
He also continues his own study of immigration issues. His published works include A Reader on Race, Civil Rights, and American Law: A Multiracial Approach; The "Huddled Masses" Myth: Immigration and Civil Rights; and Opening the Floodgates: Why America Needs to Rethink Its Borders and Immigration Laws.
Beyond his work as dean at UC Davis’ law school, Johnson recently represented the State Bar in the California Supreme Court, arguing for the rights of undocumented immigrants to practice law. He sits on the board of directors of Legal Services of Northern California and previously served on the board of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Johnson was a member of President Barack Obama’s immigration and refugee policy group during the 2008 presidential campaign.
“I’ve always been interested in civil rights and the way government influences life,” Johnson said. As the country continues to grapple with immigration issues, Johnson and the students he trains will continue to serve as valued voices in the national discussion and important advocates for those pursuing the American dream.