February 27, 2011 — David Martin is back teaching law at the University of Virginia this semester after two years as deputy general counsel at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
As the second-highest ranking lawyer at the agency – which has more than 200,000 employees and a legal team of 1,700 attorneys – Martin worked on a wide range of matters, but focused primarily on immigration and issues related to the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
At Homeland Security, "a typical day would involve a series of meetings, which might be within the department, or at the White House, the Justice Department or on Capitol Hill, plus sessions squeezed in for pre-meeting preparation or a briefing," he said. "There would also be memos to write or review, legal opinions to sign, and maybe a couple hundred e-mails."
Martin, who was also general counsel of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1995 to '98, said public service is an enormous opportunity for lawyers at any level, and that it's important for students interested in such work to obtain a broad range of experience and training. Government lawyering demands both strong legal skills and awareness of public policy issues. It also helps to have a sense for tactics and timing, and "the discipline to look 10 moves ahead on the chessboard," Martin said. The government needs well-trained lawyers who are able to do more than focus exclusively on narrow legal questions, he said.
"The best kind of training is broad: Bring a good undergraduate background, and take diverse courses in law school. It doesn't hurt to gain other experience for a while before going into government, though there is certainly an important role for people who find their way directly into government service," he said.
Martin, the Warner-Booker Distinguished Professor of International Law. worked for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, 1983 U.Va. law alumna, former U.S. attorney and Arizona governor, who also happened to be a student in the first class Martin taught at the Law School.
"It was great. I've known her for 30 years," he said. "I had some chance to work with her when she was a U.S. attorney in Arizona and I was at INS, and we kept in touch during her service as governor. She's a superb government executive, very well-prepared for this job – decisive, a quick study. I can't imagine a better set of experiences than what she's had at the federal and state level to prepare someone for the job of Secretary of Homeland Security. No department has a more diverse or demanding portfolio."
Though Congress did not pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill while he was in Washington, Martin said both Napolitano and President Obama remain committed to the goal of overhauling the system, and a lot of work has already gone into the effort.
"It was clear that health care reform was going to come first," Martin said. "That took a lot longer than expected. It required members of Congress to stick their necks out and take some difficult votes, and that undercut the appetite for legislating on the toxic issue of immigration."
Comprehensive and truly workable reform requires both more effective enforcement measures and some path to earned legal status for the estimated 10 million illegal immigrants in the country, he said. But inflamed passions make the necessary compromises difficult to achieve, Martin said.
"The way things are aligned, polarization poses a great difficulty in putting all those pieces together," he said. But piecemeal changes also face major hurdles. "One side or the other – the tough enforcement partisans or the supporters of broad legalization – will fight very hard if the measure they most want isn't included."
Going forward, Martin said he plans to begin promptly on some writing and research projects, including a new edition of his immigration law casebook. This semester he's teaching Presidential Powers. "I have lots of new material to draw on for classroom discussion, but I'll have to be careful and remember which stories are classified," he joked.