By Tim Brady
Professor Joel Samaha’s award-winning scholarship and teaching have made him a guiding force in the future of criminal justice
“If all my professors could have been like Joel Samaha, I would have finished school a lot smarter," says Hennepin County judge Heidi Schallhas. ::: “He simply inspires people to be better by his example," says another former student, attorney John Sheehy of the Minneapolis law firm Meshbesher & Spence. ::: “Joel has this remarkable ability, even in a lecture hall of 250 students, to make it feel like he’s talking just to you," says Dennis Benson, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
Finding people willing to sing Joel Samaha’s praises is a pretty simple chore. It helps that after more than 35 years of teaching criminal law, Samaha has sent into the community hundreds of alumni who not only trumpet his work but also run the criminal justice system: “tons of cops, judges, oodles of lawyers, and a whole lot of wardens and corrections officials," notes Benson.
Of course, sheer numbers don’t explain the sort of plaudits that have been showered on Samaha lately. Last spring, he received the Horace T. Morse – U niversity of Minnesota Alumni Association Award for outstanding contributions to undergraduate education. At the offices of the Department of Sociology, a file supporting his nomination grew fat with letters effusively praising his teaching.
“He is one of those amazing teachers who are able to employ small class methods in a large class setting," says department chair Chris Uggen. “Years after they take his class, people vividly remember what he’s taught. He has a thick dossier of letters and notes from former students, thanking him for his teaching."
Known for his openness and generosity, Samaha has the great teacher’s gift of knowing there are lessons to be learned in life, even though one of them is, as he puts it, that “nothing in the world is settled. I have always tried to emphasize with my students that there are different interpretations for everything. Criminal justice is a great field to be doing this in. If you take, for instance, assertions like ‘punishment works’ or ‘punishment doesn’t work,’ my job is to make students burrow into the issue, to ask: ‘How do we know?’"
And that questioning yields a more balanced perspective, not to mention more thoughtful citizens. “Countless kids have come into his class with the attitude that we ought to just string up all the criminals," says Benson. “Joel has made them look at the complications of the justice system. It is people like him who have helped keep the Minnesota corrections system sane when many others in the country are out of control."
Finding his callingSamaha’s openness to life’s complexities stems from his childhood in a small town in Ohio, where his father’s work brought a certain cosmopolitan flair to the otherwise conservative community. “He had a very successful antique business that drew customers from all over the country and all walks of life," says Samaha, “including a few movie stars and families of notable wealth."
Neither his dad, a Lebanese immigrant, nor his mother, the daughter of German immigrants, attended college, but both pushed Samaha and his three siblings toward higher education. They also instilled in their children a sense of humility, fairness, and the benefits of hard work. “‘Find something you really like to do and do it,’ my father emphasized, which is exactly what I did."
After receiving B.A. and J.D. degrees from Northwestern University, Samaha was admitted to the Illinois bar and practiced briefly in Chicago, but he wasn’t satisfied working in private practice. When a teacher friend invited him to spend a day observing his classroom, Samaha found his calling. “This is what I wanted to do. I wanted to teach," he says.
Samaha spent five years working in a Chicago high school before returning to Northwestern, where he began studies toward a doctorate in history. His dissertation, a study of the roots of law and order in Elizabethan England, melded his interest in English history and the legal system.
Newly married, Samaha went to Cambridge in England to “examine the earliest court records that I could find," he says. “I wanted to know when and how due process came about." He discovered that a whole legal bureaucracy existed 400 years ago, one with surprising connections to the present, not all of them profound. “Searching through a sheaf of court documents," he recalls, “I came across the doodlings of an Elizabethan court clerk. He had placed smiling and frowning faces in the corners of the papers I was studying. I could imagine his sitting bored in a courtroom, idly making his little drawings."
By the time his thesis, Law and Order in Historical Perspective, was published in 1974, Samaha had arrived at the University of Minnesota by means of a chance encounter with U of M history professor Allan Spear, “an old friend from Northwestern." Spear told Samaha about a new criminal justice program at Minnesota that was looking to make a joint appointment in history and criminal justice. “Those were my specialties," says Samaha. “It was as if it were tailor-made."
That “tailor-made" position has been a platform ever since for impressive scholarship and award-winning teaching. With joint appointments in the departments of sociology and history, Samaha teaches Criminal Law and Procedure in U.S. Society and History of Criminal Justice to the continuing accolades of students and colleagues. So many of his students work in Minnesota’s criminal justice system that Samaha has become, in a way, the guiding force behind the system.
As the author of three highly regarded textbooks, Samaha has reached students far beyond the University. Criminal Justice, in its seventh edition, is used at 465 colleges in 48 states across the nation. Criminal Law is in its eighth edition, and Criminal Procedure in its sixth. “I just set out to write case books that I could use in my own classroom," says Samaha with characteristic modesty. “They’ve turned out to be very popular."
Yet another book has received a different kind of attention. As one of the world’s great experts on Irish Wolfhounds, Samaha — a judge at dog shows and competitions around the globe — has written The New Complete Irish Wolfhound, one of the standard references on the breed. Recounting a call from the Library of Congress, Samaha laughs, “They were updating their card catalog and wanted to know if both Joel Samahas — the Irish wolfhound guy and the law textbook writer — were me!"
Adam Samaha, one of two sons and a professor of law at the University of Chicago, recently received his own teaching award. Sounding very much like another in the long line of Joel Samaha admirers, Adam said to a reporter, “My father is an unmatched resource for me. He thinks hard about teaching and how to do it better, and I try to do the same."
“I must confess," says Adam’s dad, “that made me very proud."