It was a summer job at the state legislature in Florida that led to Distinguished Rutgers Law Professor Robert Williams’ interest in state constitutional law. He brought his interest in state constitutions to Rutgers Law in Camden, where he began teaching in 1980 and opened the Center for State Constitutional Studies with then-Political Science Professor Alan Tarr. After a long and distinguished teaching career, Williams has retired from Rutgers Law, but will stay on as a Professor Emeritus.
“I had always been interested in a teaching career,” reflected Williams. “I loved law school; I was kind of a law nerd. . . I always felt very lucky to have landed at Rutgers in Camden in 1980.”
Williams, who grew up in Florida and attended Florida State University as an undergraduate and law school at the University of Florida, worked as a legal services lawyer representing low income people in Miami and Tallahassee. He and his wife, who is also a lawyer, moved to the New York area where he received a fellowship at Columbia Law School, and she could earn her LLM there.
It was after his stint at Columbia that he was hired at Rutgers Law. Williams said he taught first year civil procedure for 36 years and started an elective course on interpreting state statues and constitutions. He also started an annual Law Journal issue on state constitutional law in 1989 and went on to form the center with Tarr.
He reflected on the Law Journal issues for its 25th anniversary in 2013:
“Then Dean John Pittinger asked Professor Earl Maltz to come up with an idea for the Law Journal and Earl proposed state constitution law as a new field of study. At the time I wondered whether an issue dedicated to state constitution law would really work, but I agreed to implement this idea and 25 years later we all know that it’s been a spectacular success. People around the country, and around the world, know ours is the-go-to issue for state con law.”
As associate director of the center, Williams traveled around the U.S. and to other countries studying state constitutions and hosted conferences for other state constitutional scholars. Though he and Tarr have both retired from Rutgers, Williams said he will stay on as the center’s director.
“I ended up with the first casebook in the country,” he said. “It’s an area not many people were paying attention to, but over the years, Rutgers and our law review were able to really raise the profile of state constitutions around the country.”
The center also hosted an annual lecture series that for over a quarter century drew leading figures in state and international constitutional law.
Williams also wrote a book on the New Jersey State Constitution that led to a series on the same topic for nearly all of the states in the U.S. His book has been updated at least twice to reflect changes in New Jersey, including creating the position of lieutenant governor, the ability to recall state officials, and the adoption of new forms of gambling laws.
Over the years, Williams said he has seen how the lives of first-generation law students are improved by attending Rutgers Law, and he’s proud of all of students’ professional successes, including the newest New Jersey Supreme Court Justice, Fabiana Pierre-Louis. He lamented that the cost of law school has gone up over his 40 years in teaching. The students still inspire him: “I think this generation of students is incredibly smart, very hard working and able to do things with technology that our generation can’t do.”
Click here to join the Law School alumni who have created the Robert F. Williams State Constitutional Law Lecture endowment.