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David Rudovsky: Bridging Two Worlds

July 06, 2012

For four decades University of Pennsylvania Law School professor David Rudovsky has kept his feet planted squarely in two professional worlds, and recently he has been recognized for his accomplishments in each of them.

Last month the Bread & Roses Community Fund, a public foundation that supports groups in the Philadelphia area working for social change, presented Rudovsky’s civil rights law firm with its annual “Robin Hood Was Right Award.” The award recognized “the thousands of hours” of pro bono legal representation Rudovsky and his partners have provided to grassroots organizations. In May Rudovsky received the Law School’s Harvey Levin Memorial Award for teaching excellence. It was the fifth time that a Penn Law graduating class had selected Rudovsky for the Law School’s highest teaching honor.
Since arriving in Philadelphia in 1967, fresh from NYU Law School, Rudovsky has pursued a life of civil rights advocacy, criminal defense work, and teaching. Over the years he has become one of the nation’s leading civil rights and criminal defense attorneys and a beloved teacher at Penn Law.
Rudovsky, who has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, is probably best known for his longtime work involving a wide range of social justice issues in Philadelphia, including police misconduct, reform of the criminal justice system, the rights of gay parents and children, and juvenile rights.
Speaking in his office at the Law School, he reflected on the relationship between his civil rights and criminal defense work and his teaching.
“In the legal world, there’s sometimes not enough connection between those who teach and those who practice,” he said. “Sometimes there’s a dividing line between them, and I’ve just found for myself that the bridge between those two is pretty significant and helpful.”
Good teaching, he said, is a mix of several ingredients:  having a thorough understanding of the subject matter on both a theoretical and practical level, bringing to the classroom a sense of interest in the material, and engaging students by being open to what they have to say. Rudovsky’s legal practice is a wellspring for his pedagogy.
“You’re teaching not only on an intellectual level – understanding what the courts and legislature have said about the rules and the constitutional principles that may control – but how those principles actually get applied on a day-to-day basis by the institutions that are carrying them out,” he said. “Criminal procedure is a good example of that.”
Along with decades of litigation experience, Rudovsky brings to the classroom a certain humility. “I often learn from students,” he said. “They ask probing questions that raise issues that I haven’t quite thought about, or think about in a different way. What I try to do, and I say this on the first day of each class, is to teach and have exchanges in the classroom in the same way that I do with practicing lawyers. It is aimed at getting everybody engaged. “
Jonathan Feinberg L’01 was one of Rudovsky’s Penn Law students and is currently his law partner. “I have been very fortunate to have learned from David Rudovsky in both spheres of his professional life,” Feinberg said. “As a professor and as a practitioner, he uses a unique combination of legal knowledge, patience, and passion for social justice to both educate and advocate.”
Rudovsky began constructing the bridge between his teaching and legal practice at the outset of his career. He was drawn initially to Penn and Philadelphia by a position at the Law School, in what at the time was one of the first clinical legal education programs anywhere in the country. Clinical programs, rare then but a fixture of legal education today, afford students real world experience with actual clients under the supervision of faculty.
Rudovsky had a two-year appointment as a fellow in the criminal law clinic, where he divided his time between working as a public defender and helping to supervise Penn Law students, whose clinic experience included work in the Public Defender’s Office and research on criminal justice issues.
“I came here supposedly for two years, and here it is 45 years later, and I’m still in Philadelphia,” he reflected.  In 1971 Rudovsky founded his legal practice – Kairys & Rudovsky, now Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg. The following year he began teaching as an adjunct instructor at Penn Law, and in 1988, after having received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for his accomplishments in civil rights law and criminal justice, he was appointed to the faculty as a “senior fellow.” The half-time position has permitted him to maintain his legal practice while teaching courses in criminal law, evidence and constitutional criminal procedure.
The legal career that has been twined with his teaching is also woven deeply into the fabric of Philadelphia. Earlier this summer, for instance, Rudovsky’s law firm joined the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania in filing a lawsuit challenging the city’s recent and controversial ban on outdoor feeding of homeless people along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, site of the new Barnes Foundation museum.
His involvement with the issue of homelessness reaches back decades. When Sister Mary Scullion, the renowned Philadelphia social activist, battled with the city to establish Project H.O.M.E.’s first location on Fairmount Avenue in 1988, Rudovsky provided legal support.
His involvement with criminal justice reform dates back even farther, to the 1970s when the combative Frank Rizzo, a one-time Police Commissioner and controversial mayor, ruled City Hall. “We’ve litigated crowding conditions and conditions of confinement in the Philadelphia prison system for over 40 years now,” Rudovsky said. “In fact when we first opened our law office in 1971, our first lawsuit was against the prison system, and it’s still going on 40 years later.” He paused a moment, then added: “That litigation resulted in some improvements in the overall living conditions in the local jails.”
Today Rudovsky’s law reform efforts include a lawsuit over the Philadelphia Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practices, which resulted in a consent decree that his firm is currently monitoring. He is also involved with exoneration cases through the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which he helped to establish and on whose board he serves.
“It turns out when you look at the universe of wrongful convictions, it gives you a very good insight into what’s wrong with the criminal justice system,” he said. A system whose wrongs he patiently continues to try to right.