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Abstract

There can be no greater honor for me than to have been invited to deliver this 20th Annual Frank M. Coffin Lecture on Law and Public Service. The year 1981-82, when I served as one of the Judge’s law clerks, transformed me and transformed my life. The past thirty years have been shaped profoundly by my year working for the Judge and living here in Portland. After the Judge passed away, the University of Maine School of Law was kind enough to publish some remarks I had delivered to my students in China about the example the Judge had set for me—as a perfectionist, as a hard worker, as a lover of language, as a person who believed in the importance of all people, as a person who loved to have fun, and as a Renaissance man. He was all of those things and more. Those are qualities that often spring to my mind when I find myself seeking guidance and comfort in the question, “What would the Judge do?” Until this evening, however, I have not had the opportunity to speak about what is perhaps the most powerful, far-reaching example that Judge Coffin set for me and for others. I am referring to his lifelong dedication to public service. Everyone here is familiar with the contours of his professional career—in military service, as a law clerk, in private practice, and then a remarkable halfcentury in Congress, at the U.S. Agency for International Development, as ambassador to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and on the bench. This résumé of his career might well be described as a “public service curriculum vitae,” simply by virtue of the entities that Judge Coffin chose to work for. Fifty years in the employ of the United States government would, of course, justify us in calling his a “public service” career. Yet the example of public service that Judge Coffin gave to us far transcended the identity of his employer. Rather, I would suggest, it expressed itself in the approach he took to carrying out the tasks that his various roles assigned him. As much as anyone I have ever known, Judge Coffin believed his highest professional responsibility was to serve the public. In that respect, Judge Coffin was different from some others who have worked as employees of the federal government. In the world of academia, there has emerged an area of scholarship that is known as “public choice theory.” This form of scholarship attempts to analyze the behavior of public servants as if they were all purely self-interested actors who wanted only to maximize their individual power and influence and had no commitment to larger public values. Sad to say, I am sure we can all find examples of political behavior that fits this model. Yet Judge Coffin’s vision of public service, and his approach to his work, made him a perfect counterexample—a case that proves that this kind of public choice analysis is, at best, incomplete.

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