Kerlin Lecture on Environmental Law: Patricia Salkin’s Take on the Environment and New York’s Executive Branch

On January 29, 2013, Pace Law School had the pleasure of hosting Patricia Salkin, Dean of Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, at the thirteenth annual Kerlin Lecture on Environmental Law.  She made her first stop at the Land Use Law Center for Sustainable Development where I had the opportunity to meet with Dean Salkin, Professor John R. Nolon, Dean Emeritus Richard L. Ottinger, and a few dedicated Land Use Law students prior to the lecture.  For such a small group, there was an extraordinary amount of scholarly prowess in the field of environmental law.  Dean Salkin shared with us the inspiration for her lecture topic, details about her early career, and her advice for law students.

When initially researching the topic of gubernatorial executive power, Dean Salkin suspected that it had been underexplored, but was surprised to find that no one had written on the topic before.  This gave me comfort in knowing that I was far from alone in my naiveté about the significance of executive power.  In terms of the importance of the topic, she offered a thoughtful comparison between the legislature and the executive.  Dean Salkin described the legislative process as a negotiation among lobbyists, legislators, and the governor—a negotiation that the governor ultimately wields significant influence over because of his veto power.  Restricted access to the Governor, contrasted with comparatively open access to the legislature, makes it a unique role. The Governor is able to make decisions based on the big picture, has the tools of state agencies and public authorities at his disposal, and can act swiftly.  These unique qualities set the executive apart, and gave Dean Salkin’s research on the topic importance.

Dean Salkin’s accomplishments in the field of land use and zoning law are many, but when speaking with our small group, she chose to focus on the beginnings of her career.  Her reason for going to law school was centered on the idea that if she had to live by the laws, then she wanted to be part of the law-making process.  Upon graduating from law school, Dean Salkin’s first job was working at the Department of State in Rural Affairs as Assistant Counsel, where she was introduced to land use law.  Although she found her niche in terms of subject matter, she felt unfulfilled and became bored with the bureaucracy.

Her next job was at the Albany Government Law Center, where she got her first taste of really making an impact on the law.  Her first assignment, a report on impact fees, quickly caught the attention of legislators.  This was her self-described “Aha! moment.”  At twenty-three years old, legislators were seeking out Dean Salkin to review their proposed bills.  While working in government, she had felt ineffective at getting things done, but at the law school, she had the attention of policy makers who sincerely cared about her opinions.  Her first impact on policy came through academia—she was making the law.

In the closing moments of our meeting, Dean Salkin offered advice for law students.  She recommended students identify their preferred type of practice.  She described private practice as serving one client at time, and compared it to public interest practice, serving the bigger picture and shaping policy.  However, she recommended that regardless of what type of practice students choose, they should stay engaged in the public interest, noting that who you know matters.  She also encouraged students to take advantage of opportunities and get experience working in government, noting the advantage in having a familiarity with bureaucracy, one that has helped to make her own career highly successful.  All along the course of her career, Dean Salkin has made innumerable connections that she uses to serve her causes.

In her lecture, Dean Salkin described New York’s environmental movement as vigorous, but often frustrated by the legislature, and she postured that gubernatorial leadership was the key indicator of the vitality of environmental law in the state.  However, she cautioned that a meaningful analysis requires the separation of rhetoric and action.  She described this separation as the difference between real action and action resulting in inaction.  To this effect, Dean Salkin primarily focused on a comparison between the Governor’s annual State of the State Address and executive orders.  She noted that the Governor’s control over government agencies and implementation of policy and programs is often overlooked.

Dean Salkin then reviewed the governorships of Mario Cuomo, George Pataki, Eliot Spitzer, David Paterson, and Andrew Cuomo, the most recent five governors of New York State.  Regardless of political party, each Governor led strong environmental agendas, especially in the common area of energy.  Pataki was determined to be the definitive environmental Governor.  Dean Salkin was keen to include that an alum from Pace Law School served as an advisor to Pataki.

With this deeper understanding of the executive in mind, Dean Salkin gave three pieces of advice to environmental attorneys: first, vote wisely; second, advocate environmental agendas with political candidates; and finally, explore opportunities for exerting influence at the executive level—“capture the Governor’s imagination.”

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