“The best lawyers are constantly learning, constantly asking questions, constantly striving to get better.”
Professor Epps’ Scholarship Questions Commonly-Held Principles in the Criminal Justice System
Associate Professor Daniel Epps, a former Supreme Court clerk, focuses on criminal law and criminal procedure – and his scholarly approach masterfully draws upon history, philosophy, political science, and economics.
Epps’ academic writings tend to be fairly theoretical, as he strives to bring new understanding to the field. “You need a good theoretical understanding of the criminal justice system in order to figure out what changes are likely to improve the system,” he explains.
Along these lines, his article, “The Consequences of Error in Criminal Justice,” 128 Harvard Law Review 1065 (2015), critiqued the “Blackstone principle”—the idea that it is preferable to let many guilty defendants go free in order to avoid convicting a smaller number of innocent defendants. “Everyone in criminal law had treated the Blackstone principle as axiomatic,” Epps says, “and it was fascinating to show how people hadn’t really thought through some of the arguments carefully.”
Epps’s most recent article, “Adversarial Asymmetry in the Criminal Process” (forthcoming in the NYU Law Review), analyzes and critiques the criminal justice system’s approach to motivating prosecutors. He argues that—contrary to most observers’ intuitions—a system in which prosecutors had greater motivation to stringently enforce the law to its limits might produce better results.
Epps also has a secondary interest in federal courts and the design of judicial institutions. He is currently working on projects about the role of the jury, the Supreme Court’s case-selection process, and the harmless-error doctrine.
In addition to his scholarship, Epps co-hosts a seasonal podcast about the Supreme Court with Ian Samuel, a former clerk for Justice Scalia who is currently a fellow at Harvard Law School. First Mondays is available on iTunes and also has a twitter feed that stays up to date on all things Supreme Court.
After graduating summa cum laude from Duke University in 2004 with an AB in philosophy, Epps thought graduate study in philosophy might be his path—an influence that can still be seen in his scholarship. In the end, however, he chose to enroll at Harvard Law School. He credits one of his Harvard Law School professors, the late William J. Stuntz, for instilling within him a passion for criminal law.
“Professor Stuntz was one of the best teachers I ever had,” Epps says. “He really got me interested in thinking deeply about the whole criminal justice system and its structure.”
Now a professor himself, Epps is teaching Criminal Law and Structural Criminal Justice this academic year. He loves nothing more than seeing the light bulbs shine brightly within his students when they grasp a difficult concept. He hopes his students will also learn to be passionate about the lifelong learning aspects of the field of law.
“The best lawyers are constantly learning, constantly asking questions, constantly striving to get better,” he says. “And they love the law. If you don’t find law interesting, you’ll never be a great lawyer.”
Professor Epps’s career advice to students? “Always take risks. There is really no ‘safe’ path, because one of the biggest risks is not taking one at all.”
Impactful Career Trajectory
On his path to becoming a professor, Epps garnered a clerkship upon graduation from Harvard with Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. This helped pave the way to a second clerkship—in the chambers of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy of the Supreme Court of the United States.
“Clerking for Justice Kennedy at the Supreme Court, was by far the most important thing that has happened or will probably ever happen to me professionally,” Epps explains. “He was wonderful to work for, and working alongside the most talented and experienced young lawyers, with a sense of camaraderie and a shared mission, was an amazing experience.”
Epps next joined the Washington, D.C. office of the international law firm of King & Spalding LLP. His work as an associate in their National Appellate Litigation Practice offered him wide-ranging exposure to different areas of law and the chance to work on important Supreme Court cases. While in practice, he continued to develop his interest in criminal law, as he worked on several significant criminal pro bono cases.
While still in practice at King & Spalding, a part-time position as a lecturer at the University of Virginia School of Law convinced Epps that teaching was what truly ignited the fire within him. “It was unbelievably rewarding to share my knowledge about the law and my experiences at the Supreme Court with my students,” he says.
Deciding to pursue an academic career full-time, Epps left King & Spalding and spent three years as a Climenko Fellow and lecturer at Harvard Law School. He was invited to join the faculty at Washington University School of Law following his fellowship.
In addition to his teaching and scholarship, he continues doing occasional Supreme Court representation on the side, including serving as co-counsel for the petitioner Ocasio v. United States last term. He says he enjoys engaging in some legal work to keep his lawyering skills sharp—something that also helps him share with his WashULaw students the practical aspects of what he teaches.
“I am extremely fortunate to have landed at Wash U,” says Epps, whose wife, Danielle D’Onfro, also joined the law school this fall as a lecturer in law and director of the Continuing Legal Education Program.
“Washington University has everything a young scholar like me could want,” Epps says, “a great Dean and wonderful colleagues who support my efforts; smart, intellectually curious students, whom I enjoy teaching; and the resources of a world-class university—all on one of the most beautiful campuses, and in the middle of a city that my wife and I are finding a wonderful place to live.”