Washington Lawyer

Legends in the Law: John C. Cruden

From Washington Lawyer, October 2014

By Kathryn Alfisi

John C. Cruden, photo by Patrice Gilbert.John C. Cruden has had a long, distinguished military and government career. A graduate of West Point, Santa Clara School of Law, and the Woodrow Wilson School at the University of Virginia, Cruden began his legal career in the military. There he served as a criminal prosecutor, head of civil litigation in Europe, an agency general counsel, a staff judge advocate, and, ultimately, chief legislative counsel of the U.S. Army.

He then joined the government, eventually becoming a senior official at the U.S. Department of Justice, serving as the career deputy assistant attorney general of the Environment and Natural Resources Division until 2011. Cruden left to become the fourth president of the Environmental Law Institute.

Cruden served as president of the D.C. Bar for the 2005-06 term. He was the first government attorney to serve as Bar president, and he focused on promoting pro bono service among government attorneys during his term.

Washington Lawyer recently sat down with Cruden to discuss his life in the law.

Tell me about your childhood.
I was born in Kansas but adopted by a wonderful couple who lived in a very small community in Michigan. After your ‘Meet the President’ profile of me was published in 2005, the Florence Crittenton home for unwed mothers in Topeka, Kansas, contacted me and provided the first information I had ever received about my birth mother. So, I am indebted to this magazine and your initial interview.

My adopted parents are my heroes. My father was a crane operator at Ford Motor Company, of which he was immensely proud. During World War II, my mother, like so many other women, worked in the defense industry and then really led the day-to-day functioning of our family. We did a lot of outdoors activities, including camping and hiking, where I first developed a love of nature. In high school I was active in sports and in Boy Scouts; I also met my future wife there.

As a child, what did you dream of doing when you grew up?
I wanted to be a professional basketball player, except that I lacked any of the necessary attributes you would need for that profession, including ability. No member of my family had gone to college, but my family really encouraged me to go.

I think both my father, who was a Scottish immigrant, and my mother, who was from a Slovenian family, saw education as a way of progressing or improving and they really put an emphasis on learning. I ultimately received a track scholarship to the University of Michigan, but I didn’t attend because I was accepted at West Point, which would become a huge step for me. One of the people who recommended me to West Point was the chief of staff of the governor of Michigan, whom I met because he was an Eagle Scout mentor.

Why did you decide to go to West Point?
I sought and received a congressional nomination to West Point because it combined the physical and mental challenges I was seeking. At that time, as a small-town boy from Michigan, it seemed like a wonderful opportunity. It turned out to be a life-changing experience.

West Point drew a student body from across the United States and from several different countries. The staff and faculty included people such as Pete Dawkins, Alexander Haig, and Norman Schwarzkopf, all destined to become generals. Other members of the student body included Mike Krzyzewski, the famed Duke basketball coach. The academics were challenging but also very diverse. In my senior year I was selected to become chair of the National Student Conference on United States Affairs, which allowed me to meet student leaders from across the nation. I also took my first law classes at West Point, which ultimately led me to consider law school.

What did you do after graduating from West Point?
Well, the first thing I did was to make a wise decision: I married Sharon Holland at the Martha Mary Chapel at Greenfield Village in Michigan. I then went to a series of military schools for about six months, primarily airborne, ranger, and jumpmaster training. All of these schools were both challenging and immensely valuable; my first assignment was as a platoon leader in an airborne battalion in Germany, and then in a ranger unit in Vietnam. During that time, both in Germany and Vietnam, I completed about 30 parachute jumps, which is an adrenalin-producing experience.

What was your experience like in Vietnam?
I had two different jobs in Vietnam. I started out being the senior advisor of a ranger battalion in almost continuous combat operations, and then transferred to the U.S. Special Forces. The work was challenging every day, but the soldiers that I served with—particularly in the Special Forces—were the most courageous and dedicated individuals I have ever encountered. On the wall of my office today is a painting of West Point, containing the names of my classmates who lost their lives in that war. It reminds me daily of the sacrifice of our military forces, and I continue to honor our men and women in uniform.

While in Vietnam, I made the decision to go to law school and took my LSAT in Saigon. By the time I got the results of the test, law schools had already ended their application period. Nevertheless, I applied and was accepted by several different institutions, which allowed me to receive a leave of absence from the military to attend law school. 

So I went directly from the Special Forces in Vietnam to law school at Santa Clara University. On one level it was a huge transition, from the jungles of Vietnam to what is now known as Silicon Valley. On the other hand, being in the military instilled in me a strong work ethic. Besides, it was much safer.

What was your law school experience like?
I enjoyed law school and found the legal instruction stimulating. My wife and I became apartment managers to help pay for tuition. I was fortunate enough to be selected as one of the Law Review leaders as well as to advance to the finals in a state moot court competition. And, I spent a year working under the supervision of a woman who led the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office, Rose Bird, who would later become the chief justice of the Supreme Court of California. Ultimately, I clerked for California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk, which was also a really rewarding experience; he became a lifelong mentor.

Did you become a military lawyer after graduating from law school?
Yes, I took the California Bar exam and then returned to the military and went directly to the Army Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) school in Charlottesville, Virginia, to take their yearlong graduate course. Simultaneously, I enrolled in the University of Virginia where I ultimately received a master’s degree in government and foreign relations.

What did you do after leaving Charlottesville?
As soon as I finished both of my programs in Charlottesville, I went to Germany for three years where I gained invaluable trial experience, first as a criminal prosecutor and defense lawyer, and then as chief of civil litigation for Germany. As chief of civil litigation, I lived in Heidelberg and frequently traveled to give legal advice to units in Berlin and Munich, as well as the U.S. Embassy, which was then located in Bonn.

From Germany, I went to the Pentagon where I was a civil trial attorney in the Litigation Division of the Department of the Army. It was there that I really did my very first environmental litigation, including a well-publicized case in Berlin.

I then became the general counsel of what was then the Defense Nuclear Agency, which included environmental responsibilities, before being selected to attend the Army’s Command and General Staff College. Following graduation, I returned to Charlottesville to assume a professor position as the leader of the JAG School’s Administrative and Civil Law Division. It was there that I authored the chapter on Environmental Law and National Security, which was included in the University of Virginia Law School’s casebook on national security law. When I was in Charlottesville, I was also responsible for providing legal instruction to new general officers and colonels who were taking command, several of whom I knew from my time at West Point.

My next assignment was in Germany as staff judge advocate for the 3rd Armored Division, which included overseeing a large jurisdiction in central Germany where I had responsibility for five subordinate legal offices with very active trial and international law responsibilities. I was then selected to go to the Army’s War College, but I spent the year as the first military attorney assigned as the special counsel to the assistant attorney general of the Civil Division at the Department of Justice. That extraordinary position gave me an opportunity to personally litigate important civil cases and become involved in significant policy decisions. While working on drug testing protocols, I met with and briefed President Reagan. This one-year unique assignment ultimately led to my post-military legal career.

After my year with the Army War College and Department of Justice was over, I was selected to become the chief legislative counsel of the Army and worked in the Pentagon as an interface between the Army and Congress, working predominantly with the Armed Services Committees in the House and Senate. I testified before Congress, frequently briefed members of Congress and their staff, and traveled with them to places like Panama immediately after Operation Just Cause, Germany during the fall of the Berlin Wall, and through much of South America monitoring illegal drug trafficking. I also went to El Salvador where I was representing the military in a grand jury proceeding concerning the Jesuit priest killings.

When did you go back to the Department of Justice?
While I was at the Pentagon, senior Department of Justice officials suggested that I apply to become the chief of the Environmental Enforcement Section (EES). That section was particularly attractive to me, as it combined my passion for the environment with important federal litigation responsibility. EES was then the largest litigation section of the Department of Justice with about 260 people, including 160 lawyers, and it had nationwide responsibility for enforcing the nation’s environmental laws. I truly loved being at EES; the quality of attorneys was astronomical and the work was fulfilling. It also gave me an opportunity to work with a number of exceptional attorneys from U.S. attorney and state attorneys general offices.

Did you have other jobs at the Department of Justice?
Yes, after serving as chief of the Environmental Enforcement Section for a number of years, I was selected to be a career deputy assistant attorney general of the Environment and Natural Resources Division and stayed in that position until 2011. In that role, I supervised a number of parts of the division, and twice I was selected to be the acting assistant attorney general. I have always been pleased that during this period, I received the Presidential Rank Award from three different presidents of both parties. However, it was really the extraordinary career workforce that deserved those awards as they achieved record-breaking accomplishments while advancing the rule of law.

When did the environmental movement really start and how have you seen environmental law change since you first got involved?
The environmental movement largely dates to Earth Day 1970, which served as a catalyst for our modern era of environmental legislation: the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Superfund, Endangered Species Act, among others.

When I was in law school, there were no environmental classes. Now, virtually every law school in the nation has a wide variety of environmental subjects, and most have designated faculty members teaching those subjects. Complex issues have spawned litigation and there is now a large body of law. The evolution has been rather dramatic in a relatively short period of time if you compare that to the other disciplines of the law.

What’s also interesting is that we’ve exported environmental laws. The United States did not create contract law or criminal law, but we clearly created environmental law and seminal legislation such as the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires government agencies to consider the environment when making decisions. Now many countries in the world have something similar, and a lot of our other statutes have been picked up by other countries and enacted. I think we can take great pride in the United States for having been the parent of environmental law in the world.

Now the environmental profession encompasses both energy and natural resource law as the new challenges of areas such as climate change and hydraulic fracturing require a comprehensive approach.

Why did you leave the Department of Justice?
I was very happy at the Department of Justice and I had a great job. I was responsible for supervising the Environmental Enforcement Section and the Environmental Defense Section, which meant that I had under my supervision virtually all the federal environmental litigation involving the United States. However, I had long admired the Environmental Law Institute (ELI), one of the premier nongovernmental organizations in the world. When Leslie Carothers retired as president in 2011, I was selected to replace her, becoming only the fourth president in ELI’s more than 40-year history.

Tell me a little about ELI.
ELI came into existence as the National Environmental Policy Act was signed more than 40 years ago and has three components: publishing, educating, and researching. We have thousands of members comprising corporations, law firms, environmental professionals, and individuals. While it is widely known as a bipartisan think tank, ELI is also a leader in a number of areas of value to the legal profession. ELI publishes the Environmental Law Review, the most cited publication of its kind in the nation, and puts out the Forum magazine as well as newsletters on the wetlands and updates on China and India’s environmental law developments. Virtually every environmental practitioner has an ELI desk book on his or her shelf, and we are just putting out the update of our well-known practitioner’s guide on the National Environmental Protection Act.

Last year we led or joined in more than 80 educational programs, many done in conjunction with the American Law Institute and American Bar Association, reaching more than 3,000 attendees. Our East Coast and West Coast ‘boot camps’ are famous for their intense, practice-oriented courses.

Our research division is about half domestic, half international, and we have a Mexican attorney on staff as well as an attorney living in Malawi, Africa. About half of our research funding comes from government agencies and the other half from private foundations. On the international side we have programs in Africa, Mexico, and Jordan. We’re probably best known for training judges. Last year we trained more than 700 judges in Mexico alone, and we’ve done environmental training for judges in 25 different countries. We also have a number of ongoing domestic programs, and our oceans program is led by two talented attorneys living in California.

Tell me about your experience as D.C. Bar president.
I became interested in the D.C. Bar while I was at the Department of Justice and was elected to the Bar’s Board of Governors. John Payton was then president and he was someone I deeply admired and we became friends. After serving on the Board of Governors for several years, two of the Bar’s past presidents, Shirley Higuchi and George Jones, encouraged me to run for president; I was elected and served from 2005-06. During my year as Bar president, I focused on service to the community and spent a great deal of time trying to enhance and encourage pro bono service by government lawyers. As Bar president, I wrote every single agency general counsel in the federal government, asking and encouraging them to establish or expand their pro bono efforts. Many, including the U.S. Department of Defense, responded enthusiastically and now fully participate. I am quite proud that the award for government pro bono excellence has been named the John C. Cruden Award.

You also led the Environmental Section of the American Bar Association.
Yes, I was on the board of the ABA’s Environmental, Energy, and Natural Resources Section, which is really a superb organization. I served as its chair from 2009-10 and focused on outreach efforts to broaden the impact the ABA could have in advancing environmental concerns in the legal profession. The section has a superb career support staff and very talented members who are leaders in the profession.

So how do you spend your time away from the office?
For more than 10 years, I have been a Special Olympics swim coach. I first got involved when my youngest daughter was seeking extracurricular school credit and asked me to volunteer with her. No father turns down a teenage daughter asking him to do something with her. So together, we volunteered with Special Olympics. Since then, I have become a Red Cross certified water safety instructor and lead coach. Our program has grown to more than 60 mentally handicapped swimmers who successfully competed locally as well as at the state, national, and even international levels. I receive way more out of this experience than I ever give, and I am surrounded by an extraordinary group of volunteers who assist me.

What’s next for you?
I have been nominated by the president to be the assistant attorney general of the Environment and Natural Resources Division. My confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee has been held where I was introduced by Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, who I worked with when he was attorney general of New Mexico. The Judiciary Committee voted in favor of my nomination, and I am awaiting full Senate review and, hopefully, confirmation.

Reach Kathryn Alfisi at kalfisi@dcbar.org.