Donna Newman had been appointed by a federal court in New York to represent an accused terrorist in a high-stakes lawsuit on the rights of detainees after the attacks of September 11, 2001. A local lawyer who had long worked in the trenches representing criminal defendants, Newman, by her own admission, needed help. The case was on a fast track to the U.S. Supreme Court. She was flooded with calls from prominent lawyers and law firms.
But Newman refused them all—except the one from Jenny Martinez.
“Everybody knows how smart she is, and that is a wonderful gift,” says Newman. For one thing, Martinez was one of the few civilian lawyers in the U.S. with copies of the Geneva Conventions in her office. “But she was never condescending, and never was she looking for recognition. She was so generous. She just had a way of making everybody feel welcome and valuable.”
Those virtues are well known to colleagues at Stanford and in the broader legal world who have observed and worked with Martinez over the years—including university leadership that named her the 14th dean of the law school last spring.
A formidable litigator and scholar, Martinez, 48, brings to the job an impressive breadth of experience and skills. She has argued important cases at the leading edge of national security and produced serious historical scholarship on international human rights.
Martinez is a gifted teacher and enthusiastic mentor, someone who over the course of her career has earned the trust of faculty and students in her wide range of tours across university service.
“Jenny’s experience before being appointed dean had been so rich and varied that she brought an ideal combination to the position. She knew the law school well, and she was held in extremely high regard by faculty, students, and staff,” says Jane Schacter, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law and co-chair of the search committee. “She has the blend of judgment, smarts, empathy and vision to carry on the tradition of ambitious leadership for the school that she inherited from her predecessors, and to put her own stamp on it.”
Dean Jenny S. Martinez (photo by Timothy Archibald)
Martinez is “passionate and measured at the same time,” says Mark Kelman, the James C. Gaither Professor of Law and Vice Dean, who was a member of the search committee. “She is eager to innovate, eager to support new things. But she knows when to say ‘yes’ and when not to say ‘yes.’ ”
“She brings to the position a diversity in background that is really critical and is underrepresented at leadership levels at Stanford and elsewhere,” says Deborah Rhode, the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law and director of the Center on the Legal Profession. “I think she has the commitment and capabilities to be a terrific dean.”
Martinez says that she is “honored and privileged” to be named dean of Stanford Law School, which has been her academic home since she arrived in 2003 as an assistant professor.
“The level of community and intellectual engagement is, I think, unmatched among top law schools,” she says. “It is both of those pieces—the incredible intellectual intensity and engagement of my colleagues on the faculty and the sense of community and the way in which people are engaged in a common enterprise—that make it such a special place.”
Issues facing the law school, though, are both internal and external.
“One of the challenges when you have a school as extraordinary as Stanford Law School is to make sure you don’t become complacent,” she says, “that you are keeping what everyone loves about the institution but also making sure to innovate and improve and adapt so it continues to be great in the future.”
Martinez is leading the law school at a pivotal moment, when technology and globalization are bringing rapid change to the profession and society as a whole. She has made clear that strengthening programs to address these issues, particularly with the newly launched W.A. Franke Global Law Program and the unique-to-Stanford Law and Policy Lab, will be a focus of her deanship.
Already, she has helped launch an ambitious new course on global legal practice, International Business Transactions Regulation and Litigation, which integrates legal analysis and doctrine with practical training. The course was conceived of as an essential building block in an SLS degree, much like evidence, tax, corporations, or administrative law.
“Jenny is part of a group of scholars who oversaw the dramatic expansion of international and global law activities at Stanford Law School,” notes Allen Weiner, senior lecturer in law and director of the Stanford Program in International and Comparative Law. “She has litigated law of war cases before the Supreme Court, taught courses on international human rights, international criminal law, and foreign relations law, and is a world-class scholar on human rights and international courts. It’s hard to imagine having a dean better suited to lead Stanford Law School as the practice of law becomes increasingly global.”
Martinez also cites concerns surrounding the impact of technology on society and how technology will be regulated, all of which have implications for the practice of law. Already, she notes, algorithms are guiding key decisions of police departments and prosecutors, and automation is transforming the nature of work, while computers are poised to automate contracts and perform other tasks now done by law firm associates.
“As a law school, we are well positioned to be on the leading edge of this—to look at the ways that technology will impact law and society generally,” she says.
Martinez aims to make the vigorously researched faculty scholarship and policy work, often conducted with students in the Stanford Law and Policy Lab, as accessible to policymakers as possible.
“People here are very sophisticated about theory, but they’re also really concerned with how that maps onto the real world,” she says, noting that the Law and Policy Lab is unmatched among peer law schools. “They want their research to have an impact in the world, and they want their teaching to empower students to go out and have an impact in their own careers.”
Born in San Francisco, Martinez grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mother, Susanne Martinez, was a lawyer who worked on Capitol Hill and then in the nonprofit world on policy issues. Besides providing an example of the opportunities of a career in the law, she was a model for paying it forward, mentoring and shaping the careers of scores of women, a role that Martinez has embraced in her own career.
“There’s no doubt my mom was a huge influence on my decision to go to law school,” she says. “I saw the way in which her legal training enabled her to have this very impactful career and help others.”
As an undergraduate at Yale, Martinez ended up as a history major, writing her senior thesis on freedom of speech and African-American newspapers in the post-Reconstruction South. She spent many hours outside of class at the Yale Daily News and developed an interest in both journalism and First Amendment issues. During one summer, she traveled to Chile to conduct research on the role of the press in the 1991 plebiscite that ousted longtime dictator Augusto Pinochet. She was also interested in the many science courses she took as an undergraduate—she completed most of the coursework for a chemistry major as well. After college, she thought she might try to combine her interests in science and public policy and pursue both medical and law degrees. But after her first year at Harvard Law School, she interned in Washington, D.C., at the litigation arm of Public Citizen, the consumer advocacy group, and something clicked. And when her first-year grades came in, she learned she had won the prize awarded to the two top-ranking students in the class.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘This is someone who is really on track to do whatever she wants with the law,’ ” recalls Brian Wolfman, former director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group and now a professor at Georgetown Law Center, who was Martinez’s boss that summer. “I had a sneaking suspicion she was not going to medical school.”
After law school, Martinez clerked for Guido Calabresi, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and then at the U.S. Supreme Court for Associate Justice Stephen Breyer.
“She was interested in scholarship. She was interested in history. She was interested in getting to the bottom of things,” Justice Breyer recalled in an interview for this article. “She paid attention to what other people thought. She was interested in their problems. She’s a very humane person and I think she’ll be an excellent dean.”
Judge Calabresi, former dean of Yale Law School, agrees. “Law deans have to be good at identifying and understanding the needs of faculty and students and help them problem solve,” says the now-senior Second Circuit judge. “Jenny clearly is an empathetic person—people can talk to her. And then her brilliance, and cheerfulness, can turn the problem around into something good.”
Near the end of her clerkship with Justice Breyer, a colleague mentioned that a third legendary judge, Patricia Wald, a former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, had been named to the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and was looking for a clerk. A week later, Martinez secured an interview, and soon she and the judge were off to The Hague together.
The international court was at a crossroads, under-funded and under-appreciated, reflecting doubts about its willingness to hold people accountable for the atrocities in the Balkans. But Wald brought instant credibility to the process, with Martinez at her side, serving on the panel of judges that convicted former Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstić, the first significant genocide conviction by the tribunal, for his role in the slaughter of thousands of Muslim men and boys near Srebrenica in 1995.
Wald, who passed away at the age of 90 in January 2019, had juggled a distinguished career while raising five children and quickly became another important influence for Martinez. The judge officiated when Martinez married inventor David Graham in 2004. They now have three daughters.
Her time in The Hague cemented for Martinez a lasting interest in international human rights, which has been a focus of her career ever since. Returning to the U.S., she became a litigation associate in the appellate practice of Jenner & Block’s Washington, D.C., office. Less than a year later, following the attacks of September 11, she began lending her skills to the myriad of national security and human rights issues arising from the government’s response through pro bono work at the firm.
The case of Newman’s client, Jose Padilla—an American citizen arrested in Chicago for allegedly plotting to detonate a “dirty” bomb and then transferred to military custody and detained as an “enemy combatant”—became a flashpoint in that “war on terror.” The notion of whether the government could detain indefinitely without charges and without access to counsel an American citizen arrested on U.S. soil was a novel question that rocketed through the court system to the Supreme Court.
Martinez presented the oral argument before the Supreme Court in 2004, challenging his detention without charges. The Court ultimately remanded the case on procedural grounds without reaching the merits, but before the case could reach the Supreme Court again, the government decided to release Padilla from military custody and charge him with different crimes in federal court, in what Martinez and others see as a vindication for the rule of law. He was convicted after a trial by a civilian jury on the new charges and sentenced to federal prison.
“The Padilla experience showed her commitment to human rights and the rule of law, even at a young age, both interpersonally and legally,” says Jenner partner David DeBruin.
By 2003, Martinez had left private practice and was appointed assistant professor at SLS—juggling teaching, scholarship, an active pro bono litigation practice, and family. That work included not only the Padilla case and other “war on terror” matters but a lawsuit under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) on behalf of women sexually enslaved by the Japanese military during World War II. As a faculty member, she has served as co-counsel with Stanford’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic for cases involving international human rights claims under the ATS and the Torture Victim Protection Act. She also served on the advisory board of the public interest law arm of the Open Society Foundations, offering strategic advice and support on such matters as the prosecution of former Liberian President Charles Taylor and the establishment of gender justice mobile courts in remote areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In her scholarship, Martinez has written about a variety of contemporary issues in international and constitutional law but has also returned to her undergraduate passion for history. In The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law, she dug into the archives to write a book telling the forgotten story of a series of 19th-century international tribunals that took on the Atlantic slave trade.
“She unearthed a piece of important but little-known history: The world’s first human rights courts were not the post-World War II war crimes courts, or the European Court of Human Rights,” says David Luban, professor of law and philosophy at Georgetown Law Center. “They were special courts established in the early nineteenth century by European powers—spear-headed by Great Britain—that wanted to stamp out the slave trade.” The treaties establishing the courts allowed navies to seize the slave ships and condemn them and emancipate the slaves, in effect changing the status of slavers from lawful merchants to pirates. “Others have pointed to abolitionism as the first successful human rights movement—but Jenny’s book was the first to tell the international law story behind abolitionism,” Luban adds. “It’s a fascinating book to read, and it rewrites the history of human rights law.”
“Jenny has shown with very detailed and careful scholarship how the movement against slave trading should properly be considered an example of international human rights,” says William Dodge, professor at UC Davis School of Law, who first collaborated with Martinez “years ago” on a brief for an ATS case headed to the Supreme Court.
On September 27, 2019, Martinez led the law school in its first convocation, bringing together faculty members, students, and staff to mark the beginning of the new academic year and celebrate the Stanford Law community.
“A university education requires questioning orthodoxies, looking at things from different perspectives, and a certain rough and tumble of ideas. To work well, this requires not just openness to those new ideas, but also empathy,” Martinez told the crowd.
Before becoming dean, Martinez was already deeply immersed in life at Stanford Law—and had proved herself an effective problem-solver and community-builder having served in myriad capacities. Her committee work has led to improvements in everything from the appointments process and curriculum to diversity and inclusion.
“Any hard problem you had as a dean, you thought, ‘Well, Jenny could do this,’ ” says M. Elizabeth Magill, former law school dean, who departed the university this summer to become provost at the University of Virginia.
Magill appointed Martinez to chair the Working Group on Diversity and Inclusion, which made a series of recommendations last year to improve the student experience at the law school. Martinez led an intensive, five-month effort that was marked by broad outreach and which left no dimension of the law school unexamined.
“She was a tireless leader who really threw herself into everything we were doing,” says Biola Macaulay, JD ’19 (BA ’16), a member of the working group. Macaulay was among a group of students whose concerns led to the creation of the working group.
“To be honest, we went into it not expecting that much from the school,” she adds. “When Professor Martinez was made head of the working group, we could see how much she cared and wanted to ensure real change happened. Having her in charge was really encouraging and uplifting.”
“Because of her leadership, we took the moment, leaned into it, accomplished a lot of things very quickly, committed to others in the future, and we all stayed together,” Magill says of Martinez.
Martinez, who has taught courses including civil procedure and constitutional law, maintains a busy schedule as dean but plans to continue to teach. She is also hoping to make periodic visits to her old stomping ground at The Hague in one of the field study courses she pioneered for Stanford’s global program.
“It was an immersive week of visiting different courts and seeing how they function. We had the opportunity to watch trials and hearings and then loop back together and discuss what we had seen,” says James Barton, JD ’15 (BA ’09), who joined the first such trip and is now a senior litigation associate at WilmerHale in Washington, D.C. One of his favorite moments: a group reflection on what the students had learned and how that compared with the abstract concepts they had studied in class. Inevitably, seeing things on the ground and meeting with practitioners had changed the students’ thinking.
As with many other faculty, dozens of students have had experiences where Martinez went the extra mile, making the call to a key employer or writing a letter of recommendation.
Thanks to Martinez, Margaret Boittin, JD ’13, received a Stanford University Global Underdevelopment Action Fund Grant for a research project in Nepal to study human trafficking awareness campaigns. “She was really instrumental. She was just 500 percent on board with her support,” says Boittin, now a professor at the Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Ontario, Canada.
Adrienne Pon Harrold, JD ’18 (BA ’12), was inspired by Martinez’s own experience in public interest law and human rights. “One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from our conversations was not to be quick to rule myself out of anything,” says Harrold, now a lawyer at the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project in San Francisco. “Dean Martinez really encouraged me to achieve what I wanted to achieve and not say ‘no’ to myself.”
Andrea Cann Chandrasekher, JD ’12 (BA ’98), a professor at UC Davis School of Law, remembers how Martinez helped her find that job, her first in legal academia. “The tenure track job market can be extremely tricky to navigate but, if you’re lucky, you have a mentor to help guide you through. For me, she was that mentor, offering tips on everything from how to schedule my interviews at the AALS recruiting conference to how to give a job talk,” says Chandrasekher. “And I am super excited about what Stanford will look like under her deanship.” SL
Rick Schmitt is an attorney and former staff writer for the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.