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October 29, 1998

Travel, running, woodworking provide diversions for law prof

Nearly a million frequent-flyer miles over five continents, not counting scores of light-plane excursions over the Alaskan tundra. Three marathons run. For a hobby, he builds houses. This is a law professor? Douglas M. Branson is in fact the inaugural W. Edward Sell Professor of Business Law, the first endowed faculty position at Pitt's law school.

An incurable case of wanderlust keeps Branson on the go. "I'm restless, high-energy. I was what was called hyperactive as a child. My ex-wife says I have a demon in me. We spent every third summer traveling in Europe, even when the kids were little." Branson had graduated from Notre Dame with a B.A. in economics and was in the Navy when he decided he wanted to go to law school.

"In fact, I was in Vietnam when a mortar attack began on the compound while I was taking the LSAT. The proctor, who was my superior officer, would not allow any extra time. There we were on the floor under desks, and I'm shuffling papers and looking for the pencil." But he did well enough to secure a scholarship to Northwestern law school, where he earned his J.D. degree.

Later, Branson graduated from the University of Virginia Law School with a master of legal letters degree, and after working for three years with a Chicago law firm was recruited to teach at a new law school in Seattle. "When we got to Seattle, I built a house I still own on two and a half acres on an island there. I had a general contractor, but I was the sub-contractor. I like to swing a hammer and butcher wood. I'm never happier than when I'm building something. I think for people who deal in cerebral things, it's an antidote; it's tangible." Branson has taught, literally, all over the map.

He has been a visiting professor or lecturer at the University of Alabama, as Charles Tweedy Distinguished Visiting Professor; the University of Oregon (where younger daughter Annie is now an undergraduate); Cornell University; Arizona State University; and universities in England and New Zealand. He holds a permanent faculty appointment at the University of Melbourne, Australia, in the master of laws program, where he team-teaches the course Corporate Governance each (Northern Hemisphere) spring.

His expertise in corporate law is what lands him in our 49th state once or twice a year on average, going back to the late '70s.

"I go four to six days at a time, but never as a tourist, always working, as an expert witness or to assist in a case. I'm not licensed by the bar there, but I spent a total of 68 days there in 1993," Branson says.

Branson's treks to Alaska began with a 1976 invitation to do a presentation at the Alaska Bar Association's annual meeting. "Which as it happens that year was held in Kauai, Hawaii!" he says with a laugh.

The following year, Branson was called to Alaska as an expert witness in a case involving native Alaskan corporations, which had just been established. Following construction of the oil pipeline in the 1970s, the U.S. Congress set aside for native Alaskans 44 million square miles, one-seventh of the state, plus $1 billion. But they didn't give the land and money directly to the natives, instead establishing corporations. "These are resource-rich areas, with piano-spruce, access to fisheries, especially in southeast Alaska," Branson says.

"However, native rights advocate lawyers have sold the natives a bill of goods: that they can do anything they want as an aboriginal people, that they have 'tribal status,' that they're not subject to the laws of the land. They're told by their lawyers, 'We'll defend you till your last dime!' But they are not a sovereign people." In 1993, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, held that the establishment of a corporate settlement abolishes the concept of autonomous Indian settlements, for taxing purposes, property rights, policing and so on, and this decision has been applied to the native Alaskan corporation settlement.

"I think the decision was fair. Corporate vehicles are convenient. It's too late to roll back the clock." But there have been problems, Branson argues. "Board members have acted like political entities or camp directors telling people what to do. As a result, some shareholders have been excluded. "And it's very sad to see these native kids. They go to Seattle or Portland or a lower-48 junior college and very few of them can cut it the 'big world.' And when they go back to the village, they can't cut it there either. They're put in two worlds and don't belong in either of them. Alcoholism is rampant, even alcohol poisoning is, and there's a high suicide rate." r Evidence of Branson's more traditional law credentials include authorship of five books and teaching at the Seattle University School of Law for some 20 years. A sixth book, "Understanding Corporate Law," is due out in December, co-authored with Arthur Pinto of the Brooklyn School of Law. And then, beginning in 1996, the Sell professorship. "Everyone in legal education knows Ed Sell, and I admire him. I'm very pleased to be the first Sell professor." Sell is Distinguished Professor emeritus and former Pitt law dean, who has served almost 50 years at the school and is considered the father of Pennsylvania's 1988 modern business corporation statute.

Branson takes advantage of summers off from law school classes.

"This summer," says Branson, "I went to the University of Capetown, South Africa, and lectured in basic legal principles. Africa is not as Third World as people believe, at least where I was. The only Third World country I saw was Zambia.

"I've been to many Third World countries: Vietnam, twice — I went back in 1995 — Indonesia, the Philippines. I like the hustle and bustle of the Third World, as long as I have a few creature comforts. You think going to Capetown you have to pack cases of food, but actually, there is good food there, it's cheap, the school is prestigious and it attracts a lot of Europeans." As for future travel plans, Branson says he's going to Guatemala and Costa Rica over the University's holiday break with his daughters, Annie and Clare, who is now in graduate school in communications at Washington University in Seattle. "And I want to go to Argentina and Chile," he says. "Eventually, I'll get there." Given his track record, he undoubtedly will.

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 31 Issue 5

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