Hon. Deanell Reece Tacha (Ret.) has led a fascinating life. The key to her journey? She says firmly: “Don’t plan too much.” Too many people think they know exactly they want in life and set out to get it, but Tacha found that the best experiences came when she let life lead her.
Judge Tacha grew up in Kansas and earned her B.A. at the University of Kansas. After she completed law school in Michigan and spent some years working in Washington D.C. during the Nixon administration, she faced the choice to stay in the East or to return to her home state. Beckoning her back was marriage to a fellow she had known for a long time.
Tacha decided to return and reports that she has never regretted her choice. But she did find herself facing a professional challenge: she could not get a job as an attorney in small-town Kansas. Finally she found someone with whom to share an office in Concordia, KS, and hung out her own shingle. Practicing law and raising a young family meant she learned to “set priorities and follow them,” says Tacha.
Eventually, Tacha moved to Lawrence and joined the law faculty at KU. She became Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs there. In 1985, Ronald Reagan appointed her to the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit where she served for 20 years, including seven years as Chief Judge of the court.
Being a judge was the “best,” according to Tacha. She describes her job as straightforward, if not easy: “Do the right thing.” She loved her colleagues in the judicial system; they were brilliant, kind, and thoughtful people. The worst thing about being a judge was the confining nature of the work. Ethically, she could not talk about anything related to her cases, and she could not raise money for causes she believed in. More than anything, she found she missed being with young people.
To reconnect to the younger generation, Tacha took another unanticipated career turn. After she retired from the federal bench in 2011, she accepted the role of Dean of the Law School at Pepperdine University. Again, she enjoyed her work thoroughly, but after five years, the traffic and crowds in California and the distance from her husband who remained in Kansas called her back home.
Now Tacha is focused on activities in Lawrence. She is on the boards of DCCF, Watkins Museum, and Freedom Frontier. In addition, she does a few mediations for disputes within JAMS.
Tacha commented about a few “notable moments” during her judicial career. On the morning of 9/11/2001, for example, she was in a conference room at SCOTUS with a number of other justices. The meeting began promptly at 9:00 a.m., chaired by Chief Justice Rehnquist. With the hour, they all were evacuated because of the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. She ended up spending seven hours in isolation in the basement of her hotel that day, hidden from potential danger.
When Tacha worked for the 10th Circuit court, many cases involved use of public lands in the six states under that jurisdiction. She chuckles when she declares that she probably knows more about wolves than most people because she had to rule more than once about their status as a protected species. Tacha acknowledges the huge role that falls to the courts to make decisions about the extent and appropriateness of administrative regulations of all kinds. The statutes themselves are usually not specific when passed through Congress, so administrative regulation creates “invisible law.” The courts then interpret and evaluate the regulations, making judgments to balance the amount of control a federal agency has in a situation against potential overstep.
Death penalty cases were especially stressful. Tacha says she coped with the weight of such decisions by reminding herself that she needed to focus on following the rules of the applicable law, not to make judgments about the cases that brought particular individuals to death row.
When asked for opinions, Tacha remains very careful about choosing her words. She did declare, when asked, that she would prefer stability rather than changes in the structure of the Supreme Court.