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From the Courtroom to the Classroom

March 22, 2018 | By Tim Pratt

Ken Resnick is a former attorney now enrolled in the Graduate Institute in Santa Fe.

Early in Ken Resnick’s law career, he successfully argued a death penalty case before the Supreme Court of the United States. Later, he spent more than two decades as legal counsel for General Electric (GE), one of the largest corporations in the world.

Now, Resnick is enrolled in the Graduate Institute (GI) at St. John’s College in Santa Fe.

Working at the intersection of law, business and government, Resnick says he noticed that the best and most well-respected leaders had something in common.

“The truly remarkable men and women in law, business and government were people who were broad readers and broad thinkers,” he says. “I knew there was something I was missing, something that I didn’t have much time for during my career, so when I retired it occurred to me that this would be the time for me to explore this facet of life.”

Resnick is exploring those interests as a GI.

“Learning should be not just about the present; it should be about helping you navigate the future and understanding your past,” he says. “After working 30-plus years, I felt compelled to ask myself: What was I doing all that time? What was the significance of a long career in law and business? I found St. John’s gave me a vehicle, or a tool, to help understand the meaning in my life’s work.”

The Journey to Santa Fe

Resnick studied philosophy at Miami University in Ohio, then headed to the University of Georgia School of Law, where he graduated in 1981.

Resnick next headed to Cincinnati and began a career as a lawyer. He was a partner at Dinsmore & Shohl LLP for over 12 years, where he handled criminal and civil cases. In 1989, a member of the Mississippi Capital Defense Resource Center contacted Resnick about representing death row inmate Chandler Clemons. The organization believed there had been a constitutional error in the trial court proceedings for Clemons, who was convicted of capital murder in the shooting death of a pizza delivery driver.

The Mississippi Supreme Court had already affirmed Clemons’ death sentence, but the Resource Center wanted to find an attorney who would work pro bono (i.e., without remuneration) to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. The Supreme Court receives thousands of petitions from state and federal courts each year, but typically only accepts around 100 or so cases.

Resnick soon learned the court agreed to hear the case. Immediately, Clemons v. Mississippi gained national attention. Some of the most experienced death penalty lawyers and professors in the country offered to help Resnick prepare, even holding simulated moot court hearings at New York University.

“They grilled me unmercifully,” he says.

The preparation worked. The Supreme Court reversed Clemons’ death sentence and sent the case back to the state of Mississippi for a retrial. The state opted not to retry the case, and Clemons’ death penalty was converted to a life sentence.

Big Business

Resnick joined GE in 1993—first working as senior counsel in GE’s aviation business, then moving to its multi-billion dollar oil and gas business, where he served as vice president and general counsel.

The work involved business in 100 countries. During the last 10 years of his career at GE, Resnick was based at the company’s headquarters in Florence, Italy. And, throughout his career, he held a second job as an educator, first at Xavier University in Cincinnati and then in Italy, for Syracuse University’s Florence Campus.

“My career has been interesting because I had the opportunity to do a lot of very different things,” he says.

Resnick knew a bit about St. John’s in 2014 when he retired from GE and moved with his wife, Elisabeth, to Santa Fe. He had previously vacationed in New Mexico’s capital city and visited on business.

As Resnick learned more about the St. John’s great books curriculum, he decided to attend the Summer Classics program in 2017. His first Summer Classics session, with tutors Frank Pagano and Jim Carey, focused on William Faulkner’s Light in August. During the second session, with tutors Eva Brann and Patricia Greer, Resnick and his classmates examined The Odyssey.

“It was such a remarkable way of approaching these works,” Resnick says. “Reading the original texts without reference to outside sources—which I had done as a lawyer with respect to statutes, constitutions and court opinions—but also listening intently to classmates, digesting what they have said and trying then to contribute meaningfully to the discussion, I just found it to be extremely elevating.”

The experience inspired Resnick to enroll in the GI. He took a sabbatical from his teaching duties—he typically taught in Florence in the fall semester—and enrolled last fall. He believes his work at St. John’s will benefit him and his students.

“I teach courses in business ethics and international governance, and I do think the discipline I’m learning and the material I’m reading now will without a doubt make me a better teacher,” he says.

Likewise, St. John’s methodology prepares students for whatever career paths they choose, he says.

“I think it works both ways, whether you’re an undergrad or a GI and have a career ahead of you,” he says. “The skills—and subject-matter—one learns at St. John’s would be extremely valuable for someone who’s thinking about a career in law, government or business.”