Paving the Way for the Next Generation

Two UMKC Law professors are reaching major milestones this year
Two professors standing together at a table outside UMKC School of Law.
John Ragsdale, William P. Borland Scholar and Professor of Law 

John Ragsdale (LL.M. ’72) is celebrating his 50th year of teaching at UMKC. During the past half-century, he’s seen huge shifts in his specialty, environmental law.  

“I spent all my formative years hiking and kayaking, climbing in the mountains,” Ragsdale says. “I got out of school in 1970, which is really when the environmental revolution began. Richard Nixon passed the Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act (in 1973), so that was the heart of it. This sort of tide of environmentalism wasn’t something that had existed yet.”  

In 1971, Ragsdale began teaching at UMKC. Over the years he taught a variety of subjects, but his interest in the environment always came back. He saw an opportunity to make an impact.  

“I wrote things on environmental law that convinced me there were large-scale problems, and they weren’t yet being addressed,” Ragsdale says.  

When asked what he loves about teaching, Ragsdale shies away from the image of a stern professor at the lectern. He says he enjoys when students challenge his views in class, because it shows they care deeply about the issue.  

“This is why I really love to teach,” he says. “I teach to talk to people, but it’s less to educate them than to do my presentation of what I know, what I think is important, and elicit what they think is important, too. It has to be a conversation.”  

As for what’s next for Ragsdale, he’s hoping it’s more of the same. Environmental law has changed so much over the years, but he’s still finding environmental problems that aren’t being addressed and hoping to fix those problems even 50 years later.  

Ragsdale teaching
Professor John Ragsdale (LL.M. ’72) began teaching at UMKC in 1971, making this his 50th year in the classroom.

“I have an article that’s coming out this month. It’s on Aboriginal rights to land and water. It leads into a lot of current dilemmas, and the intersection of tribal rights and the ever-encroaching, ever inexorable growth society that’s nibbling away at them at all times. That’s still going on.”  

And of course, he’s hoping he’ll continue to teach as long as he can, specifically here at UMKC. Professor Ragsdale is himself an alumnus of UMKC Law, earning his LL.M. in 1972. “God, I love this place. It’s been my home. It’s been my life. I love teaching, and I want to keep doing it. It has been exactly what I want to do. I would ask myself, ‘Would you rather be a judge? Would you rather teach at Yale?’ No. UMKC is my home, intellectually.” 

“I love this place. It’s been my home. It’s been my life. I love teaching, and I want to keep doing it.”
— John Ragsdale, William P. Borland Scholar and Professor of Law

Sean O’Brien, Professor of Law  

Sean O’Brien (J.D. ’80) is not only a professor of the UMKC School of Law, but he’s also an alumnus. He graduated in 1980 with plans to be a tax and business lawyer. He quickly discovered that wasn’t his calling and joined the public defender’s office in 1981. Three years later, he was appointed the chief public defender in Jackson County.

"I did my first death penalty case in 1983,” he says. “And I’ve been doing mostly death penalty work since then. It’s a long time, and I’m still absorbing that. In a lot of cases and a lot of projects that we do in our daily lives, we say, ‘OK, that’s good enough.’ It’s hard to be good enough when life is at stake. It’s quite a burden, and I’m still not sure what it feels like not to have that burden.”  

O'Brien teaching at the front of a classroom
Professor Sean O’Brien (J.D. ’80) is entering a new season in his career following nearly four decades as a death penalty defense attorney.

For the first time in 38 years, O’Brien does not have a client on death row. The case he just finished took 12 years to reach a decision; another before that took 20. Given the average length of cases of this nature, O’Brien feels it’s time for another season in his career.  

“I realize I don’t still want to be doing this when I’m 80. I shouldn’t still be doing this when I’m 80. I don’t want to be that lawyer who gets famous for falling asleep in court, you know? It’s time for me to let other people continue to do the work.” 

For decades, O’Brien has been doing just that: helping other people to continue what he started.

Since 1983, he has served as director of various criminal defense clinics at the UMKC School of Law, including the Public Defender Appeals Clinic, the Public Defender Trial Clinic and the Death Penalty Representation Clinic. In 2005, O’Brien began teaching at UMKC as a doctrinal professor of criminal law and procedure. He’s taught multiple criminal procedure courses, as well as courses on fact investigation and another specialized course on mental health investigations.  

“As far as I know, we’re the only law school in the region, if not the country, that offers a for-credit class in investigation,” he says. “It’s a delight to do.”  

“I realize I don’t still want to be doing this when I’m 80. … It’s time for me to let other people continue to do the work.” — Sean O'Brien (J.D. '80), Professor of Law

As for what comes next for O’Brien, he has some plans. He’s determined to create even more opportunities for students to carry on the work to which he’s dedicated more than half his life.  

“I’m thinking about creating a sentencing mitigation clinic that would focus on representing people who are in prison for lengthy terms that are applying for parole … because we’re not going to solve the problem of mass incarceration by cherry-picking innocence cases,” he says. “We won’t reject cases because you’re not worthy, you’re not innocent enough or we don’t think we can prove you’re innocent. I’m working across campus with other professors who are interested in that.” 

Learn more about School of Law

Published: Dec 21, 2021

Top Stories