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Dayton Docket

Benches and Beaches

By Carole Judge

After several years in the United States Air Force, Daniel Rafferty ‘22, was ready for a new career. Despite offers from multiple law schools, he chose Dayton Law, not only because of a generous scholarship, but because he had fallen in love with the Miami Valley during his years stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. “Plus,” he confessed, “the physical environment of Keller Hall trumped whatever other schools offered.” 

“When you’ve spent the greater part of seven years working inside windowless Cold War-era government buildings, you really come to appreciate access to natural light and vaulted ceilings,” he added. Currently, after finishing law school in the midst of world-wide COVID lockdowns, Rafferty finds himself in a setting where sunlight, fresh air, and beauty surround him every day. 

As a clerk for the Chief Justice in American Samoa, a U.S. territory located just 14 degrees south of the equator (six to seven hours behind Eastern Standard Time), he and his colleagues are working hard to get ahead of years of backlogged cases.

“We are hearing appellate oral arguments for the first time in years,” he said, “and the criminal docket extends almost a decade.” According to Rafferty, cases can be as intricate and uncommon as the territory’s landscape, with many cases — including all criminal cases — involving a Samoan translator to respect the two official languages. Some legal issues, like those involving oil protections or maritime sanctuaries, have a more prominent place in the South Pacific islands where he spends his weekends hiking through rainforests and snorkeling reefs.

But how he got there is a story of persistence and Rafferty’s refusal to allow obstacles to get in the way of his goals, particularly when he started his law career later than many of his classmates. He was concerned that typical career milestones wouldn’t come easily. 

“When I started law school, I had just been medically retired from the Air Force and hadn’t been in a traditional classroom setting for years. As a non-traditional student I knew I needed to find opportunities that would make me competitive, especially compared to lawyers my age who had been practicing for almost a decade. As I saw it, the best way I could catch up on legal experience was to maximize my exposure to diverse legal areas over short periods of time. A judicial clerkship was the best way I could do that, and American Samoa provided me that opportunity,” he explained.

And while most of his day-to-day work aligns with what he learned in law school, “atypical” comes in where Samoa’s culture and customs meet American legal principles.

“In my short time here, I’ve done my share of standard civil procedure, probate, business, criminal matters, you name it. And I’m grateful for that baseline gained from classes taught by Professors Watson, Leske, Schmitt, Cox, Huffman, Welbaum, and Hoffmeister. Yet the differences are notable in cases involving land and family chieftain titles, known as ‘matai,’ so statutes and rules of evidence or procedure adjust to reflect those cultural priorities,” he clarified.

Moving forward, Rafferty hopes to continue developing legal expertise across a broad range of subject matters and feels this unique clerkship will expose him to numerous practice areas to further enhance a resume that includes a degree in chemistry along with his military service.

“I took the LSAT the day after I out-processed from active duty, finished up a master’s degree, then immediately plunged into law school. Then came the pandemic and all the uncertainties it brought to the law school experience,” he recalled. But after growing up in a military family and serving himself, Rafferty had already learned to make the best of situations outside his control.

“At the risk of sounding cliché, don’t be afraid to dream big. Be bold and willing to reach out to people.  I knew I wanted to make myself more prepared for a future federal clerkship, so I went out of my way to network with legal professionals who could advise me on ways to make that dream a reality. Granted, that meant updating my expectations on how quickly or easily those opportunities would come along,” he admitted.

With this sink or swim philosophy, it’s easy to see how learning about a new culture and working on the other side of the globe is just another part of his life’s adventures.

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