Office Hours: Professor John F. Banzhaf III by Stephanie Levitt
His hobby is suing people. He convinced his own father to stop smoking. He has been interviewed by Stephen Colbert. He organized the first anti-smoking organization, made several appearances on Super Size Me, and believes that smokers and the obese should have higher health insurance payments than other citizens. He’s also been kicked out of a McDonald’s in Virginia.
Who is this GW Law professor?
It’s John Banzhaf, Professor of Torts, Administrative Law, Disabled People and the Law, Law and the Deaf, and Legal Activism.
After graduating from MIT with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, why did Professor Banzhaf decide to go to law school?
“I don’t know,” he said. But he believes that his background in science helped him to remain relaxed during his student experience at Columbia Law. “Lots of students are very scared when they come to law school,” he said. “You want to prove yourself. If you can succeed in law school, you will prove to yourself that you really have it. I didn’t have that. If I didn’t fit into this weird-ass culture of law school, it didn’t make any difference to me. I had a degree from MIT. I had two U.S. patents and had written ten technical papers. I was solid.”
At his alma mater, Columbia Law, Professor Banzhaf said he believes he would have been voted “least likely to become a public interest lawyer.” His main goal, post-graduation, was to become a patent lawyer. Why? “They made more money than anyone else.”
Professor Banzhaf knew the value of money. He worked his way through law school as a gigolo – that is, a man who is paid to dance a jig with a woman. He spent his summers traveling the world as an employee on a cruise ship. His main duty: to dance with the ladies at dusk.
While in school, after a flippant challenge from his professor, a well-respected judge in New York, Professor Banzhaf wrote and published his own Law Review article as a 2L. The article discussed weighted voting calculations and introduced a mathematical concept self-entitled the Banzhaf Index.
It was around this time that, though he was an editor of Columbia’s Law Review, he began to form an opinion about Law Review articles.
“Law review articles are damn near worthless or worse,” said Banzhaf. “They’re just professors opining about topics. If you have new ideas for legal rules, principles, strategies or tactics…rather than waste your time sending them to be judged by third-year law students, why not test them in the real world on people who are qualified to evaluate them like judges, legislators, and regulators, rather than third-year law students?”
After his own article was published in Columbia’s Law Review, Professor Banzhaf submitted his paper on the Banzhaf Index to the Court of Appeals of New York.
“God damn if they didn’t rule in my favor. The highest court in New York ruled that if you have weighted voting in New York State, it must be according to the Banzhaf Index calculation. That’s when I began to develop the theory that, if you have a good idea, don’t just stick it in the law review. Do something with it. See if you can get it going.”
The free time afforded by his dismissal of Law Review articles has allowed Professor Banzhaf to organize and head Action on Smoking and Health, America’s first anti-smoking legal action organization.
His anti-tobacco sentiments came not from any inherent issue with smoking, but rather from watching TV one Thanksgiving with his father, a smoker, and feeling inundated by cigarette commercials.
He wrote a complaint to CNN that would change his life forever. Though CNN didn’t answer his complaint, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) did—and with an overwhelming response, thanks to the Fairness Doctrine.
Later abolished in 1987, the Fairness Doctrine stipulated that any radio or television station broadcasting biased commercials on controversial public issues must provide time for the opposite opinion to be broadcast as well. With the combination of Professor Banzhaf’s complaint and the Fairness Doctrine, television stations had to open up airtime to anti-smoking campaigns – for free.
Professor Banzhaf hadn’t intentionally started the anti-smoking crusade. In fact, after he wrote the original CNN complaint, he accepted a job with a law firm whose major client was Philip Morris, the nation’s leading cigarette manufacturer. Professor Banzhaf began to realize something.
“I was getting tremendous pay, and virtually no satisfaction,” he said. He decided that maybe being a public interest lawyer wouldn’t be so bad.
He took on the challenge of helping health organizations to run their anti-smoking ads. “There I was,” he said, “– just graduated from law school – and I saw the anti-smoking messages appear on the air. People came up to me saying, ‘You know, I saw your message on TV. I quit smoking.’ Somebody wrote an article and it said, ‘This young lawyer from Columbia Law School has probably saved more lives than any physician alive today.’ That’s pretty heavy stuff for someone who’s twenty-six. It literally turned me around.”
His own father quit smoking after the televised warnings first appeared.
Despite his influence in the area of public interest, Professor Banzhaf doesn’t view himself as an advocate. “I’m not a crusader. I look for areas where I can put in the least and get the most – the biggest bang for my buck. A three-page letter and an eight-cent stamp got hundreds of thousands of dollars for anti-smoking ads. You can’t get much better than that.”
According to Professor Banzhaf, everybody uses legal action in this day and age. For him personally, it’s a hobby. He said, “There have been a number of situations where I saw an article in the Washington Post and thought ‘Hey, I ought to get into that.’ Not because of any long-standing professional interest.” He throws himself into legal actions which interest him. In the ‘60’s it was anti-smoking; later on, it became obesity, then sexual discrimination in restroom facilities and now, differential health insurance premiums.
“Since I don’t write law review articles,” he maintained, “I have the same amount of time to put into legal activism – that is, using law in the real world.”
Professor Banzhaf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He maintains a website detailing his many accomplishments and appearances, as well as a number of personal anecdotes. Visit www.banzhaf.net for more information.
Stephanie Levitt is a 1L at GW Law. She welcomes comments at email@example.com.