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A passion for natural resources law flows through Associate Prof. Burke Griggs

Associate Prof. Burke Griggs brings ducks to the classroom to demonstrate natural resource law

From Washburn Law Alumni Newsletter - Fall 2018

Growing up in Denver, Colorado, Burke Griggs saw legal fights in the 1980s and 1990s over whether water in rural areas could be piped across mountain divides and provided to Denver’s growing suburbs.

“I saw how fundamental water litigation would be to some of the things I care deeply about: the rural west, public lands, and water quality,” he said.

After earning a bachelor of arts at Stanford University and a doctor of philosophy from Yale University, and teaching history at Boston College, Griggs diverted his course and earned a law degree. He’s now an associate professor at Washburn University School of Law.

“I changed careers because I became obsessed with water,” he said. “While I love studying 17th century political thought, I wanted to be involved in some of the wars that were going to take place during my lifetime, not the 17th century.”

Griggs moved to Lawrence, Kansas, his wife’s hometown, where he earned a law degree from the University of Kansas. He then practiced law in the private and public sector, notably serving as a Kansas assistant attorney general and the state’s leading water lawyer when Kansas v. Nebraska went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014.

Griggs came to Washburn in 2016 as a visiting associate professor, and the faculty quickly promoted him to associate professor. He teaches property, water law, oil and gas law, public lands law, and agricultural law. His involved teaching style includes field trips and even bringing ducks into the classroom to physically show how people put water to beneficial use.

“Property law suffers from this idea that it’s very antiquated; that these are rules from the 15th or 16th centuries,” he said. “What you see time and time again is how vital these rules still are and how they’re being applied in new and quite unexpected ways as we get into more advanced ways of thinking about our natural resources crises.”

He likes arguments in his classroom and doesn’t mind if students come out still disagreeing.

“I love when they take sides,” he said. “These are disputes that went all the way to a state supreme court or a federal court.”

He and his students are currently discussing a property case involving expanding the scope of an easement.

“What could be less interesting, right? But it touches a nerve with students,” he said. “These rules affect people quite personally. If that easement runs across your land and across generations, suddenly, you’re going to think about it a little differently.”

Washburn Law has been expanding and evolving its curriculum to address the unique needs facing rural Kansas and surrounding states.

“There’s a lot of demand for legal services in rural areas,” he said. “That’s an area many schools are walking away from, and we’re walking toward it. We see that as a growth area.

“A Washburn Law graduate, having obtained a certificate in natural resources or an oil and gas law certificate, will be so much better prepared in the basic legal structures of water, oil and gas, and environmental law.”

Griggs’s scholarship emphasizes the connections between history, law, and natural resources. He hopes his students will appreciate those connections too.

“If we can use the teaching of the law to improve students’ appreciation of water, that’s one of the reasons I’m here at Washburn,” Griggs said. “One of my favorite Supreme Court justices, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., said in one of his memorable opinions, ‘A river is more than an amenity, it is a treasure.’ He’s right.”

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