High stakes: New professor enjoys challenges of criminal law


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

A Climenko Fellow and Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School for the past three years, William Ortman has joined the faculty of Wayne Law School as an assistant professor.

Ortman is teaching administrative law this semester and will teach criminal law and criminal procedure:investigations in the winter.   

“I’m looking forward to the chance to convince my students that administrative law, criminal law, and criminal procedure are endlessly fascinating,” he said.   

The son of a minister, Ortman moved around a lot in childhood, but considers Davenport, Iowa, his hometown.

He returned to the Hawkeye State after graduating from the University of Chicago Law School and clerking for Judge David S. Tatel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.   

Ortman made partner first with Berlin McCormick and then with Weinhardt & Logan, both in Des Moines, the state capital of Iowa. His practice at both firms focused on criminal defense and complex civil litigation.   

“I chose to practice in Des Moines rather than a larger city in part because of the opportunity to be in court and working with clients right away,” he said.      

“Sure enough,” Ortman said, “in my six years in practice, I tried five cases, argued many more hearings, and wrote hundreds — if not thousands — of motions and brief—– some of them on interesting issues. And right from the beginning I got to work closely with my clients.”   

Criminal defense was the part of his practice Ortman enjoyed the most.

“I enjoy the high stakes,” he said. “I like working on cases that really mattered. Criminal cases, where someone’s liberty is on the line, always matter.”   

In one case, Ortman represented a man facing a very unusual federal criminal charge: harassing birds with an airplane. This recreational pilot had flown over a lake, and — according to a person hunting birds on the lake — the plane spooked some birds, which took flight.

“After the federal government indicted my client for ‘harassing’ the alleged birds, the judge — quite correctly — threw the case out, holding that the indictment violated the void-for-vagueness doctrine,” Ortman said. “The government — quite correctly—did not appeal.”     

Another case involved a small veteran-owned taxicab company in Des Moines that had been shut out because the city imposed onerous requirements that only one taxi company could meet.

“We won an injunction in the trial court prohibiting the city from enforcing the requirements against my client,” Ortman said. “We lost the injunction after the state legislature amended the underlying state law, in response to the litigation, but it was in effect long enough for my client to get a head start.”   

Ortman is especially interested in understanding the effects of widespread plea bargaining on the criminal justice system.

“I love ‘Law & Order,” but it turns out the show, with its weekly trials, doesn’t look much like the real world of criminal justice,” he said. “The vast majority of criminal cases end in guilty pleas, not trials. That’s largely because of plea bargaining, which has been a dominant force in our criminal justice system for decades and is likely to remain that way going forward. But we still haven’t finished the hard work of adjusting our laws and institutions to that reality.”   

Ortman gives this example: in the federal system and most states, the evidentiary standard to charge someone with a crime is probable cause, a fairly low standard.    

“Using a low charging standard might make sense if what follows a charge is a trial with the reasonable doubt standard of proof,” he said. “But it’s not at all clear that a low charging standard fits a criminal justice system in which a charge is usually followed by a guilty plea.”

Ortman wrote on this topic in “Probable Cause Revisited, 68 Stanford Law Review 511 (2016).”    

“If we want to improve our criminal justice system — and we should want to improve our criminal justice system — aligning our laws and procedures to the way criminal justice is actually done ought to be near the top of the priority list,” he said.   

Ortman was initially drawn to the Harvard position for the opportunity to think and write broadly about the legal system — then discovered he loved the teaching side of the job as well.     
“Though it may not always feel that way to students, semesters go by very fast,” he said. “From my perspective at the front of the classroom, there is something very satisfying about watching the progress students can make in such a short period of time.

Ortman said Harvard was “a great place to transition from the world of law practice to the world of law teaching.”

“The part of the job I enjoyed most was my terrific students,” he said. “I taught exclusively first-year students and their energy is infectious.”   

Interviewing for the Wayne Law position was Ortman’s first time in Michigan — other than the airport — since childhood.

He and his wife Carissa, a social worker, most recently lived near Framingham, Mass., and now make their home in Beverly Hills in Oakland County.    

“One of the major differences I’m noticing immediately is that it’s so much easier to get around in Michigan — the roads and highways are vastly superior to those in Massachusetts,” Ortman said.