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The unexpected directions of the Holy Spirit

In a prior column, I wrote about times in my spiritual journey where the voice of our Heavenly Father has been clear (mostly in telling me I need to read the Psalms more frequently). And while it’s true that there are times where God speaks with what St. Ignatius would call a “clarity beyond doubt,” those are the exceptions that prove the cloudy rule: It’s hard to discern the voice of God as we strive to have a handle on the day to day. Sometimes, the Holy Spirit instead opts to speak through circumstances so otherwise implausible that if they were the basis for a claim in federal court, the judge would 12(b)(6) that claim so fast you couldn’t even say “Twiqbal.”

This summer is an example. On the good word of a friend who had participated in the program the summer before, I applied and was accepted to a summer fellowship run by The Fund for American Studies, or TFAS for short. This alone was a curveball; I was not even vaguely familiar with TFAS before my friend participated in the program, so if you had asked me in undergrad or even during 1L how I was going to be spending my post-2L summer, this program would not have even been on my radar.

Nonetheless, it became clear as the summer progressed that TFAS had three main things to offer its fellows: professional development, a seminar on originalism through George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School and internship matching. TFAS had a rockstar professional development schedule, with federal judges from all across the country speaking on all sorts of topics, a recruiter from the DOJ encouraging applications to the DOJ Honors program and meet-ups with assigned mentors who were alumni of the TFAS fellowship. The originalism seminar with Prof. Jeremy Rabkin was likewise a solid opportunity to evaluate the judicial philosophy by which a majority of justices of the U.S. Supreme Court interpret the Constitution.

But it was TFAS’ internship-matching program that turned one curveball into two. One alumnus of TFAS is Peter Feldman, a commissioner at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (yes, that Consumer Product Safety Commission with the somewhat edgy Twitter account). He told the internship coordinator at TFAS that he would be interested in bringing a fellow on for the summer. And my coordinator, working through the group of 20 or so of us that were fellow for the summer, decided that I would be a good fit, recommended I apply and flagged my application to Commissioner Feldman. Keep in mind: While I’d taken torts in 1L and knew a thing or two about products liability, I hadn’t even the beginnings of an understanding about what the federal government had to do with any of it. Nonetheless, after an interview with Commissioner Feldman and his staff, I was offered a position as Commissioner Feldman’s legal intern for the summer, working in Bethesda, MD.

I learned so much while at the Commission. For instance, now I know that section 15(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act gives every company in the United States who sells consumer products (that aren’t otherwise regulated by, for instance, the Food and Drug Administration or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for cars) an affirmative duty to report manufacturing or design defects to the Commission once the company knows about them, so the Commission can work with the company to either recall the product or take other corrective action. 

Companies that fail to report defects in a timely manner are slapped with civil (and sometimes even criminal) penalties. One of my main responsibilities while working for Commissioner Feldman was helping him articulate a coherent philosophy surrounding when (and how much) companies should be penalized for failing to report defects (or even selling recalled products). But conversely, because giving the Commission all this information about company products is a major trade secret risk, the Commission is barred from releasing any company-specific information to the general public, unless they give enough notice to the company that it can exercise its due process rights should it wish to do so. 

All of this might give you a better understanding of how the Consumer Product Safety Commission works, but how does that relate to what I promised with this column’s title and introduction — the more subtle ways the Holy Spirit works in our lives? Great question, and to answer, let me say a few words about my boss this summer, Peter Feldman.

Peter is the kind of individual who can go from drafting a press statement on why the CPSC’s recent civil penalties make no sense to giving a keynote to the undergraduate division of TFAS on how Tocqueville’s insights on free associations underpin much of the work he does on the Commission, all before lunch. Peter (and his counsel, Doug Dziak and Thomas Fuller) taught me too much about the workings of federal bureaucracy to encapsulate in a thousand-word piece like this one, but far more importantly, I learned this summer how principled collegiality works in practice. Too often, those committed to principles are willing to defend those principles to the point of being caustic towards colleagues who don’t share those principles, while others are willing to sell their principles in the name of building relationships. Peter showed me how to avoid falling into both traps while at the Commission, by boldly and consistently speaking out against policy decisions he disagreed with while maintaining exceptionally collegial relationships with the other four members of the Commission.

In short, while neither TFAS nor CPSC were anywhere close to how I thought my 2L summer would look, both experiences were exactly where the Holy Spirit was moving me at this stage in my life. The unexpected directions He led me this summer have filled me with nothing but gratitude, and now in Peter I not only have a mentor and a resource as I start more broadly researching and writing on consumer product safety issues, but a principled man for whom I am blessed and honored to have worked. In these weeks to come, as we make decisions about what summer internships to go after, or even what we aim to do after graduation (if there are any federal judges reading this column, I’m still on the clerkship market!), may we give God some room to lead us in similarly unexpected directions. 

Devin Humphreys is a 3L at Notre Dame Law School. When he isn’t serving as the sacristan at the Law School Chapel or competing at a quiz bowl tournament, he’s sharing his thoughts on the legal developments of the day with anyone who will listen. For advice on law school, hot takes on Mass music and free scholarly publication ideas, reach out to Devin at dhumphr2@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Devin Humphreys

Contact Devin at dhumphr2@nd.edu