Law professor's death staggers UW

By Robert Marshall Wells
Seattle Times staff reporter

Joan Fitzpatrick

News about the unexpected death of prominent University of Washington law professor Joan Fitzpatrick has left colleagues and students struggling to process the loss and recognize the pressures often associated with the legal profession.

"Joan Fitzpatrick was an absolutely brilliant teacher. She was one of the world's pre-eminent scholars in international affairs," said UW Law School Dean W.H. "Joe" Knight Jr. "Our loss of Joan is a loss for the world."

Fitzpatrick's body was discovered at her home May 16 by a family friend. UW officials and family members say Fitzpatrick's death appeared to be a suicide.

Two months ago, Fitzpatrick, 52, was struck by a car while crossing a Seattle street and suffered an injured tailbone. Fitzpatrick went on medical leave earlier this month, at least partly because of the injury.

Fitzpatrick's mother, Gabrielle Fitzpatrick of El Paso, Texas, said the demands of her daughter's teaching job and her involvement with numerous human-rights publications and international organizations may have contributed to a bout of depression.

"She apparently was in a depressed state and not feeling well," Gabrielle Fitzpatrick said. "We were devastated. We can't get over it. She just didn't confide in us. She just didn't want to worry us, I think."

A UW faculty member since 1984, Fitzpatrick enjoyed a global reputation as an outspoken defender of human rights, refugees and immigrants. She wrote six books, published dozens of law review and journal articles and served on numerous advisory boards, councils and committees across the nation and around the world.

In addition to teaching at the UW, Fitzpatrick spent most summers in England, teaching in Oxford University's summer International Human Rights Law Program.

Elizabeth Farnam, a third-year law student at the UW, said Fitzpatrick's dedication and passion for the law were an inspiration to students.

"She was a real role model for me," said Farnam, 25. "It just seemed like she had the perfect career. It's sad to see that cut short for her."

Ken Levinson, 28, a second-year UW law student, said Fitzpatrick was a driven professional who always took the time to encourage others.

"This was a person to try to emulate," said Levinson. "She inspired action. She was just an amazingly passionate woman."

Ronald Slye, a Seattle University Law School professor who knew Fitzpatrick for more than a decade and worked with her on numerous projects and articles, said she was always on the go.

"She was amazingly prolific," Slye said. "She was teaching her classes. She was constantly publishing. And she was constantly traveling."

Some students have grumbled the UW Law School was slow to disseminate information about Fitzpatrick's death. But the dean said the school informed students and faculty of Fitzpatrick's death Sunday night via e-mail. Since then, the school has sponsored two meetings this week with a mental-health professional.

Knight said the sessions were aimed at giving faculty and students an opportunity to talk about Fitzpatrick as well as the pressure under which lawyers often find themselves.

"Obviously, there are pressures," Knight said. "Lawyers place extraordinary pressures on ourselves. There are always dangers that you can take on too much. (Fitzpatrick) always thought she could juggle more."

UW officials said a memorial service for Fitzpatrick is tentatively planned for June 3, although details are not likely to be available until next week. Fitzpatrick's family says funeral arrangements also will be made by the end of next week.

In addition to her mother, Fitzpatrick is survived by a son, Devin, of Seattle; two sisters, Anne Fitzpatrick of Evanston, Ill., and Kathleen Kittle of Englewood, Colo.; three brothers, Kevin Fitzpatrick of Oakland, Calif., John Fitzpatrick of Little Rock, Ark., and Brian Fitzpatrick of Aurora, Colo., and a host of aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, extended family and friends.