David Dolinko, a devoted member of the UCLA School of Law community for more than four decades and noted authority in criminal law and the philosophy of punishment, died on Dec. 30 due to complications from COVID-19. He was 72.
A graduate of New York’s Bronx High School of Science and Columbia University, Dolinko came to UCLA in 1969 as a philosophy graduate student. Several years later, he entered the law school, where he was a standout student and served as editor-in-chief of the UCLA Law Review. There, he met classmate and fellow Vol. 27 editor Feris Greenberger, and they later married, cementing a relationship that lasted for more than 40 years.
After graduating from the law school in 1980, Dolinko clerked for Judge Harry Pregerson on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and then earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from UCLA in 1982.
That year, he joined the UCLA Law faculty, where, for the next 35 years, he taught criminal law and constitutional criminal procedure, as well as seminars on the status of moral rights, problems of legal ethics, the nature of punishment, and the morality of capital punishment. A beloved professor known for his appreciation of music and abiding love of ducks, Dolinko mentored generations of students and received UCLA Law’s Rutter Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1998. He retired to emeritus status in 2017 but continued to teach and planned to offer a seminar on the philosophy of punishment next semester.
“David was brilliant, intellectually serious, enormously knowledgeable and also deeply caring — and he had an amazing dry wit and a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. His work in the philosophy of criminal law stands out for its probing insight and incisiveness,” said UCLA Law Dean Jennifer L. Mnookin. “All of us are truly shocked and deeply saddened by his sudden and unexpected death.”
Dolinko published dozens of articles and reviews, plus two books: “The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Criminal Law,” edited with John Deigh (Oxford University Press, 2011), and “The Theoretical and Philosophical Foundations of Criminal Law” (Routledge, 2014).
Colleagues recall his ability to compellingly expound on some of his main areas of research, including the death penalty and retributive justice, noting that his sharp legal mind, generosity and keen sense of justice benefitted them and their work while he inspired his students.
California Court of Appeal Justice John Shepard Wiley Jr., a close friend and collaborator who served on the UCLA Law faculty for more than two decades, remembers Dolinko as “a true scholar, a beloved teacher, a profound thinker and a really fun guy.”
“David awed me,” Wiley said. “I still recall vividly the faculty tenure discussion about his article about the supposed right against self-incrimination. David’s work was so profound that it literally shocked some of our colleagues — they were reeling. They hated his conclusions but could not muster intelligible responses. I was so impressed by the power of David’s analysis. It remains a landmark work.
“David was such a delight as a person: deeply himself, apparently mild, explosively passionate, perpetually self-critical and perpetually self-deprecating. He was an aficionado of hamburgers and a scary driver. He once drove me to a midtown hamburger joint, and what I recall was not the hamburgers but his terrifying driving,” Wiley continued. “He had this thing about ducks, there was no end of the duck stuff. I once was in a little reading group with David and Steve Munzer. I tried to disagree with David on some point, and David could not stand my bad logic; he crushed my point with an annihilating one-liner. It wasn’t mean. It was reflexive. I concluded you could joke around with David all day long, but you better be very ready if you wanted to argue with him.”
Distinguished Research Professor of Law Stephen Munzer also remembers joining the UCLA Law faculty alongside Dolinko in the early 1980s and sharing a close friendship and bond over the philosophy of law for more than 38 years.
“David was extremely smart and wrote with admirable clarity. He was a generous critic and improved everything of mine he touched,” Munzer said. “David had a gift for rigorous analytical thinking and writing. His comments on works in progress were always helpful and never captious or mean-spirited. He was a superb contributor to discussion groups. The last such group we were in was with Herb Morris on Derek Parfit’s multi-volume work ‘On What Matters.’
“David was a generous and loyal friend. Even though he was abler than I, he made it a friendship of equals,” Munzer said. “That a guy from the Bronx High School of Science could find common ground with a boy from a small town in Kansas was no mean feat. I loved David’s unending fascination with ducks and his sympathy for them. A few days before David passed away, there came into my hands a cartoon that a showed a duck flying over a marsh, with a determined look on his face and his feet carrying a shotgun. David would have approved.”
Dolinko’s survivors include his wife and a sister, Linda Van Buren, of Yonkers, New York. Plans for memorial services are underway, and his family welcomes donations to UCLA Law or the UCLA Department of Philosophy in his memory.