Social reform, legal reform

An annual Law School conference that has always brought the worlds of public interest law and social science together took an academic turn this year.

The presenters at the 20th Edward V. Sparer Symposium, entitled “Social Movements and Law Reform,” were all professors. And for the first time, the proceedings of the symposium will be published — in the fall 2001 issue of the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

“We’re giving birth to a new, interdisciplinary cross-fertilization between social sciences and the law,” said Susan Feathers, Director of the Public Interest Law program at the Penn Law School and the mastermind behind the conference.

Unlike most academic conferences, where other scholars prepare responses to professors’ papers, here the commentators were professionals in public interest law and social sciences.

Thus Reva Siegel, a Yale law professor who spoke about gender and the Constitution, was followed by a speaker from the National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund. University of Texas Professor William Forbath’s paper on how social movements frequently rely on the state for resources got a response from local Community Legal Services lawyer Sharon Dietrich.

Siegel offered the Philadelphia-based Kensington Welfare Rights Union as an exception to Forbath’s theory. KWRU often bypasses the state by taking over abandoned buildings as housing for homeless families, and framing poverty as an issue of international human rights.

Yale’s William Eskridge, speaking on the gay and lesbian movement, was paired with Andrew Park, former executive director of Philadelphia’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights. Eskridge had talked about how the “politics of recognition” promoted by the gay and lesbian movement had given rise to a counterforce from the right which he called the “politics of preservation.” Both sides have succeeded in getting laws passed in their own interests, from anti-discrimination legislation to anti-same-sex-marriage statutes. “We have to measure success not in number of laws passed but in the number of people being mistreated,” Park cautioned.

Feathers called the event a success. “We’re always talking about theory and practice; I felt like it was really happening at this conference,” she said.

Penn Law Professor Ed Rubin said that social scientists and legal scholars looking at social movements are studying different things. “Social scientists rarely look at the effects social movements have on the substance of the law. Legal scholars only look at the movements where they interact with legal decision-makers.”

He said social science scholarship could still help the legal world. Nonprofit organizations, for example, are usually denied standing to file suits in court, because standing is only granted to parties who can show they are being harmed. Social science, Rubin said, could help lawyers show that an organization represented a movement of aggrieved individuals and therefore merited legal standing.

Feathers called the conference a perfect complement to Penn Law’s award-winning public service program. “Penn is absolutely at the forefront in this kind of work,” she said.

Originally published on March 22, 2001