A milestone for a book series that’s shaped the way we think about the law

By Peter Rooney

The goal more than 20 years ago was both straightforward and audacious. Not content with launching a new
Amherst program, planning the first legal studies department at a liberal arts college and pursuing their own research, Professor Austin Sarat and then-colleague Thomas Kearns wanted to help shape a national discussion about the place of law in the liberal arts and to put their conception of interdisciplinary legal scholarship on the map in a big way.

They agreed that the way to do that was to identify the most important issues in the emerging field of legal studies, invite prominent scholars to campus to lecture about them and then put the lectures together, along with their own contributions, in a series of books.

During a recent interview in his Clark House office, Sarat explained that for a model, he and Kearns looked no further than the college’s American studies department, which, during the preceding decades, had published an influential book series that helped burnish Amherst’s reputation in what was then an emerging discipline.

Sarat and Kearns pitched the notion, and in 1991 the University of Michigan Press published The Fate of Law, the
first book in the Amherst Series on Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought. Other books followed, about one a year. In 2005 Stanford University Press took over publication.

Earlier this year, the series celebrated a milestone: the publication of its 20th book, Law and the Stranger, which is about immigration and is edited by Sarat and LJST colleagues Lawrence Douglas and Martha Merrill Umphrey.

Sarat has edited or co-edited each book in the series. He notes with satisfaction that while the books may not be featured on Oprah any time soon, they continue to shape “the way scholars and students across the country think about the most vexing legal issues.” The books have been used in college courses and have generated new courses. Contributors have ranged from public intellectual gadfly Stanley Fish to Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow.

The interview over, Sarat is ready to return some of the calls and e-mails that have loudly announced their arrival over the past 30 minutes. Before he turns to that work, though, he darts to his computer and pulls up the description of an upcoming book in the series: Law and War, which will be based on the 2010-11 lecture series.

“It’s going to be terrific,” he says.