August 2, 2010

By Peter Rooney

The goal more than 20 years ago was both straightforward and audacious.

Not content with launching a new Amherst program, with planning the first legal studies department at a liberal arts college or with pursuing their individual 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 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, invite prominent scholars to campus to lecture about them and then put those lectures together along with their own contributions, in a series of books, ideally published by a leading scholarly press.

For their model, they looked no further than the college’s American Studies department, which had published an influential series of books during the preceding decades that had been warmly received in academia and helped burnish the reputation of AmherstCollege’s contribution to an emerging scholarly discipline.

They pitched the notion, and in 1991, the University of Michigan Press published the first book of the series, The Fate of Law. Other books followed, about one year. Then, in 2005, Stanford University Press took over publication of the increasingly distinguished book series.

This summer, Law and the Stranger, the 20th book in the Amherst Series in Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought, was released. Edited by Sarat and his colleagues Lawrence Douglas and Martha Merrill Umphrey, the latest book reflects on how dealing with strangers challenges the laws and communities that invite or parry them.

During a recent interview in his office at Clark House, Sarat noted with satisfaction that while the books may not be featured on Oprah anytime soon, they continue to make their mark – and that of AmherstCollege – in the marketplace of ideas, with contributors ranging from public intellectual gadfly Stanley Fish to Martha Minow, the dean of HarvardLawSchool.

“These books are addressed to scholars and students interested in law and the liberal arts. The hope is to shape the way scholars and students across the country think about the most vexing legal issues” Sarat says. “For example, publishing Law and the Stranger may lead to a different way of thinking about the hot button issue of immigration so that people begin to be see it as a specific example of a more general phenomenon of the way law thinks about and deals with strangers of all kinds. Also, we hope these books will be used in existing college courses and also that they will help generate new courses and new ways of thinking about law.”

Titles of books produced over the years include Rhetoric of Law; Law’s Violence; Law in Everyday LifeJustice and Injustice in Law and Legal Theory; History, Memory and the Law; Human Rights; Law’s Madness; Law on the Screen; Law and Catastrophe;  and Law and the Sacred.

A book based upon last year’s lecture series, Imagining New Legalities: Privacy and Its Possibilities in the 21st Century, is in the editing process, says Sarat, who explains how he and colleagues in the LJST department identify compelling topics:

“We typically meet in January and ask, ‘What’s going on in the field of interdisciplinary legal studies? What issues have we identified as centrally important to that field? What things is the department  working on? ‘ From those questions we craft a theme.  And then, once the lecture series starts, every month we have an outside scholar come in. They present an original paper addressing the issues we have identified . We ask them in essence to join us as collaborators in working on an agenda developed at Amherst. ”

The end result is a win for both sides. The LJST department, through the publication of another book, continues its singular contribution to the field of legal studies and the liberal arts. And what’s in it for the authors?

“They are engaged in an exciting process that puts them on the cutting edge of the field,” Sarat says. “But more than that, they get what any of us want -- serious attention to their work.”

The interview is over, and Sarat is ready to return some of the several calls and emails that have loudly announced their arrival since our conversation began about 30 minutes ago. Before he turns to that work, though, he darts to his computer and pulls up the description of the 2010-11 series, and the next book in the series: Law and War.

“It’s going to be terrific,” he says, and then predicts that the LJST book series will remain vibrant well into the future.

“Our enthusiasm remains high, the books make a difference in the world of interdisciplinary legal scholarship, Stanford University Press likes what we’re doing, and it provides another opportunity for shared intellectual community at the college,” he says. “There’s no reason we can’t keep going for a lot longer.”