Research Interests

I am interested broadly in the cultural and social life of American law. Currently I am pursuing several distinct lines of research.

First, I am studying what I call state killing, what others call the death penalty, in order to understand what state killing reveals about American values and beliefs. I use the death penalty as a lens through which to view ideas about responsibility and blame, pain and its proper uses, race and fairness, mercy and the possibilities of redemption. I recently completed a book-length study of the decline and virtual disappearance of executive clemency in capital cases and a study of race and capital punishment in the United States. I have launched a new project on miscarriages of justice, moving out from the recent proliferation of exonerations in capital cases to ask when and why legal justice misfires and what, if any, tolerance we should have for error in the legal system.

A second line of research emerges from my work on clemency in capital cases. I am studying “lawful lawlessness,” areas in which the law authorizes, but does not regulate, the exercise of power. What do these areas tell us about the rule of law and its limits? The executive power to grant or deny clemency is certainly one of those areas. Another is the power of prosecutors to decide who to charge with crimes. Here courts have said that prosecutors can refuse to prosecute someone who has violated the law for good reasons, or bad reasons, or no reasons at all and that such a decision is not subject to judicial review.

I also am studying cause lawyers, lawyers who explicitly and self-consciously devote themselves to advancing a political cause rather than representing individual clients, in order to understand the various ways that such lawyers serve and constrain social movements as well as the challenges that cause lawyering poses to traditional ideas of lawyering and lawyer professionalism.

Finally, my research focuses on the cultural life of law or law in popular culture. I am now writing a book entitled Hollywood’s Law: What Movies Do for Democracy. This book examines movies about law from 1950 to 2000 in order to understand how these films contribute to the development of democratic citizenship.