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Law with social impact

Laura Paisleyby Laura Paisley
Sophomore William Orr in his “Law, Politics and Public Policy” course, which will go toward his major, the new interdisciplinary Law, History and Culture degree (USC Photo/Matt Meindl)
Photo: Sophomore William Orr in his “Law, Politics and Public Policy” course, which will go toward his major, the new interdisciplinary Law, History and Culture degree (USC Photo/Matt Meindl)

“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

These insightful words, spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, adorn the cover of the brochure for the recently launched Law, History and Culture undergraduate degree — the result of a collaboration between the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the USC Gould School of Law.

The civil rights icon wrote about justice while in a Birmingham jail for violating Alabama’s law against mass public demonstrations. His “Letter From Birmingham Jail” arguing that citizens have a moral obligation to break unjust laws became the backbone for the American civil rights movement of the early 1960s.

The new major investigates justice and the interplay of law, history and culture. It draws from literature, philosophy, religion and classical studies to explore law as a historical and cultural institution. Students explore specific legal issues from a humanistic, interdisciplinary perspective.

“This kind of collaboration doesn’t happen without a very collegial and intellectual partnership between USC Dornsife and the law school,” said William Deverell, professor and chair of the Department of History. “It’s one thing to be interdisciplinary within the college, but it’s another thing altogether to reach broadly across the campus. We’re very excited about nurturing this.”

Since 2001, the Center for Law, History and Culture based at USC Dornsife and USC Gould has cultivated and supported the interdisciplinary field of law and the humanities through seminars, conferences and junior scholars programs.

Nomi Stolzenberg, holder of the Nathan and Lilly Shapell Chair in Law at USC Gould, co-directs the center with Ariela Gross, John B. and Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law and History at USC Gould, and USC Dornsife’s Hilary Schor, professor of English, comparative literature, gender studies and law. They have had an integral part in shaping the new degree.

“Instead of just having a purely technical discussion or crunching policy analysis, this discipline is the felt experience of law,” Stolzenberg said.

Sophomore William Orr started out at USC Dornsife as a history major, but this semester he added a second major in law, history and culture.

“I’m in the prelaw track, and when I heard about the major, it was perfect because it allowed me to combine many of my interests in terms of history and the law. The philosophy, politics and law major focuses on the theory behind law, but law, history and culture focuses more on the effects law has on society.”

Launched in the 2012-13 academic year, the major will expand as new course offerings emerge and new faculty members are hired. Deverell noted that USC Gould recently hired Assistant Professor of Law Sam Erman, a legal historian, and he’s eager to draw some of Erman’s courses into the major.

“We’re really grateful to the law school, which has committed time, energy and faculty resources for imagining and creating the major in addition to staffing it with faculty who teach courses that are fundamental to it,” Deverell said.

After his undergraduate career, Orr plans to pursue law school. He said the law, history and culture major allows him to follow a more focused prelaw track and take classes related to legal history, thus fulfilling both his interests and career aspirations.

“The number of classes that qualify for the major is huge, so it really allows students free choice to select what they feel is most interesting and relevant,” he said. “I get to take classes that are interdisciplinary, and I love the way they play off each other.”

The major benefits several career paths. Students interested in graduate work in the social sciences or humanities get a foundational understanding of constitutional history, legal history, legal writing and historical understanding.

For work in the public sphere, having a keen awareness of topics such as legal behavior, legal culture, citizenship rights and responsibilities can lead to any number of positions in politics, jurisprudence, legal records management and higher or secondary education teaching or administration.

“We’re really excited about offering students a broad understanding of the interplay of legal rights and responsibilities, history and the changing dynamics of the role of the individual and the state,” Deverell said. “No matter what they do, they’ll have the ability to write with legal and historical clarity.”

For Orr, learning about the impact the courts can have on society has been the most interesting so far.

For his “Law, Politics and Public Policy” class, he is writing his final paper on Oregon v. Smith. The case deals with whether the freedom of religion can at times constitute engaging in an illegal activity. Orr found the case interesting because of the delicate balance between the guarantees of the constitution and the need for law and order.

“The eventual decision of the court ruled that as long as a law is neutral and generally applicable, it doesn’t matter if it suppresses religion,” Orr said. “Essentially any law, as long as it is applied to everyone, would be able to outlaw certain religious conduct. It provides a great example of how the Supreme Court can fundamentally affect culture, in this case religion.”

One of Orr’s instructors in the major, Arthur Auerbach, assistant professor (teaching) of political science, said the degree takes a unique approach to examining law.

“Those students who take on this major soon recognize that to truly understand the law, one must look beyond the written words,” Auerbach said. “They must examine the historical context and the culture from which the law was created.”