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Workshop invites discussion regarding the relation of law to place

By Jessica Kim Cohen | October 23, 2014

While many left Baltimore during the three-day Fall Break, around 20 faculty and graduate students gathered for a workshop titled “Law and the Local” on Friday afternoon.

Sponsored by the Program for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality (WGS), the workshop focused on interactions between law and place, and on how these are affected by perceptions of gender, race and sexuality.

“Baltimore seems a particularly rich place to have such a workshop,” Jennifer Culbert, associate professor of Political Science and coordinator of the workshop, said in her opening remarks.

She added that, from The Wire to current statistics on violence in the media, Baltimore is internationally identified with legal issues.

The workshop consisted of two panels, each of which was followed by a response by a graduate student, who then led a general discussion. Presenters were invited to broaden these conversations. They discussed how one can perceive the local through conjuring up images of specific places, like the classroom, the city or other proximate settings. They could also extend the local beyond one’s immediate surroundings, and they could think of the law in terms of authority, commitment, duty, obligation or rules.

The first panel, “Urban Localizations of Relations of Law,” included presentations by Adrienne Brown, assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago; Lisa Pruitt, professor of law at the University of California Davis School of Law and Carolyn Sufrin, assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. A response by Zachary Reyna, a graduate student studying political science, followed the presentations.

Brown’s presentation, “Writing the Red Line: Race, Reading and the Local,” spoke to how urban planning has affected conceptions of race, while Sufrin discussed the practice of shackling inmates during childbirth, in a presentation titled “Childbirth in Chains: Legal Prohibitions and Everyday Permissions.”

In “Urbanormativity, Spatial Privilege, Judicial Blindspots and Abortion Law,” Pruitt argued that there is an implicit urban bias in abortion law, in the way it overlooks the longer distances and fewer public transportation opportunities facing rural residents, for example.

“These rural women, in a sense, become deviant,” Pruitt said. “In abortion regulations, [there are] vastly different consequences depending on the spatial situation of the woman who decides to exercise her right to an abortion.”

The second panel, “Local Occupations and Obligations,” included two presentations, presented by Emily Zackin, assistant professor of political science at Hopkins, and another by James Martel, professor of political science at San Francisco State University.  A response by Esther Edelman, a graduate student studying German and Romance languages and literatures, led the attendees into a general discussion of the entire workshop, bringing together the different presentations.

Zackin spoke about emergency law in her presentation titled “Rethinking the Significance of Blaisdell v. Home Building & Loan Association: States, Debtors, and American Constitutional Development.”

“Even today, this is a case that is really prominent in the emergency power literature,” Zackin said, speaking to the Blaisdell decision of 1934, which allowed for Minnesota’s suspension of debt collection. “Even sympathetic commentators say this is a major transformation in American law, [that] this is the first time when the court is willing to say, ‘Look, [the] Constitution can stretch to accommodate this major emergency,” she said.

Zackin, however, argued that this is not the first time states passed such measures.

“What I say is absolutely, it’s a major transformation at the level of doctrine, but at the level of state practice, it is nothing new at all,” Zackin said. “States never, ever, stopped passing these unconstitutional emergency state laws.”

Martel presented on self-actualization, bringing thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin together in “The Location of Amor Fati: Occupying the Place Where We Already Are.”

“For both thinkers, this involves taking on a vantage point of localism,” Martel said. “For both thinkers, becoming what one is must begin with intense disappointment and failure. We must give up our dreams of being others and accept what we are.”

This workshop was the final installation of a four-part “Law and” series which aims to extend conversations about law.

“Law doesn’t belong in any specific discipline,” Culbert said. “It’s relevant to different fields in the humanities, as well as the social sciences, especially if you want to conceive of law more broadly, thinking about it in all its different substantiations — regulation, government institutions, legislatures or things like court police.”

The series has taken place over the past three years, beginning with “Law and Loss” in the spring of 2012. Other series that related law to society in previous years included “Law and Lust” in the fall of 2012 and “Law and Language” in the spring of 2013.

“The workshop series that this concluded has produced fascinating discussions about the relationship between law and social justice issues of interest to me,” Derek Denman, a graduate student studying political science who attended “Law and the Local,” wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “Academic work like this can play an important role in scholarly and activist work on social justice issues.”

“Law and the Local,” originally set for last spring, was rescheduled after a blizzard in February. After the change in date, and because the new date was set so far in advance, two of the original presenters were not able attend the workshop, according to Culbert.

At the time, organizers were also unaware that the new date was during Fall Break.

“Unfortunately, it was so far in advance that we didn’t know,” Culbert said. “It was unfortunate in terms of the timing. I would have wanted to hold it on a day when everyone was on campus.”

No undergraduates were in attendance, although Culbert said they have attended in the past.

“I think that there is some time pressure on the undergraduates,” Clara Han, associate professor of anthropology and board member of WGS, said. “So that makes it hard to grow undergraduate participation. But we do try to make this also a space for undergraduates.”

Overall, Culbert was pleased by the workshop’s content.

“You put people together and invite people to think about very different approaches and points-of-view on a topic, and you see what happens,” Culbert said. “You never really know what’s going to happen. I think for the most part it was really successful in terms of this workshop.”

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