Finding a Home in the Law and Courts Section

Rebecca Hamlin, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and Legal Studies Program, University of Massachusetts Amherst

About fifteen years ago, I was a young political-scientist-in-training with strong interests in law and courts and migration. Many different people advised me to pick one of those interests and make it my primary field so that I wouldn’t “fall between stools” and cause confusion about whether I was really a law and courtier or a migration scholar. When I responded that I wanted to do both equally, some well-meaning mentors suggested that wouldn’t work because law was not central to the study of migration, and migration was not central to the study of law. At that time, there was no Migration and Citizenship Section of APSA, so I found myself with one option: trying to be an active member of the Law and Courts section despite having been told I was on the periphery of that community.

At first, I felt adrift in a sea of mostly white men who study the U.S. Supreme Court. After going to some panels and attending the APSA business meeting and reception, I felt out of place. Looking at the traffic on the listserv, I felt really out of place. When I told people I studied asylum adjudication, few seemed particularly interested. I secretly worried that my passion for the study of migration somehow made me soft, or without rigor, because I wasn’t just interested in law and courts for the sake of studying those things. I was deeply motivated by the human toll that law and courts take on people who try to navigate them in order to protect themselves. I now know that most people in the Law and Courts Section are motivated by some kind of passion and human concern (even white men who study the Supreme Court!). At the time, however, my insecurities drowned out my ability to see past what felt like aggressive gate-keeping behavior.

I remember one senior scholar dismissively informing me that the Supreme Court had never made a significant immigration decision because that was a niche area of law. I didn’t have the confidence to tell him that a) he was wrong, the Supreme Court had recently made some highly significant immigration related decisions and seemed to be making more each year, b) I was actually studying administrative courts both in the US and elsewhere, and c) sometimes the Supreme Court makes really important immigration policy when it chooses not to take a case. Instead, I just questioned whether I should keep trying with APSA or re-orient myself totally towards the Law and Society world, which felt like it was much more accepting of the type of work I did.

Thankfully, I didn’t give up. And, through going to conferences, I eventually met amazing scholars like Anna Law and Susan Sterett who gave me advice, mentorship, and support of the frank and unvarnished variety – my favorite kind! They showed me that you can study law, courts, and migration in a rigorous and impressive way that has heart. Simply having a few people like them express interest in my work and act like it belonged in the section made all the difference in the world.

Let me be very clear: I know we have a long way to go to be a diverse and inclusive section. It is still disproportionately male and shockingly white. Just because I now (post tenure) feel more comfortable in the section does not mean that I think its problems are solved. However, the section has also changed dramatically in the time I have been a member in ways that give me great hope. As a general matter, several successive batches of section leadership have worked hard to understand climate issues via a member survey, to end the toxicity of the listserv by changing its format, and to take a stand against bullying and harassing behavior which has occurred far too frequently over the years. These efforts are bound to diversify the section since we know that a hostile climate is more likely to drive away women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ members, and those of us who study law and courts beyond Capitol Hill.

I’m also hopeful about the ways in which the tent of Law and Courts has been expanding. Just to focus on my particular area of interest as one exciting example of change, this summer the section hosted a well-attended Brown Bag event showcasing new research on law and migration. And there is a panel at the upcoming APSA meeting with the title “The Role of Courts in Migration and Asylum.” My younger self would have killed for such things, and it is so validating to see them finally happening.

So in the hopes that someone reading this is in a similar situation to the one I was in fifteen years ago: Hello and welcome! If you think you study law and courts, you do! You belong. If you would like to get involved in running the section in some capacity, please don’t be shy. Reach out to section leadership. The section has only changed because the people in charge of it worked to actively change it. And if you have ideas, we want to hear them. I thought I wasn’t ‘qualified’ to serve on the Executive Council of the section when I got nominated because I wasn’t a central figure in it. Then, I ended up really enjoying learning about the inner workings of the section. I can honestly say now that it finally feels like a community to me.

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