The Law and Social Change

Radcliffe Day 2012
Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo
@ The Radcliffe Institute
May 25, 2012

On Radcliffe Day 2012, alumnae, family, friends, and fellows gathered to celebrate past, present, and future of Radcliffe, and to explore the law and social change.

Among the more than 700 guests at this year's event were four deans of Radcliffe, representing more than two decades of leadership: Linda Wilson (1989–1999), Harvard University President Drew Faust, who was dean of Radcliffe before becoming University president in 2007, Barbara J. Grosz (2007–2011), and the current dean, Lizabeth Cohen.

Faust spoke at the event and said she considered it the official welcoming of Cohen to her position, which had been interim from July 2011 through March 2012 until the "new" dean was announced. "Liz's energy comes out of her intellectual curiosity, which is the perfect characteristic for the dean of the Radcliffe Institute, a place that's supposed to bring together all fields of learning as well as the arts, which are of particular interest to her," Faust said. "That intellectual curiosity combines with the formidable energy that you all have been exposed to already but that I think will serve the Radcliffe Institute and Harvard University so well."

Cohen shared highlights of the 2011–2012 year and encouraged guests to visit the new website, especially the enhanced alumnae section and videos of events. "The new site brings the Institute fully into the 21st century," Cohen said. "It is the launching pad that we need for a more dynamic web presence that reflects the vibrancy of the people, places, and collections at the Radcliffe Institute."Cohen welcomed all gathered in the Radcliffe Yard and all watching the first live webcast Radcliffe Day. The morning panel and the afternoon luncheon were webcast live and will be available on video soon.

Cohen presented Margaret H. Marshall EdM  ’69 with the Radcliffe Institute Medal for “your dedicated service to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as its highest judicial authority, your unwavering commitment to the rule of law, and your passion for justice and equality around the world."

In remarks delivered after she received the Radcliffe Institute Medal, Marshall said she has deep concerns about the country she now calls home. “We are witnessing a full-scale assault on the foundational notion that judges should decide cases on the facts and law alone,” Marshall said. “Increasingly, politicians have been taking to the airways arguing that judges should not be impartial but should check the opinion polls before they issue a decision.“

These assaults are not confined to a few state legislators who file bills to jail judges for unpopular decisions, Marshall said, but have been mounted at the highest levels. “One recent candidate for president of the United States ran on the promise that if elected he would ignore the holdings of the Supreme Court decisions with which he disagrees. ‘I’m fed up with those elitist judges who seek to impose their radically un-American views,’ the candidate said, and proposed to subpoena judges to testify before Congress to answer for unpopular decisions.”

Marshall said another presidential candidate expressed the belief that Congress should issue legislative vetoes over Supreme Court decisions. “This is not good faith criticism of Court decision, a judge, or judicial philosophy—all of which are welcome and necessary in a robust democracy,” she said. “This is demagoguery, plain and simple.”

Concluding her remarks, Marshall said, “Do we here in this great country want a legal system where judges vie for popularity and not for justice? The warning signs are there for all to see. The question is, have we the will to protect the structure of government that has for so long protected us?’” 

It is clear that Marshall has had that will throughout her life. Brought up in apartheid South Africa, where she was a leader of students who opposed the racist apartheid system, Marshall has had a lifelong commitment to social justice. She is widely known for her service as the 24th chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, when she wrote the historic case of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, which legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts. She was the first woman to hold that post. 

It was announced at the luncheon—to great applause—that Marshall will be donating her papers to the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute.

Morning Panel

Before the luncheon, a panel held in the Loeb Drama Center, titled “From Front Lines to High Courts: The Law and Social Change,” complemented Marshall’s remarks. Radcliffe Institute Dean Lizabeth Cohen welcomed attendees by saying, “We crafted the event you are now attending as a tribute to Margie’s many years of working at the front lines and in the high courts to advance social justice.” Martha Minow EdM ’76, dean of the Harvard Law School and the Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law, who moderated the panel, said in her introductory remarks, “On the one hand, law is a tool for social change. . . . On the other hand, law is the tool of the status quo, the tool of the state.”

Radcliffe Day 2012 panelists. Photo by Tony RinaldoRadcliffe Day 2012 panelists. Photo by Tony Rinaldo

Panelist Jennifer Gordon '87, JD '92, a professor of law at Fordham University School of Law and an expert on immigration and labor law, said, “I’ve come to believe that we need to understand law as offering a toolbox—a toolbox in which each tool has to be used creatively to maximum effect with the goal of giving excluded people the power and voice to demand change. Much as a carpenter might use a hammer not only to drive nails but to prop open a door or pry open a can.”

Renée M. Landers ’77, a professor of law at Suffolk University Law School, said she was born the year after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education. The Brown decision gave activists and lawyers the misplaced confidence that the courts and the legal system would uphold the values and ideals enshrined in the Constitution, she said. In recent years, however, the courts have backed down from Brown by refusing to rule that education is a fundamental right. Today, we have the resegregation of our schools, although it’s well known that students who attend integrated schools are more highly achieving. 

Panelist Linda Greenhouse '68, the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter who covered the Supreme Court for the New York Times for many years, is now a senior research scholar in law, the Knight Distinguished Journalist-in-Residence, and the Joseph Goldstein Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School. She is also a coauthor of the book Before Roe v. Wade : Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate before the Supreme Court’s Ruling. “The ability of courts to effect social change is there,” she said. “The ability of the courts to create trouble when they try to do it is also there. It’s something that, as we go forward in this very tricky time of major Supreme Court rulings hanging in the balance, is worth looking at and thinking about with great care and attention to the actual facts of each matter.”

Panelist Kathleen M. Sullivan JD ’81, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP and the Stanley Morrison Professor of Law and former dean at Stanford Law School, said, “It’s important to keep courts in the equation for the forces of social change. It’s often popular, especially among progressives, to say that courts merely come afterward. . . .  I think that progressives who want to use law to achieve social change give up on the courts at our peril.”

Ann Radcliffe Society Breakfast

The day began with the Ann Radcliffe Society Breakfast for those who have included the Radcliffe Institute in their estate plans or made a planned gift. Marilyn Dunn, executive director of the Schlesinger Library, described the library’s collections—especially its born-digital materials—and Radcliffe College publications that people can access online. 

Marlene Rehkamp O’Brien ’82 spoke about her introduction to the Schlesinger Library when she was a sophomore and saw handwritten journals written by women who helped manage the western wagon trains. She said this experience of the Schlesinger’s riches led her and her husband to make a planned gift to the Radcliffe Institute.

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