Six Harvard Law School professors and six ideas worth spreading, in 60 minutes (video)

HLS Dean Martha Minow

HLS Dean Martha Minow

This year’s “HLS Thinks Big” event, inspired by the global TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) talks and modeled after the College’s “Harvard Thinks Big” event first held last year, took place on May 23, featuring topics ranging from legal assistance for undocumented students to risk analysis in constitutional design.

“This is a way to exemplify that this is a learning organization, that everybody can learn, and that everybody can teach,” said Harvard Law School Dean Martha L. Minow, who moderated the event.

Professor Deborah Anker

Clinical Law Professor and Director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic Deborah Anker LL.M. ’84 opened the event with a discussion of legal avenues to assist undocumented students. (Click here to view Professor Anker’s presentation)

Anker pointed to Eric Balderas, an undocumented Harvard College student who became the “poster child” for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, commonly referred to as the DREAM Act, when he was detained by authorities and faced possible deportation to Mexico in June 2010.

The legislation, first introduced in 2001 and reintroduced in May, seeks to provide undocumented students who come to the United States before 16 and have been in the country for at least five years with a pathway to permanent legal status.

Anker cautioned against ignoring the immediate needs of individuals for the sake of pushing broader social change, arguing that it is possible to provide legal assistance under current U.S. law to undocumented students like Balderas.

“We at the clinic wish to pursue individual remedies that are possible before or in absence of the DREAM Act’s passage,” Anker said. “While DREAM-ers push and wait for legislation, our clinic can advocate for illegal students and push forward.”

View Randall Kennedy’s talk.

Harvard Law School Professor Randall L. Kennedy, an expert on the intersection of racial conflict and legal institutions in the United States, stressed the importance of not just turning to the justice system but also to the other branches of government as well as looking beyond the “black-white frontier” to glean insight into race relations and law.

Harvard Law School Professor John F. Manning ’85 discussed the difference between “mind-numbingly precise phrases” and “breathtakingly open-ended phrases” in describing his work on statutory interpretation. Judges should respect the language lawmakers have used to express their policies, he said, even if the results are sometimes awkward. He closed by describing his latest work in which he is beginning to apply this theory to the language of the U.S. Constitution.

Adrian Vermeule ’93 applies risk analysis to constitutional law, and he discussed the idea that the precautions legislators take may actually produce the risks they try to avoid.

View Adrian Vermeule’s talk.

“If you expect people to be knaves, they will be knaves,” Vermeule said. “Constitutional sanctions on self-interested behavior might undermine social or political norms that might constrain that behavior or might unintentionally convey a signal that many other people are engaged in self-interested behavior.”

Professor Mark Roe

Harvard Law School Professor Mark J. Roe ’75 introduced the audience to the ideas of chaos, path dependence, and punctuated equilibrium, arguing that once a decision is made in public policy, information and knowledge is centered on that decision rather than alternatives. Consequently, he argued, the likelihood of developing serious alternatives to that decision is reduced. (Click here to view the video)

The event concluded with Harvard Law School professor Jon Hanson arguing that understanding what determines people’s behavior may be the most important question for law in the future.

Social psychologist Stanley Milgram was “thinking big,” Hanson said, stating that the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures suggested people were not moved by the forces previously believed to shape their behavior.

Hanson, who is the director of the Project on Law and Mind Sciences at HLS, said in many ways our legal system is based on “small thinking,” flawed theories about what moves people to act.

“If you look at most of our big problems right now,” he said, “we don’t even get to [them] in a serious way because we’re looking for the bad apple and not even beginning to imagine what we would do about systems that influence people’s behavior.”