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Monday, June 25, 2007

Democratic Institutional Design, Not Just a "'Here to There' Election Process Reform Subspecialty"

I have been following with interest Heather Gerken's series on Balkinization about how election law specialists need better "here-to-there" strategies to reform our electoral processes.  Indeed, I find many of her design proposals innovative, stimulating, and, ultimately, persuasive.  What I don't find quite as persuasive is her need for "a new specialty in election law -- the electoral reform process -- in the hope that academics will someday be as likely to claim it as a specialty as they are to assert expertise in campaign finance, redistricting, or any of election law's other subfields."

On this last question, Bruce Ackerman has it exactly right:   The idea that legal scholars should focus substantial energy on developing democratic reform proposals is important to the legal academy more generally.  Democratic institutional design (and even constitutional design) is a much broader field than election law or electoral process reform -- and there is no good reason, it seems to me, to define a new academic subspecialty within election law to accomodate and promote this kind of scholarship. 

That said, I do agree that there is a need to allow those of us interested in public policy and institutional design within the legal academy to come out of the closet.  We tell law schools that we'll teach Con Law, Election Law, Legislation, whatever.  But many of us have our hearts in a conversation in the academy for which few courses are well-designed.  In graduate school, I took a course with Ackerman called "Theory & Practice."  It was there that I got my first book off the ground -- an exercise in institutional imagination that one delightful and anonymous student called "fairyland bullshit" this semester.  Although my fairyland bullshit proposal has admittedly had little traction in the United States, scholars and public policy makers in China, South Korea, Vietnam, and Australia have shown real interest -- and it has successfully resonated with citizens in those countries as well.  Nevertheless, many within the academy have had the same reaction as my delightful student -- and it would be helpful for those of us who work in these areas to be able to say without shame that we are interested in the design of democratic institutions.  We probably need a more elegant name for this type of scholarship than "Theory & Practice;" "Democratic Institutional Design" is my current placeholder.  Whatever we call it though, I would hope it wouldn't be "merely" an election law subspecialty.

Posted by Ethan Leib on June 25, 2007 at 12:03 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

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