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Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Who Ultimately Runs "Student-Run" Law Reviews? Not Law Review Editors.

Not having read Larry Alexander's article or relevant documents describing the publication offer or agreement or editing process, I am reluctant to say too much about this specific incident. As he does, Paul Caron usefully collects varied commentary here. But it is one of a few such incidents that have come up recently, with others involving the American Indian Law Review, the Washington University Law Review, and--with a slightly different set of facts--the NYU Review of Law & Social Change. (These are the ones that have drawn publicity. There may be others. And it may or may not be that case that there have been many such incidents in the past, but that the controversy-addiction-feeding aspects of social media, and users of social media, have given these incidents more prominence than would previously have been the case.) Some of these involve what we might think of continuity and succession issues between volumes and editors. Others involve what we might think of as changes in view among some law students about what their office as editors of scholarly journals--and it is an office--involves, allows, or demands. That larger category involves a good deal more than just flashpoints around the publication of particular articles, or even public statements issued by reviews or their editors about their aims, although there have been quite a few of those in the past few years. 

I was particularly interested in a post by Michael Smith, linked to by Caron, noting and complaining about what Smith calls "the sport of attacking law review editors." I take no view on most of what Smith has to say in his post, and am not in total agreement with his complaint that professors should not criticize law review editors by name. On the whole I am sympathetic to it. I would not be inclined to do it. It seems undignified and unnecessary much more often than not. And I must acknowledge my suspicion that a good deal of the time such posts and twits, even when they have a point on the merits and about larger concerns, are carried out in a fashion that reflects the awful mixed motives that characterize so much social media activity: not just making a point, but scoring a point, or promoting oneself, or feeding unhealthy controversy, or exaggerating for political effect, and all the other things that make so much of contemporary discourse a cesspool. But some instances of naming a law review editor seem to me more about fairly reporting and documentation than outright attack. And it seems fair to note that to the extent that journals and their editors are busy making public pronouncements of their own, their expectations of privacy may diminish accordingly.

Nevertheless, I am in sympathy with Smith's basic point, beyond my concerns about undignified discourse, insofar as it reminds us that if there is a problem, it lies elsewhere. Legal scholarship, like scholarship in any discipline, is an institution. And, with very rare exceptions, it is not an independent institution. (There is at least one prominent law review that is formally independent. Even there, I don't think it should be viewed as wholly independent of the law school with which it is associated.) Given the odd fact that most law reviews in this country are student-edited, it shouldn't be an independent institution. A scholarly institution is the responsibility of the members of its discipline. That's true in general terms, but also in the more specific sense that a law review is ultimately the responsibility of its law school, that school's faculty, and the review's faculty advisor. At a minimum, if someone is going to go to the trouble of naming the editor of a law review when complaining that it has failed in its duties, scholarly or contractual, that critic should note the name of the faculty advisor and ask for comment from that person. But beyond that, ultimately a law faculty itself should step in--has an institutional and disciplinary duty to do so--if one of its journals is acting in a way that violates, ignores, or weakens scholarly norms. 

Of course what those norms are is subject to the usual contestation. But the ultimate duty to step in and at least temporarily resolve those contests belongs not with student editors, but with the larger institutions that administer the law reviews and that bear responsibility for the state of their piece of the discipline. Were it otherwise, the existence of student-edited journals would be even more absurd than it already is. No doubt that duty can and perhaps should usually be exercised lightly--not deferentially, since there is little basis for deference, but lightly. In the past, when I have been faculty advisor to a journal, I've told the editors that it's "their" volume and  that they are generally free to make their own calls about which articles to publish and about the direction in which they want their volume to go. The editors of one volume may be concerned with "national" scholarship and prestige, while the editors of another might want to place a greater emphasis on scholarship and writers focused on their own state or jurisdiction, and so on. Most of that is fine with me, although I offered advice up front and along the way. But if the editors decided they wanted to run a year of Alexandrine verse, not for any recognizably legal-scholarship-related reason but because they are keen on Alexandrine verse, I would have an obvious duty to step in and say no--and if I didn't, my colleagues and administration would.

I suspect that some potential controversies don't arise, or don't get publicity, or end up being resolved appropriately, because the faculty advisor or the law school itself steps in, quietly, either before the fact or to resolve a problem. That's as it should be. (I gather that in the case of at least one of the journals named above, that's what ultimately happened. And NYU issued a statement on its own behalf and that of the law school objecting to the NYU Review of Law & Social Change's action.) But when we are talking about the controversies that do end up arising and gathering traction, or about larger concerns about law reviews, we should certainly remember that however much autonomy we appear to give law reviews, they are not actually autonomous, and for disciplinary reasons cannot be. Ultimately, they are the responsibility of the discipline, generally through the office of the faculty advisor and in a broader sense of the law school and its faculty and administration, and beyond that of all of us. We may act or talk most of the time as if these reviews are independent and autonomous, but the buck still stops with us. It is at least possible that we should be more hands-on in our disciplinary responsibilities on this front than we currently are. Law reviews and their editors are, at least in this system, free to talk about exciting "new" visions about what legal scholarship should be and do, what positions law reviews should take (if any), and so on. (They're often not actually "new," of course.) But if we as a discipline or as individual institutions think their vision is wrong, or that they have acted wrongly or outside scholarly norms in a particular instance, it's still our job to step in and settle the matter.            

Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 12, 2022 at 10:29 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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