By Nathan McIvor Contributing Writer
Faculty member Frank Underkuffler’s Public Classroom lecture, “Social Change and The Crisis of American Law,” opened to a full house at UMF’s Emery Community Arts Center on January 30th. A livestream of the event aired in Ricker Addition to accommodate the overflow of guests.
President Kate Foster introduced Underkuffler, a practicing lawyer by trade, to the assembled audience. Underkuffler discussed the United States’ current stark political division in historical and legal contexts, citing English common law, which was adopted by U.S. colonies, as the source of strife in the U.S. legal system.
Recorded by influential English judge William Blackstone in 1765, common law arises from culture, rather than official legislation, and reflects the how actions between people actually occur. English common law grants men who own property the full rights of citizenship; meanwhile, married women and “idiots” received special protections such as being unable to be held accountable to contracts. Married women and slaves were classified as “property.”
As a cultural creation, Underkuffler explained how the common law is incompatible with social change, as common law “exists for stability;” the social categories it established were not meant to be transgressed. Those seeking change, then, will always be held in suspicion.
Underkuffler cites the 2015 Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, with Justice C.J. Roberts criticizing the court’s decision to rule in favor of the issue as “disinheriting” and as against “constitutional law,” as an example of how the status quo would react to shifts in social norms.
Underkuffler noted that “we inherited this system; we didn’t ask for it… you didn’t make it, I didn’t make it.” The divide between the status quo and those seeking to change it are vestiges of expired cultural standards. The divide between liberals and conservatives today derives from these embedded cultural traits; nothing in how U.S. society views changes to law and culture is conducive to an easy relationship between the two groups. He then advised the two groups respect and listen to each other regardless of preconceptions.
After taking questions from the audience, Underkuffler walked to the Ricker Audition to take questions from the audience watching via livestream. Underkuffler’s talk was a part of UMF’s Public Classroom, a series of lectures aimed at engaging the broader community with the university’s intellectual resources and provides faculty members an opportunity to share their work.