Globalizing Public Interest Law

54 Pages Posted: 6 Feb 2009 Last revised: 30 Apr 2009

See all articles by Scott L. Cummings

Scott L. Cummings

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law

Louise G. Trubek

University of Wisconsin Law School

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: February 5, 2009


Public interest law has become increasingly globalized in the post-Cold War era, incorporated in national legal systems across the developing world, and deployed in transnational activist campaigns advancing social justice causes. This essay - the introduction to a symposium on public interest law across borders - examines the structural factors shaping the global trajectory of public interest law and offers a preliminary appraisal of its emerging global role. In Part I, we trace the historical movement of public interest law from an insular American project toward a more globalized set of practices and concepts. We suggest two reasons for this shift. The first is the ascendance of the Rule-of-Law movement, sponsored by international financial institutions and donor agencies, which has promoted public interest law around the world as a crucial component of good governance built upon a foundation of rights enforcement and political accountability. Against this backdrop, local activists, particularly in post-authoritarian countries, have turned to public interest law as a way to achieve the promise of new democratic orders while accessing crucial funding support. Second, the institutional framework of global governance has drawn public interest law into the contest over the impact of open markets and the power of human rights at the supranational level. Transnational activist networks have mobilized public interest law in efforts to hold international finance and trade institutions accountable for their distributional impacts, challenge the deregulation of global markets through multi-level advocacy efforts, and leverage the power of the human rights system to strengthen domestic social justice movements and build transnational solidarity. Part II explores the implications of these trends, suggesting that they point toward two evolving conceptions of public interest law: as a global institution and a technique of global governance. With respect to public interest law's institutionalization in developing countries, we outline the factors shaping its distinctively hybrid form, which incorporates elements imported by global sponsors, while building upon indigenous traditions and adapting to opportunities afforded by national structures. As a tool of global governance, we suggest that public interest law is associated with a broad range of problem solving practices targeted to the transnational context. We conclude by offering a provisional map of the new terrain of this transnational advocacy, highlighting the global arenas in which it operates, the strategies it deploys, and the networks it constructs.

Keywords: public interest law, transnational advocacy, human rights

Suggested Citation

Cummings, Scott L. and Trubek, Louise G., Globalizing Public Interest Law (February 5, 2009). UCLA Journal of International Law and Foreign Affairs, Vol. 13, 2009, UCLA School of Law Research Paper No. 09-05, NYLS Clinical Research Institute Paper No. 08/09 #12, Available at SSRN:

Scott L. Cummings (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Room 1242
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476
United States

Louise G. Trubek

University of Wisconsin Law School ( email )

975 Bascom Mall
Madison, WI 53706
United States

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