Law and Social Movements: Reimagining the Progressive Canon
Forthcoming in Wisconsin Law Review (2018)
59 Pages Posted: 14 May 2018
Date Written: May 11, 2018
This Article examines the “progressive legal canon” — iconic legal campaigns to advance progressive causes — and explores the implications of canon construction and critique for the study of lawyers and social movements. Looking backward, it reflects on why specific cases, like Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade, have become fundamental to progressive understandings of the role that lawyers play in social movements and how those cases have come to stand for a set of warnings about lawyer and court overreach. It then explores what might be gained from constructing a contemporary progressive legal canon and under what criteria one would select cases for inclusion. A core contribution of the Article is to synthesize examples of significant contemporary campaigns that respond to original canon concerns and complicate notions of lawyering in current movements of social import around labor, the War on Terror, LGBT rights, immigrant rights, and racial justice. The comparison of old canon to new yields an important insight. Although the form of legal mobilization is generally quite different in contemporary campaigns, with greater emphasis on constituent accountability and integrated advocacy, the outcome is often quite familiar: legal success and positive change alongside weak implementation, countermobilization, and intramovement dissent. Although the comparison is not systematic, it points toward a potentially significant conclusion: that the progressive critique of old canon lawyering is misplaced. What stymied old canon campaigns was not an overreliance on law or top-down planning, but rather the inevitable pushback by more powerful forces, causing gains to slide back or be undercut in the enforcement stage and aggravating internal movement debates over goals and strategies.
Keywords: progressive legal canon, social movement mobilization, legal campaigns, political mobilization, legal rights
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