At Brooklyn Book Festival, Law School Hosts Discussions on Constitutional Change and Race and Class in Criminal Law


For the 10th year, the Law School served as host and sponsor of the Brooklyn Book Festival, a popular annual event that draws thousands of authors, booksellers, and readers from around the country to Brooklyn Heights and Downtown Brooklyn. After last year’s fully virtual festival, booksellers returned to Cadman Plaza for a one-day event October 3, along with live programming featuring an array of national and international literary stars and emerging authors, including Min Jin Lee and Joyce Carol Oates. Additionally, the festival featured free virtual programming during the week leading up to the festival. This year, the Law School hosted two panels: The Struggle to Get Rights Right with Professors Wilfred U. Codrington III and Susan Herman on the day of the festival, and an online book talk with author Matthew Clair on Sept. 29.

At an outdoor panel discussion in the Law School courtyard, Herman moderated a discussion between Codrington and author Jamal Greene, the Dwight Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. The three constitutional law professors talked about the struggle in American law to balance, respect, and protect individual rights within the framework of the U.S. Constitution.

In Codrington’s new book, The People’s Constitution: 200 Years, 27 Amendments, and the Promise of a More Perfect Union (with John F. Kowal) (The New Press 2021), he examines the history and future of constitutional change in America through its 27 amendments.

“When you look at this history… [it] is a history of movements pushing politicians and elite institutions to make our national charter more competent to govern us today,” said Codrington. “We [now] see some elements of things… we’ve seen in the past that have sparked these waves of constitutional change. And now we’re thinking, ‘What is that next generation going to push for?’ and ‘What will our Constitution look like if it’s… to govern us today in the 21st century?’”

“We hear… people all over the country [claiming] they have rights,” said Herman, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Professor of Law and past President of the American Civil Liberties Union. “‘I have a right not to be vaccinated,’ ‘I have a right to vote,’ ‘I have a right to have an abortion….’ [But] what really what is a right?”

The virtual book talk put Professors Jocelyn Simonson and Alexis Hoag in conversation with Clair, assistant professor of sociology and (by courtesy) law at Stanford University. Clair’s recently published Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court (Princeton University Press, 2020) examines how racial and class inequalities are embedded in the attorney-client relationship, denying justice to the poor and to working-class people of color.

“The disadvantaged often have far greater knowledge of their legal rights… from prior experiences with the law that they’ve had throughout their lives,” said Clair. “They’re much more actively engaged in trying to fight their court cases, yet their lawyers, caught between the power and expectations of prosecutors and judges, coerce them to take plea deals, silence them in front of judges, and grow tired of defendants who, they feel, have imprecise knowledge of court norms.

“But in the courts, the dynamics are such that you are disadvantaged by having greater knowledge of the law. [As] you seek to make demands and exercise your rights, relatively worse treatment arises from the unwritten rules, expectations, and structural constraints of a profoundly unjust legal system.”

The festival events will be broadcast on C-SPAN November 14.

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Watch the Matthew Clair book talk