J. Larson Tributes: Ertman, Kaplan, Law, Luna

Martha Ertman — University of Maryland Law School

Thoughts on Jane Larson’s Passing  —  The poet Mary Oliver famously asks “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  The question has been my compass these past ten years.  Hearing that Jane Larson passed away brings up the question in bold font, all caps.  What did Jane, a mother, an academic, a feminist, a lawyer, do with her one wild and precious – and short –life?

I wasn’t there for more than a few moments of it.  I’d just graduated from Northwestern when Jane joined the faculty, so I never had her for a class.  But once I got into the academic game, I learned from her immensely.  Her articles tracing complex histories of the tort of seduction and age of consent law, the fabulously titled book Hard Bargains, and work in a seemingly different area, Texas Colonias, showed me how to write from the heart as well as the brain.  Like a duckling learning to swim by following an older one, I read her work to learn not only the substantive material she conveyed with such precision and grace, but also to figure out how I, too, might combine feminism with legal economics, track doctrinal progressions to the social, political and economic contexts in which they occur, and ask questions about what the legal rules should be now.  On the page, and in our conversations, I emulated Jane as I found my own scholarly voice, becoming as deeply influenced by her selection of scholarly topics as by her seeming determination to research and write from the heart with the larger goal of making the world a little safer, and a bit more dignified, for ordinary women.

On a more personal front, I watched with particular interest how she managed to match professional life with family life, plying her with personal questions when she presented a paper, all dignity and visibly pregnant, at the University of Denver, where I used to teach.  The birth announcement, as I recall, just said “a love supreme,” with Simon’s picture and birthday.  Later, when he’d grown to be a toddler, I ran into Jane at a conference.  When I asked after Simon, she told me about taking him to Italy for some academic gig.   I asked how it was to travel and work with a baby around (wondering myself how I would do it, when the time came), and Jane reassured me, enthusing about how “Italians love babies,” and had picked him up on busses and fussed over him wherever they went.   I can still see her eye sparkle, and hear her generous laugh, as she added that, two weeks after they got home, sitting on the kitchen floor, Simon had looked at the cat and said, “ciao, meow!”

I haven’t seen Jane much, these past years, since I too joined the ranks of academics balancing work and raising a child.  But when I do go out of town to present a paper, I think of her when I remember to tuck a picture of my son into conference materials, looking forward to it fluttering out, as a picture of Simon did back in 2001, when I was sitting next to Jane at a commodification conference.  “Oh,” she smiled, as if telling the story of how the picture got in there magnified the pleasure of looking at her son, “I always slip a picture of him in there, to find as a pleasant surprise, while I’m away.”   I will continue to be inspired by her example as a scholar and a person as I write my own book – also, like hers, about love, contracts, and family law — building on her legacy.


From Len Kaplan — University of Wisconsin Law School

Everyone who knew Jane recognized that she was a gifted teacher who gave of herself well beyond the norm. Everyone who knew of her knew her printed work was first rate and in some cases ground breaking. Everyone who knew her felt the radiance of her smile, her keen intellect and if lucky her friendship.  Everyone who knew her knew she carried the best of the Wisconsin Law School ideal of combining analytic perspicacity with an abiding sense for real world justice.

What we did not recognize was the courage that carried her to the very poignant end.

We shall miss her.


From Sylvia Law — New York University School of Law

The death of Jane Larson is a horrible, stunning loss. We have not been in touch in recent years and in my mind she is young and vibrant. She contributed so much to our understanding of our law and culture, and had much more to offer.

We met in 1988 or 1989, through our mutual friend, Clyde S. Spillenger.  Both Jane and Clyde came from a professional background in history and were looking for the productive careers as legal academics that Jane found at Wisconsin and Clyde at UCLA.

In 1989, the Supreme Court was poised to over-rule Roe v. Wade.   In 1986, in Bowers v. Hardwick, the Supreme Court held that the constitution of the United States did not prevent Georgia from entering Michael Hardwick’s bedroom and charging him for a crime of sodomy for adult, consensual acts.  Justice White, for a 5-4 majority, relied squarely on history, asserting that to claim that a right to engage in sodomy is “deeply rooted in this nations’ history and traditions is, at best, facetious.”

Hardwick has since been over-ruled.  Our fear was that the version of history articulated by Justice White in Hardwick would be extended to reproductive choice, and more generally to the interpretation of the constitution.

Jane, Clyde, and I organized more than 200 American historians to file an amicus briefs in the Supreme Court cases, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, 1989, and Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Southeast Pennsylvania, 1992.  Roe was not over-ruled.  Unlike Bowers v. Hardwick, neither opinion relied on history and tradition.

History and tradition are, of course, complex.  Our task was to describe a position on abortion that was consistent with the historical understanding of the broadest number of scholars. As a pro-choice litigator, I wanted the historians to say that the Founding Fathers and the drafters of the 14th Amendment, correctly understood, were pro-abortion choice.  Jane, Clyde, and the prestigious historians who signed the brief insisted on a more complex, nuanced view of history.  The historian’s brief has had a lasting impact on abortion jurisprudence and constitutional law more generally.

Jane was a delight– sophisticated, knowledgeable, funny, hard-working.  She will be missed.


From Guadalupe Luna — Northern Illinois University College of Law

From the time I first met her in law school Professor Jane E. Larson remained a cherished friend.  She was an outstanding legal educator who did not hoard her talent but shared it with colleagues, friends and students.

Jane’s scholarship engaged and connected empirical studies with fact based inquiries and in the current language of today promoted experiential teaching methods.  Jane’s awards and recognition as Professor of the Year  underscore the vitality of her legal education approach.

Jane moreover was a fierce and perceptive scholar who could dance around complex legal doctrines without constraint.  Personally it was thrilling to see her challenge the prevailing order on topics of great concern including feminist theory, legal history and Latina/Latino theory.

Whether with students, peers, colleagues or friends Jane encouraged exposing vulnerable and risky intersections hidden from legal analysis.  Jane also dared to go beyond the safety of making mere observations. Through the trajectory of empirical legal studies and history she offered alternatives to offset injury-producing legal consequences.  In turn her dedication and passion promoted possibilities and opportunities for long-neglected individuals and communities.

The jurisprudence of critical thought also benefited from Jane’s scholarship. She helped develop intellectually important scholarship across a spectrum encompassing the marginalized.  Her participation further enriched our understanding with the New Legal Realism efforts.

The awful news of the passing of my dear friend hit me like a lightning bolt but then evoked achingly tender memories. We shared many adventures, but our early 1990s field research in the colonias of south Texas remains among the best.

We knew globalization was harming border communities, contrary to what its promoters promised.  Fran Olson’s fact-based inquiries on globalization’s impact on the maquiladoras at the U.S.-Texas border inspired us. We in turn sought answers regarding law’s role on the irregular housing conditions in that region.

We explored causal relationships between law with the real facts and inequalities plaguing colonia land use patterns and private land use agreements. We conducted interviews with colonia residents, activists and state officials.  At all times always aware of the privilege of how the “rule of law” worked in promoting the unsafe conditions in the colonias.

Thereafter Jane produced a quality, forward-thinking substantive article.  She exposed the factual links and consequences the lack of regulations facilitates in housing communities. Demonstrating elusive gaps between law and inequality Jane additionally sought empowering colonia residents in their quest for fee-simple ownership.  It was exciting because her efforts further led to law students assisting residents with their recording documents.  Even most recently Jane had contributed to yet another publication on the colonias.

With Jane’s successes there were costs for her inquisitive and generous nature that “curiously” targets forward-thinking trajectories.  Those early years remind me of the current political tempo where the nation is witnessing politicians promoting top-down mandates aimed at eliminating workers’ rights or eroding the few rights of women.  Such harm demonstrates the consequences of simplistic approaches that ignore causal relationships and forgo accountability.  It illustrates what happens when complex societal needs are reduced to simplistic formulas that purposely ignore “outliers” or alleged “unknown externalities.”

Now more than ever it is exciting beyond compare to witness the vitality of the new legal realism efforts she helped inspire.  More frequent challenges are emerging in legal scholarship, gloriously connecting obscure linkages and seeking accountability from the prevailing order.  Against the costs Jane sustained, the new legal trajectories of the present are demonstrating with yet greater frequency the validity of her path.

If she could hear me now I would not only whisper to her but shout to the moon and back: “Jane, you were right.”


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