Eisgruber courts stronger ties between Princeton and the law

By Eric Quiñones

Princeton NJ -- Even with no students in the room, Christopher Eisgruber can deliver a lively lecture on a 200-year-old topic.


Christoper Eisgruber, a 1983 Princeton graduate, returned to the University in 2001 to lead the Program in Law and Public Affairs.


In the videotaped introduction to this fall's Alumni Studies course on the Supreme Court, Eisgruber detailed the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison, which established the court's power to decide whether laws uphold the Constitution. This seminal moment in American history, Eisgruber told the lone camera operator acting as his audience, was actually the result of a power play between two founding fathers, John Adams and his successor as president, Thomas Jefferson.

Piecing together the political maneuverings that led to the case, Eisgruber described Adams' scheme to pack the court system with Federalist Party judges before leaving the White House. He also recounted Jefferson's vow to defy the Supreme Court if Chief Justice John Marshall, an Adams appointee, blatantly ruled in favor of his own party.

"By modern standards, this is really wild stuff," he said.

Examining the relationships between politics and the law -- in landmark cases two centuries old and in current decisions on volatile issues such as affirmative action and gay rights -- is a challenge that Eisgruber relishes in his role as an influential constitutional scholar and director of Princeton's Program in Law and Public Affairs (LAPA). The 1983 Princeton graduate is dedicated to strengthening law-related teaching at his alma mater, which has no law school, to provide a grounding for students no matter what career path they choose.

Benefiting many disciplines

LAPA, founded in 1999, is a joint venture of the Department of Politics, the University Center for Human Values and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Eisgruber, the Laurance Rockefeller Professor of Public Affairs in the Wilson School and the center, became director of LAPA in 2001 when he joined the Princeton faculty after 11 years as a law professor at New York University.

The courses and other events developed by the interdisciplinary program can benefit future law students and also "enable students who have no interest in becoming lawyers to have a better understanding of what it is that legal institutions and lawyers do," Eisgruber said in an interview.

Professor Stanley Katz of the Wilson School, one of seven members of the program's executive committee, noted that the mission of LAPA has become increasingly important in recent years. "Nobody could have predicted the extent to which legal thinking would continue to become more and more pervasive. You can't read the sports pages these days without knowing something about law," he said.

Katz added that Eisgruber's approach makes him the ideal person to lead the program. "He's very interested in and concerned about the practical implications of the legal system, although his research itself is entirely theoretical. We need both of those approaches."

In addition to bringing together Princeton faculty from various departments, LAPA hosts an annual group of visiting fellows from other universities -- including Eisgruber himself, who was a 2000-01 fellow from NYU -- for teaching and research. It also brings in lawyers, judges and policymakers for lectures and other events. On Nov. 17, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will deliver the first lecture in a series honoring John Marshall Harlan, the last Princetonian to serve on the high court (see related story in this issue).

Following his lead

Eisgruber's own experience as a Princeton undergraduate inspires his drive to give current students more opportunities to learn about the law. Eisgruber graduated with a degree in physics, but it was a course in constitutional interpretation taught by Walter Murphy, a professor of politics emeritus, that left an indelible mark on his career path.

"One of the things I valued about Princeton was that I knew I would get an undergraduate education that would enable me to major in the sciences, as I had planned to do, but also enable me to get a solid grounding in the liberal arts, which I wanted," he said. "By the time I was a junior or senior, I realized I was more moved by questions of political theory and political justice than I was by questions about the natural universe."

Eisgruber went on to earn a master's degree in politics at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and a law degree at the University of Chicago. He knew he wanted to teach constitutional law, but first spent two years as a clerk for Patrick Higginbotham, a federal appeals court judge, and Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens before joining the NYU faculty.

"What was special about the experience was having a chance to see the way in which judges made their decisions and develop an empirical foundation for testing some of the claims I would make or read about in the future," he said. "I think of it as the equivalent of anthropological work for a constitutional theorist -- hanging out with the people who inhabit the system I study."

Since joining the Princeton faculty, Eisgruber has taught a variety of law-related courses and has helped LAPA develop multidisciplinary courses that have covered topics such as the history of litigation, religion and legal change, telecommunications regulation and crime control.

This semester, he is teaching a Wilson School seminar, "Law and Public Policy," which analyzes the role of courts in setting policy on issues such as product liability, prison reform, environmental quality, religious liberty and anti-terrorism measures.

Jennifer Vosko, a senior in Eisgruber's course this fall who also took his freshman seminar, "The Supreme Court and Constitutional Democracy," said he is a patient teacher who keeps his students engaged in lectures and discussions. Vosko chairs the LAPA Forum, a group of students and faculty that gathers for dinner discussions on legal topics. The forum was created by Eisgruber and students from the freshman seminar three years ago.

Eisgruber also is advising Vosko as she prepares for her senior thesis, which will deal with presidential communications, and as she considers attending law school, applying for fellowships or working in Washington, D.C., as postgraduate options. Working as a White House intern this summer, Vosko heard from her adviser frequently. "He's incredible," she said. "He e-mailed me throughout the summer with ideas and just to see how I was doing."

While teaching and directing the LAPA program, Eisgruber is continuing his research on constitutional theory, religious liberty, legal philosophy and adjudicative institutions. Following the publication of his 2001 book, "Constitutional Self-Government," Eisgruber is now writing a book on religious freedom in the United States with Lawrence Sager, a former NYU colleague and frequent collaborator who is now at the University of Texas. He also has longer-term plans for a book examining claims that the Supreme Court has made the United States more secular.

Studying the court's past and future

Coming off a "momentous" term in which its justices ruled on affirmative action, gay rights, campaign finance reform, Internet pornography, states' rights and the death penalty, the Supreme Court will continue to grapple with huge issues in the next few years, Eisgruber said. Those will include questions on civil liberties amid the U.S. war on terrorism; immigration and the rights of noncitizens; federalism; and religious liberty.

Given the heated debate revolving around such issues, Eisgruber agreed to teach this semester's Alumni Studies course to help Princeton alumni and friends better understand the historical, philosophical and legal arguments behind the court's decisions. He is teaching the course, titled "Equal Justice Under Law? The Supreme Court, the Constitution and American Politics," with Professor Robert George of the politics department, who now teaches the constitutional interpretation course that inspired Eisgruber as an undergraduate.

The course, which involves videotaped and on-campus lectures, emphasizes the questions of who should interpret the Constitution and how they should do so. He and George often find themselves on opposite sides of constitutional debates, which Eisgruber feels will benefit students who are learning ways to decipher an "ambiguous text." Both scholars said they relished the idea of working together on this project.

"(Eisgruber) is a thoughtful person whose scholarly integrity and devotion to the pursuit of truth are exemplary," George said. "He has a way of treating scholarly arguments not as any sort of intellectual contest, but as a mutual project of inquiry and discovery."

For students in their course, Eisgruber added, "It's possible that people could listen to us and think we're describing two different Supreme Courts when we talk -- and I do think that makes it much better."


PU shield
PWB logo