UofK College of Law professor Lori Ringhand quantifies activist judges
Law professor’s study draws accolades – Editorial spotlights UK’s Ringhand
By Mark Pitsch Reprinted from The Courier-Journal Oct. 22, 2006
LEXINGTON, Ky. — University of Kentucky law professor Lori Ringhand was eating cereal and reading The New York Times editorial page one morning last month when suddenly she wasn’t hungry anymore.
An editorial focused on her research on the Supreme Court, praising her by name for quantifying how the judges voted on certain issues.
”It was a wonderful surprise,” Ringhand said. “I quickly quit eating my breakfast and got into the office because I thought it would be a busy day.” It was.
A parade of Ringhand’s colleagues stopped by her office to offer congratulations throughout the morning of Sept. 11. UK law school alumni called her to say they had read the editorial. And then the online debate started, with law professors, lawyers and political scientists debating her work.
”It’s certainly been a lot of fun. There’s no question about that,” Ringhand said in an interview last week. “What legal academics want is to be part of the conversation.”
The editorial praised Ringhand’s research for applying “a reasonable, objective standard” to votes by members of the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether they engaged in “judicial activism.”
For purposes of her research, she has defined judicial activism as a vote from the bench to invalidate federal laws, a vote to invalidate state laws or a vote to overturn precedent.
The novelty of trying to objectively define judicial activism — a term more often used, as Ringhand says, as an “epithet” to criticize rulings — attracted the attention of a Times editorial writer.
Ringhand said she had talked to the writer about her study twice before the editorial was published. But she said she thought she was helping him understand the study and that she wouldn’t be mentioned by name.
Since then, the 38-year-old professor — who’s been at UK less than five years — has received requests to speak at a conference, seen her work debated around the country, and talked with some of the nation’s top constitutional scholars.
“It’s opened a lot of doors,” Ringhand said.
Allan Vestal, dean of the UK law school, said Ringhand is part of a cadre of young law scholars the school has hired in recent years. He said she is pioneering legal research at UK that is data-based rather than theory-based.
”She really is the complete package and she’s indicative of the kind of young scholars we have been able to attract,” Vestal said.
Carl Frazier, 24, a third-year law student from Corbin, Ky., praised Ringhand’s teaching, which he said often includes elements of her research.
”She’s a very unusual law professor in that her classes are very dynamic. It’s very much interactive whereas most professors use more Q and A, the Socratic method,” Frazier said. “It’s amazing how she can take a sea of 60 people and make you feel like she’s talking directly to you.”
Ringhand said politicians — mostly conservatives, but increasingly liberals — have used the term “judicial activism” to describe court decisions with which they disagree.
But until her research, she said, no data showed how Supreme Court justices actually voted in ways that could be considered activist.
So Ringhand reviewed the votes of each member of the U.S. Supreme Court between 1994 to 2005, the years William Rehnquist was chief justice and the court remained constant in personnel.
The study found that conservative justices were “much more likely” than the liberals to invalidate federal laws and overturn precedent while the liberals were more likely to invalidate state laws.
”This work is an example of innovative scholarship. It’s an example of creativity. It’s an example of coming at an old problem from a new perspective,” said Douglas Kmiec, a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and a former constitutional law adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
He also said it doesn’t show evidence of political or ideological bias.
Some critics challenged Ringhand’s definition of “judicial activism,” but she said her definitions were key to continuing debate about what that term means.
“Once you choose that definition, it’s plainly true that some acts of activism will be good and some acts of activism will be bad. That’s the substantive discussion of constitutional law. That’s the discussion we should be having,” she said.
Kmiec said the work has propelled debate about what judicial activism is, but more research needs to be done.
The research doesn’t have direct impact on the Kentucky courts, Ringhand said. Earlier this year, a bill failed that would have asked citizens to vote on a constitutional amendment that would require the courts to “not engage in judicial activism.”
That bill’s sponsor, Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Ringhand said her work had been well-regarded before the Times editorial but not well-known. The Internet helped.
In August, she posted a draft of her study on a Web site devoted to social science research. A few weeks later, Lawrence Solum, a constitutional law professor at the University of Illinois who runs the Legal Theory blog, wrote about the study.
“I read a lot of legal scholarship and this article did catch my attention. I remember thinking, ‘This is real interesting,’ ” Solum said.
Soon after, Ringhand received a call from New York Times editorial writer Adam Cohen. She talked to him a second time before the editorial appeared Sept. 11.
That prompted criticism of Ringhand’s work in National Review Online, a supportive column by University of Pennsylvania law professor Kermit Roosevelt in the Los Angeles Times, and citations on washingtonpost.com and by The Associated Press.
Before the editorial, Pepperdine held a conference on the inaugural year of Chief Justice John Roberts that featured discussion of Ringhand’s work, Kmiec said.
“Professor Ringhand’s work was held out by name as giving important insight about the work of the court,” he said.
Ringhand’s study is to be published in Constitutional Commentary, an academic journal, next year.
Ringhand herself is a blogger. She helps run Ratio Juris, a general-interest law blog that focuses on empirical research in the field.
In addition to her teaching and research, Ringhand is the adviser to the Kentucky Law Journal and chairwoman of the faculty recruitment committee. She recently was elected to Vestal’s faculty advisory committee.
Ringhand, who grew up in Augusta, Wis., population 1,460, became interested in the law while working as an aide in the Wisconsin Legislature.
She enrolled in law school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and practiced corporate law for three years.
Finding corporate law unsatisfying, she studied comparative law at Oxford University for a year.
It was at Oxford where Ringhand developed an interest in becoming a legal scholar and where she began thinking about the role of the U.S. Supreme Court in the political system.
”Being at Oxford was just an astonishing experience,” she said. “I’ve never been in a place where you sit at a restaurant and if you eavesdrop on the conversations happening around you, every one of them is fascinating.”
She returned to Wisconsin and taught at the university for a year while looking for a job. She landed at UK in 2002 and earned tenure last year.
”I like the freedom” of being a legal scholar, Ringhand said. “When you’re a practicing lawyer, most of the time you don’t get to choose your clients and you don’t get to choose the issues that you work on. I love being able to write and think about what interests me. I love the dialogue. It is a constant learning experience. It’s quite literally never leaving school.”