Profiles in Scholarship

Step by Step

Elizabeth Scott

Family law and juvenile justice expert Elizabeth Scott is hitting her stride at the Law School.

By Rebecca Thomas

Winter 2009

Four or five times every week, Columbia Law School Professor Elizabeth S. Scott laces up for the five-minute walk from her home to Central Park, where she runs along the scenic footpaths. “It’s such a beautiful setting,” she says, adding that she limits her runs to two or three times weekly during New York City winters. When asked if her husband, Columbia’s Alfred McCormack Professor of Law, Robert E. Scott, comes along to help keep her motivated, she lets out a quick laugh.

“No. No. No.”

There are distance runners, there are sprinters, and then there are those who—like Bob Scott—prefer to walk. Still, when the Scotts’ son, Adam—a 2008 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law—ran his first-ever marathon in Philadelphia just before Thanksgiving, both parents “went down to cheer him on.”

An avid strider, Elizabeth Scott took up running some 30 years ago, and the professor’s habit of going the extra mile extends to her legal pursuits. At UVA, where she began teaching in 1988, Scott was the founder of the interdisciplinary Center for Children, Families, and the Law. As the center’s co-director, the juvenile justice and family law expert tackled contentious issues such as the regulation of marriage, divorce, and cohabitation. After serving as a visiting faculty member at Columbia Law School on four occasions, she finally settled in permanently at Morningside Heights in 2006. The leap was significant, since Scott had spent the greater part of her career on the Charlottesville, Va., campus of UVA. She earned her J.D. from the school in 1977. Two years after graduating, she was named legal director of UVA’s Forensic Psychiatry Clinic at the Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy. It was at this institute, over the course of eight years, that Scott honed her interdisciplinary approach to scholarship, applying behavioral economics, social science, and developmental theory to legal policy issues.

This fall, Harvard University Press published Rethinking Juvenile Justice, which Scott co-wrote with Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University. The book grew out of investigations into juvenile crime the co-authors conducted between 1995 and 2006, as part of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. The network, headed by Steinberg, was created in response to the increasing number of state laws that made it easier to try juveniles as adults.

“What we do is offer a developmental model of juvenile justice,” Scott says, in explaining the authors’ proposed reforms. The Scott-Steinberg prescription calls for treating adolescents as a distinct legal category—not as children, but also not as adults. “The basic argument is that if lawmakers paid attention to scientific knowledge about adolescence, legal policies regulating juvenile crime would both be fairer than contemporary law and would promote social welfare to a greater extent than the law does now.”

With her teaching schedule clear last semester, Scott focused primarily on scholarship. But she also indulged her passion for opera and the theater. The Scotts, who married as undergraduates after meeting at Oberlin College, scored good seats to the plays All My Sons and Equus. The latter, about a disturbed stable boy who commits a terrible crime and the child psychiatrist who treats him, no doubt will make for lively classroom discussion come spring.

Rebecca Thomas is a freelance journalist living in New York City.

Illustration by Stephen Gardner