Social Science and the Law

Social Science and the Law
February 09, 2009

In the past decade, the study of law has become increasingly interdisciplinary, as the law spreads its influence over nearly every profession and facet of society. For Professor Jeffrey Fagan, the increased overlap of disciplines could not be more welcome. Fagan, who holds a joint appointment at both the Law School and the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, brings a unique body of knowledge and skill set to Columbia as one of the nation’s foremost experts on the use of social science research to spur change in the judicial and policy realms.

Over the span of 30 years, Fagan has studied a broad swath of issues—gun control, the death penalty, racial profiling, the treatment of juveniles in the court system, and drug control, to name a few. What connects these wide-ranging areas, he says, is “the interplay between social sciences and law.” Research on these often controversial topics can have a major impact on both policy decisions and on court opinions, which frequently cite Fagan’s social science findings.

He notes that in the recent Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. Heller, which held that a Washington, D.C., handgun ban violated the Second Amendment, the dissent tried “to engage the empirical research” on gun violence, “but didn’t find it conclusive.” To Fagan, this signals that there may be room for movement in future cases. “Courts change, as do the facts,” says the professor, who was elected as a fellow of the American Society of Criminology in 2002. “I see this as a challenge to strengthen the evidence, and, as in other matters before the Supreme Court, to pursue these issues within the states and cities to affect law change and policy.”

The story of how Fagan went from earning a civil engineering Ph.D. at the University at Buffalo to analyzing Supreme Court rulings as a leading voice in the social sciences and the law field is filled with twists and turns. Initially, his career path was altered as a result of the Attica prison riots of 1971 in upstate New York. When prisoners’ defense attorneys later developed a challenge to the racial composition of predominantly white jury pools, Fagan was drafted into doing jury research.

From there, Fagan headed to the San Francisco Bay area, where he worked in private research institutions for 13 years before deciding that he could have more impact in an academic setting. Following teaching stints at John Jay College and Rutgers University, Fagan came to Columbia’s School of Public Health, where he created the Center for Violence Research and Prevention. After working closely with Columbia Law School Professor James Liebman on a very influential report on error rates in death penalty cases, Fagan proposed teaching courses on law and social science, as well as courses on criminal justice and criminology, to law students. That resulted in a three-year visiting appointment beginning in 1998, and a joint appointment to the Law School and the School of Public Health in 2001.

Fagan, who served on the National Research Council for six years and has testified before Congress and numerous state legislatures, was recently appointed to the New York State Governor’s Task Force on Juvenile Justice. With respect to juvenile justice, he notes that a key battle line for policy-makers and legislators is over “where to draw the line between juvenile and adult. Who should draw the boundary, and who should exercise discretion over which kids cross the line?”

Those questions, like many of Fagan’s research interests, place him at the crossroads of some immensely important and far-reaching decisions about how the nation’s system of criminal justice functions. Even when research does not appear to immediately affect judicial and policy outcomes, as in the Supreme Court’s gun control decision, Fagan remains optimistic. “Gun control proponents may not win this case,” he says, “but the evidence will become stronger and unavoidable in other cases down the road.”

This article appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of the Columbia Law School Magazine.

Bruce Shenitz is a writer and editor in New York. He has worked as a reporter for Newsweek and as executive editor of Out.