Family Law, Jurisprudence Expert Gregg Strauss to Join Faculty

Gregg Strauss

Strauss said his interest in jurisprudence drives him to understand the "deep philosophical underpinnings" of certain areas of law, such as torts and family law.

June 15, 2015

Gregg Strauss , a family law, jurisprudence and philosophy expert who is offering fresh insight into questions about marriage, will join the University of Virginia School of Law this summer as an associate professor of law.

Strauss recently served as a visiting assistant professor at Duke Law School. At UVA he will teach Torts in the fall and Family Law in the spring.

Professor Rachel Harmon, vice chair of the Faculty Appointments Committee, said that for a relatively new professor, Strauss is already interested in and sophisticated about a broad range of doctrinal areas.

"I expect that Gregg's scholarship will be transformative in his field," Harmon said. "He takes a rare, philosophically informed approach to family law, which allows him to address fundamental questions with incredible theoretical rigor, and he draws connections between family law and other legal areas, such as property, contracts and torts, that few scholars could."

Strauss holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and a J.D. from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and a B.A. in philosophy from Emory University. He clerked for Judges William M. Conley and Barbara B. Crabb of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, a "rocket docket," for two years after law school.

Much of Strauss' recent scholarship has revolved around defining a theory behind marriage, including why the state is involved in licensing marriages at all.

"Why not just get out of that business altogether? It would certainly seem to make things easier: You would avoid the problems of the state deciding who gets to count their relationship as a marriage, you would avoid religious objections to being required to license same-sex marriages," he said. Furthermore, "Why is there a legal institution that tells us how to live out our relationships? When you put it that way, it seems like a deeply invasive process."

In " Why the State Cannot 'Abolish Marriage ,'" Strauss argues that these objections are misguided. The law could discard the title "marriage," but cannot extricate itself from it. Run-of-the-mill contract and tort standards, Strauss said, apply differently to different relationships — strangers, clients, employees — and the same is true for spouses. Even without an official status of "marriage," judges would still need to classify relationships and articulate marriage-like doctrines.

Understanding why the law involves itself in our relationships, Strauss argues, is necessary to unravel current marriage controversies. In particular, he's using these ideas to examine polygamy in light of the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples.

"If the reasons that the state licenses marriages apply equally to gay couples as to straight couples, there's no reason to deny gay couples access to marriage," he said, "and if all the reasons for licensing marriage also extend to polygamous families, then it's going to be hard to explain why we don't extend polygamists those protections as well."

"In fact, some worry that the Supreme Court will invite polygamy cases if it extends the right to marry to same-sex couples," he said.

His previous scholarship has argued that traditional polygamy is inherently unequal, and he's working on a paper that discusses how this inequality should impact the legal regulation of polygamy.

Strauss said his interest in jurisprudence drives him to understand the "deep philosophical underpinnings" of certain areas of law, such as torts and family law. He said he believes the contours of marriage and divorce law reflect underlying moral obligations between spouses.

"There's a lot of skepticism of family law, but few scholars try to develop a philosophical reconstruction of family law, and that's a project I'm engaged in," he said.

Another persistent question in recent marriage equality debates has been figuring out what role religious and moral beliefs should play, Strauss said. His dissertation, "Basic Rights and Disagreement," focused on public reason, on why we should care how the state acts to justify its conduct.

"It wouldn't be anomalous — or it shouldn't be anomalous — for me to vote based on my religious convictions, and if that's a good-enough reason for me to vote to pass a law in, say, a ballot referendum, why is that not a good-enough reason for a legislator to vote based on their religious conscience?" he asked. "And if a religious conviction is good enough for a legislator, why is that not good enough for the Supreme Court to use as a reason for its conduct?" he said.

Strauss said he "[tried] to delimit what kinds of reasons we're allowed to rely on when we engage in political justifications, and why it differs depending on what role you are in — whether you're the citizen, whether you're a legislator or whether you're a Supreme Court justice," he said.

The dissertation also addressed how decisions over disagreements come to be accepted. "If we have deep, fundamental disagreements, you can't offer me reasons I would accept as political justifications, so why should I accept your decision?"

He concluded that sometimes it's better for disputes to be resolved by justices who are obligated to root their opinion in a limited set of reasons, for example, instead of through a constitutional amendment where everyone weighs in but no one speaks on behalf of the state. "Sometimes open-ended discourse is not a good thing," he said.

Strauss, who is originally from Midland, Texas, said getting an offer to teach at UVA was "surreal."

"The reputation of the school and its faculty and its students is simply fantastic. Some of the people who will be my colleagues are the people that I have assigned in my classes. I don't know how many times in Family Law I mentioned Kerry Abrams' work on immigration and the family, or in Jurisprudence, Fred Schauer's work on the nature of legal rules," he said. "To be colleagues with them is unbelievable."

Harmon echoed the sentiment. "By all accounts, Gregg is brilliant, engaged and hard-working," she said. "I could not be more pleased to have Gregg join the faculty."

 

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