Online Auditions for Leading Legal Minds: Criminal Law Meets ‘American Idol'

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Media Contact:Jeanne Leong | | 215-573-8151May 20, 2008

PHILADELPHIA –- In a radically new interactive approach to legal scholarship, more than 100 leading scholars are debating the fundamental questions of modern criminal law through a law professor’s version of the TV show “American Idol.”

Authors of the top-rated essays can defend their ideas against criticism from the judges, who are other law professors. The essays that receive too few votes get kicked off the stage, which in reality is the University of Pennsylvania Law School Web site, which hosts the Criminal Law Conversations project:

The selected essays will be included in an Oxford University Press book to be published next year.

“Too often opposing advocates talk past each other,” said Paul Robinson, Pennsylvania Law School professor and lead editor of Criminal Law Conversations. “You could say that this brings peer review to legal scholarship but it’s more like peer-in-your-face.”

Robinson and co-editors Kimberly Ferzan, professor and associate dean at the Rutgers School of Law-Camden, and Stephen Garvey, professor at Cornell University Law School, are guiding professors in a 10-month online effort.

So far, 120 scholars have joined in the project. They are nominating several dozen scholarly works for discussion, based on the relevancy and compelling nature of the pieces. The author of a nominated work will produce a 4,000-word core text that summarizes his or her thesis, to which four to 10 scholars will then write 800-word criticisms. The original author will reply to the critiques, with these “conversations” making up the published book.

Any full-time law professor anywhere in the world can join the Web site, nominate his or her own work or the work of others and volunteer to comment on nominated works.

Any visitor to the site can monitor the nominations, the essays and the responses.

Leading topics under consideration include whether it can be proper for African-American jurors to acquit African-American defendants for racial reasons, whether the insanity and entrapment defenses should be abolished and whether it is ever appropriate to jail a blameless person in order to prevent a crime.

“We are looking for well written, accessible arguments about enduring ideas that will have an audience beyond criminal law scholars and will remain interesting to readers for a decade to come,” Ferzan said.

“We are doing this in light speed for our business,” Garvey said. “Scholars already are excited by the give and take, and the papers and critiques will make these issues more accessible to students and others.”

Oxford University Press is considering applying this model to other areas of the law and other fields of scholarship.