by George W. ConkFordham Law School
Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. 40, No. 503, 2012
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Rutgers-Newark Law School was the most innovative, exciting, and effective law school in America in the 1960's and 1970's. Civil rights and liberties, 'poverty law', women's rights, employment discrimination, open housing, and public education were the foci of legal education at Rutgers - the State University of New Jersey. In those two decades Rutgers-Newark - which we affectionately called People's Electric - developed a model of engaged legal education that was and is unique.
No other law school of its era - and perhaps since - to my knowledge - has been so thoroughly characterized by a broad progressive social agenda. Affirmative action, racial justice, women’s rights, public education, open housing, and civil liberties were the focus of the frequently landmark litigation which originated or was substantially aided by students and faculty from Rutgers Newark.
The unique activism of Rutgers-Newark - a small public law school in an afflicted city - had a huge impact in the development of the law. The activist faculty and the clinics engaged law students deeply in innovative and intense litigation regarding the most important and controversial issues of the day. Students at People’s Electric learned first-hand the law-making function of the courts. They often helped make that law.
No other law school in the country can begin to match its record in the 1970's. This was accomplished without endowment, without a base of high ranking or wealthy alumni, without a tradition of such activism at the school, a public law school whose tuition was nominal. Students learned from extraordinarily talented lawyers who they assisted. Their successes showed students how to succeed by really trying. We left Rutgers confident that we knew how to and could change the law, confident that we could make a difference.
Graduates continued the mission in many ways. One outstanding example is the cadre who joined the Office of the Public Defender - a statewide agency - which led or participated in the defense of over two hundred capital trials from 1982-2007 when the death penalty was repealed and replaced with life without parole. There were no executions.