Stanford Law Legal History Detectives

Law and History at Stanford

Greg Ablavsky’s path to the study of legal history started on the Zuni Reservation in New Mexico where he spent two years teaching fifth grade as part of Teach for America.  “Few places are more regulated than an Indian reservation,” he notes, and “seeing how the laws evolved and how they impacted the Zunis was eye-opening. That experience made me want to do the kind of historical research that matters today.” Ablavsky, associate professor of law, is now writing a book on relations between U.S. citizens, the Native American nations, and the federal government in the U.S. territories during the late 18th century. Meanwhile, he is watching two cases the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear that will turn in significant part on the interpretation of an 1855 treaty with the Yakima Nation and the 1866 territorial boundaries of the Creek Nation in eastern Oklahoma.

For Rabia Belt, assistant professor of law, legal history research feels like “a treasure hunt, like being Nancy Drew.” One of her current research projects explores how it came to be that some Americans under guardianships—for example, individuals with cerebral palsy or mental disabilities—still have difficulty participating fully in party caucuses and elections. Insights from her research might lead to legal changes that enfranchise more citizens.

Professor Norman Spaulding, JD ’97, began publishing in the field of legal ethics while in law school. In his early work, he says, he “very quickly” realized that almost no one was thinking about questions of legal ethics and professional identity from a historical perspective. And when they did, Spaulding notes, they tended to lament the history as one of “decline from the lofty forms of statesmanship exhibited by the Founders, forgetting that about one-quarter of the bar left for England when the Revolution broke out and that those who stayed, including elite lawyers who rose to distinguished careers in public service, engaged in dueling and believed fervently in the zealous representation of their clients.”