Professor Gary Lawson Provides a Toolkit for Proving the Law with New Book

Evidence of the Law: Proving Legal Claims offers vocabulary and a new way of thinking about legal claims.

Professor Gary Lawson
Professor Gary Lawson

Almost 30 years ago, Philip S. Beck Professor of Law Gary Lawson found himself sitting on his first academic panel discussing a question of constitutional interpretation. In his preparations, he had thought to himself, “How will I know if I am answering the question correctly? How confident do I have to be that my answer is correct before I can say that it is correct?” These questions lingered long after the panel ended, and they form the basis of his new book, Evidence of the Law: Proving Legal Claims, published in February by the University of Chicago Press.

Professor Lawson arrived at Boston University in 2000 after spending eleven years teaching at Northwestern University School of Law.  During his time in academia he has authored seven editions of a textbook on administrative law, co-authored three books dealing with constitutional history, and authored or co-authored more than seventy scholarly articles.

“What is special about this book,” Lawson says “Is the fact that I have been thinking about this subject for 30 years. It is an idea that has stayed with me for as long as I have been in the academy, and even before that. So, in a way, this is my favorite.”

Beginning with the standards of proof in law that specify guidelines about how certain one must be about facts (beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal cases, for example), Lawson began to realize that there was no such explicit standard for making claims about the law itself. After consulting his mentors and other legal scholars, Lawson wrote an article entitled “Proving the Law,” which appeared in the Northwestern University Law Review in 1992, beginning his deep dive into this subject.

Gary Lawson - evidence of the law“I always had the idea of turning the article into a book,” Lawson says. “That way, I could examine proof in a more mature and sophisticated fashion. It is a bit broader than the article, as I not only look at the standards of proof, but all of the features that make up the idea of proof.”

In his research, Lawson found that the law does not regard legal claims in the same way that it does factual claims. He argues that all claims are subject to the same principles of proof regardless of the subject matter. The book focuses on the result of thinking openly about proof with respect to claims about the law. It addresses why the law is not open to being thought about that way, and what might happen if it were. Although these questions are all raised and addressed within the book, Lawson does not provide concrete answers or prescriptions.

“The book is a toolkit,” Lawson says. “It is a set of vocabulary and ideas that you can use for whatever theory of law you are making a claim about. It sets out how you apply ideas of proof that we use in every other aspect of existence to claims about the law.”  

What surprised Lawson the most as he focused in this issue for three decades was the lack of research available on the subject. “That was the odd thing to me at the beginning, because it struck me as inconceivable that I, a 28-year-old, would have to be the one to write this,” Lawson says. “I assumed experienced jurisprudential scholars had been doing this for decades, but it turns out there was nothing.”

Lawson credits John Henry Wigmore Professor of Law Ronald Allen, an evidence scholar and colleague at Northwestern University School of Law, as one of his few resources on the subject. “He helped me immensely because I did not know anything about the law of evidence. I did not start teaching evidence until much later into my career,” Lawson said.

Professor Lawson has high hopes that that the book will transcend law and become an interdisciplinary tool. “It’s called Evidence of the Law just because I am a law scholar, but I think that happened as an accident,” Lawson said. “I believe the same pattern and structure of proving claims applies in other disciplines, and I would love to hear what those in other fields have to say about the subject as well.”

BU Law will hold a symposium celebrating Professor Lawson’s book on April 14. Click here for more information.

Reported by Matthew Fils-Aime (COM’17)

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