History of SELA

History of SELA

Excerpted from the Yale Law Report, Winter 2000, written by Andrés Jana, Santiago, Chile and Roberto Saba, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Almost twenty years ago, a group of law students from Argentina and Chile—hoping to improve the legal culture in their countries—began to look for answers to their academic needs in graduate programs offered by law schools in foreign countries, primarily in the United States. For many of those students, Yale Law School was the place where they found what they were looking for. The LL.M. and J.S.D. programs they pursued helped them realize their individual goals and develop their academic and professional interests. But the experience went beyond that. With each new student arriving in New Haven, a network of personal linkages with members of the Yale Law School faculty began to grow. A common legal language and a set of shared interests and values developed as well.

These personal relationships have expanded through the years in terms of the number of people, the substantive programs, and the concrete activities involved - student exchanges, working trips for professors, jointly organized seminars, special classes taught by visiting scholars, and mutual efforts to create or improve publications and law libraries. Behind all of these developments there has been an enormous effort on the part of several people who, for different reasons, have led the process. Among them is Professor Carlos S. Nino of the Universidad de Buenos Aires, who accompanies us in all our activities through the participation of his disciples and friends.

It was in this context that a new idea took shape: a seminar that would create a space for reflection for the growing number of people who shared common interests. One afternoon in New Haven, Professors Owen Fiss and Robert Burt, together with then LL.M. candidates Lucas Sierra and Roberto Saba, acknowledged that the study trips and the mutual visits and exchanges had moved beyond a particular circle of legal academics in the Southern Cone and some of their peers at Yale Law School. The expansion of this group was not limited to Yale Law School alumni. Rather, the circle was reaching a group of scholars who appeared to share a certain vision of law, its relation to democratic values, and the urgent need to begin a substantive intellectual discussion about legal matters. It seemed necessary, then, to generate something that would begin to create links among these scholars and strengthen the incipient continental legal community whose peculiarities made it look, in some of our countries, like a counter-cultural phenomenon.

These goals explain some of the guidelines adopted by SELA from the start, which have given it the character and personality that, in our judgment, distinguish it from other meetings of law professors in the region. The first of these goals was that of consolidating a community of legal dialogue. This required us to focus on the topics to be discussed, and the relationships among participants. Secondly, the seminar discussions had to reflect the intellectually honest, sharp, and critical style that had surprised and influenced those of us who had gotten a chance to know countries with academic traditions stronger than our own. No one would assume the role of “lecturer” or “expert professor” at the debate table. SELA would be a meeting for intellectual work, not a set of lectures. Its panels and meetings would be characterized by deep and analytic discussion among peers, rather than a reiterated formula of presentations followed by questions addressed to the speakers.

The subject matters to be chosen would be about law—not about “constitutional,” “commercial,” “civil,” or “criminal” law. The idea that law cannot be divided into boxes with clear-cut labels was fundamental to the kind of discussion we sought. All participants, regardless of their specific area of expertise, would need to be able to participate on an equal footing with regard to respect, commitment, and seriousness. For the same reason, topics would have to be sufficiently general to allow for a conversation in which each participant could draw on her own vision, in order to create an exchange of approaches that would enrich the debate.

The ambitiousness of these aims made us doubt that the seminar could achieve them. Could we build an intellectual space where each of us would get rid of “her special field” approach in order to discuss law and its relationship to logic, history, politics, economics, ethics, and philosophy? Could the discussions be preceded by the work of panelists who prepared papers and participants who read those papers critically in preparation for discussion? Would it be possible to generate an academic debate among peers that interested everyone in the seminar?

We can say with genuine satisfaction that SELA has utterly exceeded our expectations. The number of institutions and people involved has increased significantly, and the successive meetings have given rise to debate that is recreated with renewed spirits year after year, conferring a sense of academic community on its participants.

Inaugurated in August 1995, SELA has been concerned with both substance and process. Its founders agreed that it should seek to deepen understanding of complex theoretical issues, model a more discussion-oriented form of intellectual discourse than is the norm in Latin America, and create a venue for the formation of a professional community. SELA reaches out to the current generation of scholars and public intellectuals. That first summer, roughly fifty participants gathered in Chile to discuss the role of the state in protecting public morality. The following year, when SELA reconvened in Argentina, eighty-six people explored the responsibility of citizens and the accountability of officials in a constitutional democracy. Since then the roster of participants has steadily expanded to include over one hundred representatives from countries throughout Latin America, the Caribbean basin, Europe, and the United States (including a substantial number of Law School faculty members). Subsequent topics have ranged from democracy and the market (1997), to equality (1998), violence (2003), and executive power (2006).

Each SELA has also come to include a session called “Democracy in the Americas,” a roundtable discussion focusing on a current issue of pressing public importance (the conduct of the Fujimori regime in Peru, for example, or General Pinochet’s extradition proceedings). Not surprisingly, the ensuing debates are both spirited and deeply serious.

In just a few years, SELA has become an intellectual center of gravity in Latin America. What was once a gathering of individuals with diverse interests and agendas has, in the words of one participant, “taken on the flavor of a family reunion.” Other participants tend to echo one another as they reach for words to describe what the seminar has come to mean to them. They speak of developing a common language over time, one that allows for the communal exploration of new graphic ideas across geographic, disciplinary, and ideological boundaries. “Now we write, discuss, and hear each other in a different way,” says Martín Böhmer ’90 LLM and JSD candidate. “We share a common definition of a winning argument, of a quality paper or presentation, of a fruitful discussion,” he adds.

Participants speak, too, of “a rich intellectual space” where their community can renew and extend itself. For many, it is perhaps the only space where they can come together with scholars from different countries and institutions to work in a common enterprise.