Thursday, November 6, 2008

Heather Gerken Named J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law

Heather Kristin Gerken, the inaugural J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law, is one of the country's leading experts on voting rights and election law, the role of groups in the democratic process and the relationship between diversity and democracy.

Gerken is perhaps best known for her idea of a "Democracy Index," which she proposed in Legal Times in 2007. Gerken's proposal calls for states to be ranked based on how well they run their election systems, focusing on such issues as how long voters spent in line, how many ballots were discarded, how often voting machines broke down and other considerations. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton introduced election reform bills that were inspired by Gerken's index.

Gerken is currently working on a book outlining her Democracy Index, as well as another on the trans-substantive concept of "second-order diversity" in American public law. Her writings have appeared in numerous law journals, among other publications. Gerken has been a frequent commentator on election law and voting rights, appearing on CNN News, "Larry King" and others.

Prior to coming to Yale, Gerken taught at Harvard University, where she was the first junior professor in the history of Harvard Law School to receive the Sacks-Freund Award for Teaching Excellence, given annually to an outstanding instructor at the school. She began her career at Harvard in 2000 and was promoted to a full professorship in 2005.

Gerken earned her B.A. from Princeton University and her J.D. at the University of Michigan Law School. She then served as a law clerk for Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and for Justice David H. Souter of the U.S. Supreme Court, before entering private practice in Washington, D.C.

The J. Skelly Wright Professorship of Law was established this year by a gift from the estate of Helen Patton Wright in honor of her husband, James Skelly Wright, who earned an honorary LL.D. from Yale in 1961. Wright was a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana from 1948 until 1962, when he became a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He served with the D.C. Circuit until his retirement in 1987. He served as Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit from 1978 until 1981, when he reached the age of 70, the age limit for service as Chief Judge. The professorship grew out of a teaching fellowship that was established in 1989 to honor the judge by inspiring students with the ideal of public service.