Globalizing public interest law

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Scott L. Cummings

Louise G. Trubek

Foreword 2

I. Crossing Borders: Public Interest Law Under Globalization 7

A. Divergence: The Geography of Liberal Legalism 7

1. Public Interest Law 8

2. Law and Development 10

3. Human Rights 12

B. Convergence: Public Interest Law in the Post-Cold War Era 16

1. Public Interest Law and Development 17

2. Transnational Legal Mobilization 20

a. Democratizing International Institutions 21

b. Regulating Global Markets 22

c. Leveraging International Law 26

II. A Global Atlas of Public Interest Law: Synthetic Themes and Provisional Appraisals 28

A. Public Interest Law as Global Institution 29

1.Design 29

a. Global 30

b. Regional 33

c. State 34

d. Civil Society 37

e. Academy 39

f. Profession 43

B. Public Interest Law in Global Governance 47

1. Advocacy Arenas and Legal Pluralism 47

2. Tactical Flexibility and Rights Mobilization 51

3. Transnational Networks and Legal Education 55

Conclusion 58


Globalization carries both the power to build and disrupt. Open markets, human rights, rule of law: all require the creation of new institutions and methods of governance. Yet in the quest to build, old traditions are asked to cede to new ideas and, inevitably, there are winners and losers. Depending on who is keeping score, globalization may be welcomed as the antidote to corruption and abuse, or rejected as the imposition of victor’s justice. Law—and therefore lawyers—play a central role in the contest over the scope and meaning of globalization.1 Global institutions are created, in part, through law: international treaties, multilateral trade agreements, and private commercial contracts form the legal foundation of the global order. Thus, lawyers act as architects of the global system, providing technical expertise and conferring an important source of institutional legitimacy.2 As such, they are subject to praise or scorn, depending on one’s point of view, either as the vanguard of change or the agents of imperialism. Within the global arena, law is not just a building block of global institutions but a tool of political struggle with distributional consequences. Whether it is investors suing to protect property rights or workers advocating to enforce labor rights, law is deployed in the global arena to assert the boundaries of what is legal—and claim the high ground of what is just. Though the global “haves” still may ultimately come out ahead,3 the “have-nots” nonetheless stage episodic interventions against the abuses of globalization, thereby mobilizing law in a transnational strategy of “politics by other means.”4

That public interest law has come to play an important role in simultaneously advancing and contesting globalization should in some ways come as no surprise. To the degree that globalization is built upon the legal architecture of American-style liberal capitalism, one would expect public interest law to occupy a similar position on the global stage as it does in the United States: lending credence to procedural claims of equal justice and providing a means of enforcing fundamental rights. The paradox of public interest law is that it both legitimates the institutional order while demanding accountability from it5—and this dual function seems applicable to developing and transitional countries, as well as international institutions.

Yet while it may be unsurprising that public interest law is, like other professional services, becoming more globalized, its occurrence raises two crucial questions. First, why and how is it happening? It is not the case that public interest law emerges organically around the world; rather, it is “constructed,”6 which means that there must be actors, both at the global and local levels, who have a stake in its development and are willing to make investments in public interest law and legal institutions. This process of construction implicates competing values and visions of legal change: the motivations of funding institutions or government officials may diverge from those of lawyers and activists on the ground. And it also implicates questions of national autonomy and identity: while some lawyers may embrace public interest law as a way to contest governmental and corporate abuse, others might view it as unwanted American export, a tool of social control that dissipates political conflict through legalization or displaces more emancipatory forms of legal resistance.7 How public interest law is negotiated and mobilized in this context shapes its meaning and power across nations and within international venues.

This leads to the second question: What does public interest law look like in the global age? Are there consistent practices and themes that are evident across national domains or is public interest law too context-specific to be generalized? If so, does it even make sense to use the term “public interest law?” In the United States, the concept of public interest law originated as a way to demarcate court-based legal representation on behalf of underrepresented groups, such as the poor, blacks, women, and consumers.8 Other national legal systems are beginning to adopt the term, in some cases (like in Central and Eastern Europe) to assert the emergence of a new style of constitutionally oriented domestic advocacy distinct from old human rights traditions,9 and in others (like China) to emphasize the collective benefits of legal action to the mass public.10 But public interest law never takes root on a blank slate. Other countries may have strong indigenous traditions of legal activism, more expansive constitutional rights, or greater experience with the system of human rights—all of which influence the scope and objectives of legal advocacy. Outside of national legal systems, public interest lawyers involved in new institutional arenas, like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights or the North American Free Trade Agreement side labor process, confront distinctive rules and must make different strategic calculations. Thus, as public interest law is inscribed in new institutional contexts, its already contested principles and practices are subject to further revision and challenge.

The participants in this symposium issue came together three years ago around a shared interest in exploring the impact of globalization on public interest law and its implications. We began with a commitment to building an analysis from the ground up, inviting scholars close to the action to engage in an open-textured discussion of how global change was interacting with the development of public interest law around the world. An initial exchange took place among roughly twenty scholars organized as an International Research Collaborative at the 2006 Annual Meeting of the Law and Society Association in Baltimore, Maryland. On the basis of this discussion, a core group of scholars from Brazil, Canada, Colombia, China, Ghana, Hungary, and the United States agreed to pursue a collective research project focused on two major themes: the construction of public interest law systems in developing and transitional countries, and the emergence of transnational legal mobilization campaigns. This smaller group met again in Berlin in the summer of 2007 to present our research and draw further connections. This symposium issue represents the culmination of our project, which has initiated a nascent dialogue on the role of public interest law in the global arena that we hope will continue to unfold and deepen. Against this backdrop, this introductory essay is an effort to distill tentative lessons from our collective project and raise questions for future research on globalized public interest law and its implications.

We begin, in Part I, by providing a historical framework for understanding contemporary global trends in public interest law. In particular, we trace the movement of public interest law from an insular American project borne of the unique domestic and international conditions of the Cold War period toward a more globalized set of practices and concepts that are now being embedded in national legal systems across the developing and transitional world, and integrated into multi-faceted transnational activist campaigns. To do this, we situate public interest law in relation to two other legal movements of the Cold War era: human rights and law and development. Our story highlights the shift from the relative separation of these movements, each of which operated in its own geopolitical sphere during the Cold War, toward greater convergence beginning in the 1980s and accelerating with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

We suggest two reasons for this shift. The first is the re-emergence and reorientation of law and development, initially around the goal of open markets and, more recently, embracing the Rule of Law, with its promise to marry open markets and respect for human rights. Within this “new” law and development framework,11 public interest law has been pulled from its American roots, becoming a crucial element of building Rule of Law systems in developing and transitional countries—thus tying public interest law more closely to the concept of economic development and incorporating it into pre-existing activist networks organized around human rights. While Rule of Law initiatives have embedded public interest law at the nation-state level, the evolution of the institutional framework of global governance—the second globalizing factor we highlight—has drawn public interest law into the contest over the impact of open markets and the power of human rights at the supranational level. These developments are connected with major global institutions, like the World Bank and United Nations, deeply involved in funding Rule of Law reforms. Yet the focus on the operation and impact of global institutions highlights a distinct global role for public interest law, which is integrated into transnational campaigns that seek to hold international finance and trade institutions accountable for their distributional impacts, challenge the deregulation of global markets through multi-level advocacy efforts, and leverage the power of the human rights system to strengthen domestic social justice movements and build transnational solidarity.

Part II explores the implications of public interest law’s emerging global role. In particular, we suggest that the interpenetration of public interest law, development, and human rights—both at the level of national system building and supranational decision making—point toward two evolving conceptions of public interest law: as a global institution and a technique of global governance. To speak of public interest law as a global institution suggests a convergence of practice and ideology across sectors around particular models of advocacy and assumptions about the relation of law to society;12 but it also leaves open the possibility of variation and local adaptation.13 Our analysis here thus sketches out the global and local factors that have influenced the institutional form of public interest law across national boundaries.14 In terms of institutional design, we note that emerging public interest systems incorporate some elements imported by global sponsors, like clinical education and pro bono, while also building upon indigenous traditions, like the procuracy, and adapting to the opportunities afforded by national developments, such as the advent of second-generation constitutions with progressive rights provisions. Because these hybrid systems combine elements of the global and local, there are inevitable struggles over authorship and power, with resistance to the notion of outside intervention, even while it leaves a distinctive imprint. In terms of global governance, the linkage of public interest law to transnational legal campaigns mobilizing within (and sometimes against) global institutions reshapes the strategic approach of public interest law and alters its stakes: in the global arena, public interest law cannot be court-centered and litigation-based, as in the classical American model, but rather encompasses a broader range of problem-solving practices adapted to the governance context within which it operates. We therefore offer a provisional map of the new terrain of this global advocacy, highlighting the locations, networks, strategies, and skills implicated in the pursuit of global justice.

I. Crossing Borders: Public Interest Law Under Globalization

  1. Divergence: The Geography of Liberal Legalism

The concept of public interest law as a tool of progressive social change reflects a deeper faith in the power of law to shape institutional practices and individual behavior that scholars have associated with American “liberal legalism.”15 As a theory of the relation of law to society, the strong version of liberal legalism was premised on the idea that courts interpreted law as an autonomous body of universal rules and that social actors in fact conformed to these rules.16 A weaker version viewed law as merely “relatively autonomous” from other social institutions: while law could not dictate change, it nonetheless could place some political constraints on public officials and private citizens, who were forced to justify their actions in the language of legal compliance.17 Under either version, changing law carried the potential to change society: legal reform, either through legislative decree or court order, held out the promise of moving society in more progressive directions. It was this promise of progressive change that animated three strains of legal activism that emerged during the Cold War era: public interest law, law and development, and human rights. Though each movement shared common premises—and often were shaped by common actors—they largely operated in separate geographic spheres with distinct aims. The line between public interest law, on the one hand, and human rights and law and development, on the other, was drawn along a domestic-international axis: American public interest law could be parochial because it rested on the cornerstones of domestic legal rights and judicial independence, which were lacking in modernizing countries focused on economic development and those under authoritarian rule, where appeals to legality were framed to the international community in terms of human rights as a way to generate external pressure for domestic change. In contrast, the line between public interest law and human rights, on one side, and law and development, on the other, was forged along a political-economic axis. The law and development movement emphasized the exportation of legal reforms to developing countries as a spur to domestic industrialization and thus related law to the construction of economic institutions in a way that diverged from the primary thrust of public interest and human rights advocacy, which focused on the assertion of civil and political rights against abusive governments. This section traces the separate trajectories of these three movements.

1. Public Interest Law

Public interest law, for its part, emerged in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, when the success of liberal lawyers in using the courts as a fulcrum to leverage political change for African Americans brought resources and professional status to a new sector of legal organizations promising to use law to promote the interests of groups excluded from conventional channels of political decision making.18 The concept of classical public interest law focused on the goal of political reform through domestic legal change.19 In particular, it sought to use carefully crafted test case litigation campaigns to create a body of universal rules, primarily in the area of civil and political rights, to promote greater social equality and expand the rights of members of less powerful groups. Although public interest lawyers during this period pursued multi-dimensional legal and political strategies,20 the paradigm was the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s school desegregation campaign, which targeted sympathetic federal courts to provide justice that the political process had denied blacks.21 Thus, it was a strategy that mobilized the power of federal judicial interpretation and enforcement against the recalcitrance of state and local lawmaking. As such, public interest law relied on an activist liberal judiciary to strike down state action and, as it spread into areas like environmental and consumer law, it also came to depend on the power of federal bureaucracies, like the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration, to enforce federal mandates against market actors.22

While public interest law emerged during this period as an exclusively, and self-confidently, American movement—an expression of American exceptionalism—it did so against the backdrop of Cold War politics. Prior to Brown v. Board of Education, there were efforts within the civil rights community to internationalize the civil rights struggle in order to pressure domestic officials to take bolder action. In a notable example, the NAACP in the late 1940s submitted a petition to the newly formed United Nations Commission on Human Rights challenging the “barbaric” practice of U.S. discrimination against blacks.23 There were additional instances of human rights litigation, as lawyers from the NAACP, ACLU, and other groups attempted to draw international attention to racial discrimination through the inclusion of human rights claims in civil rights cases during the 1940s and 1950s.24 However, this international approach waned in the 1950s in part because civil rights groups were sensitive to avoid the Communist label, but also because of the building momentum for domestic legalism, dramatized by Brown. This momentum, in turn, was spurred by the Communist threat, as federal decision makers moved forward on civil rights reform in order to blunt Soviet criticism of American Jim Crow.25

2. Law and Development

While public interest law asserted the power of liberal legalism to reform American society from within, the law and development movement that emerged in the 1960s sought to export the concept to promote “modernization” in developing countries in the global South26—part of the U.S.’s Cold War effort to extend its sphere of influence. Major sponsors of the law and development movement included the U.S. Agency of International Development (“USAID”) and the Ford Foundation, which established the International Legal Center with a three million dollar grant in 1966 to provide legal assistance to developing countries.27

In contrast to public interest law, which focused on the application of domestic law to reform politics, the law and development movement sought to change foreign law to promote economic growth. Its main aim was to enhance the power of the state over the market, fostering growth through a program of cultivating and protecting internal industries—a model known as import substitution industrialization.28 To achieve this, law and development practitioners targeted the transformation of “legal culture” in developing countries, which was deemed inflexible and unresponsive to policy demands.29 Thus, it was believed that by exporting the antiformalist, policy-oriented approach to law associated with American liberal legalism, state officials would be given the tools to reorient economic systems in a way that could spur modernization. In this model, economic development was prioritized over democratic legal reforms. Law and development proponents argued that the modernization of economic rules would then “spillover” to enhance democratic values and ensure individual rights.30 Because the goal was the transformation of legal culture, the central target of reform was legal education, which was to be reoriented to emphasize pragmatic problem-solving, equipping lawyers to embrace policy-sensitive uses of law.31 The primary champions of law and development were therefore law professors, who were enlisted to transmit the U.S. method of legal education to developing countries.32 During the 1960s, major law and development projects were launched in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.33 For instance, the Ford Foundation launched programs to train law professors in Chile, Colombia, and Peru, promoting exchange programs that sent Latin American professors to prominent U.S. law schools to learn new teaching methodologies so that they could return home to apply them.34

By the 1970s, however, the optimistic view of liberal legalism reflected in the law and development movements was on the wane. This stemmed in part from a reassessment of the operating premises of law and development by some of its most ardent supporters, who began to question the effectiveness of legal transplants and suggested that the notion of American legal exports smacked of legal imperialism.35 Events on the ground also hastened the demise of first-wave law and development. In particular, military coups and the imposition of authoritarian rule in countries like Chile and Argentina in the 1970s derailed legal reform efforts, with conservatives in some instances taking over the key site of modernization: the law schools.36

3. Human Rights

It was against the backdrop of law and development’s decline that the human rights movement emerged as a way of challenging authoritarian regimes from the outside—using the threat of international law and mobilizing the pressure of international opprobrium to force domestic change where opportunities for domestic legal and political action were scarce.37 Thus, the move was from economics back to politics, with human rights used as a crucial tool for responding to state-sponsored violations of civil and political rights, seen most dramatically in the wave of “disappearances” of political dissidents orchestrated by some Latin American military governments.

The international architecture of human rights developed much earlier, borne in the aftermath of World War II, and shaped by the U.S.’s Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. Immediately after the war, the United States was one of the primary architects of the human rights system, contributing to the formation of the United Nations, whose Charter proclaimed “respect for human rights,” and helping to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.38 However, the United States’ support for human rights was always selective, driven by anticommunist foreign policy considerations. Thus, while U.S. officials were quick to point out the human rights failings of the U.S.S.R. and its allies, it attempted to deflect attention from its own internal violations—channeling civil rights activism into domestic venues39—and ignored abuses by anticommunist allies. Moreover, although it played a leading role in establishing the human rights system at the United Nations, it failed to ratify key human rights treaties—including the Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women and the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights—and limited those it did ratify by not according them self-executing power.

It was, ironically, the U.S.’s contradictory stance vis-à-vis human rights that helped launch human rights as an international movement. For instance, U.S. support for the Pinochet coup of the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973 placed the U.S. government in opposition to the progressive Ford Foundation, which invested in human rights organizations in Chile as a way to critique U.S. foreign policy.40 Ford thus backed human rights organizations, like Chile’s Vicaría de Solidaridad, that emerged as a key group contesting the deprivation of civil and political freedoms under the military regime. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ford, which played a central role in the institutionalization of U.S. public interest law, became the primary funder of the international human rights movement, greatly increasing its human rights portfolio and helping to establish pivotal international human rights organizations like the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and the International Human Rights Law Group.41 In Latin America, Ford formally established a human rights funding program and concentrated its grant making on strengthening indigenous human rights organizations, like the Vicaría and Argentina’s Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, in order to enhance their ability to document human rights violations and network with international allies to place violations on the international agenda.42 A similar human rights infrastructure developed in South Africa during the same period, also with Ford support.43 In the Soviet Union, the Moscow Helsinki Group was established in 1976, paving the way for the eventual creation of Human Rights Watch, while human rights activists in Eastern European Soviet Bloc countries banded together in a network that became the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights.44 Although these human rights efforts grew out of indigenous activist traditions, they sought to leverage the institutions of human rights—including the United Nations, the European Court of Human Rights, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—and thus by necessity relied on transnational networks of indigenous activists and outside political and philanthropic allies. Human rights, as a strategy of legal pressure, also drew upon the U.S. public interest law experience as a model for patterning human rights litigation strategy.45 For instance, well-known American lawyers, like Jack Greenberg of the NAACP LDF, provided technical support to South Africa’s nascent Legal Resource Centre and other human rights groups.46

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