Featured today in our Scholar Spotlight series is Amalia Kessler, Stanford University. In our earlier interviews, we noted that only three of the fifty contributors to the recently published Oxford Handbook of European Legal History were women. Like Women Also Know History, this Scholar Spotlight series aims to showcase female scholars and their work. Its special focus is scholars of European legal history.
Amalia is a professor at Stanford University. She lives in Los Altos, California.
Alma maters: A.B. (History and Literature), Harvard College, 1994; M.A. (History), Stanford University, 1996; J.D., Yale Law School, 1999; Ph.D. (History), Stanford University, 2001.
Fields of interest: history of commercial law, market culture, and capitalism; history of civil procedure and alternative dispute resolution; comparative legal history.
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? I was always fascinated by history—perhaps in part because of my Romanian-born grandmother’s many stories about life in Europe before and during the Second World War. I ended up focusing on history in college—most especially that of Old Regime France. But as we studied the French Revolution, it became increasingly clear that, while typically described in political terms, the revolution was at least as much about law. Law was the language and institutions through which power and politics were actually operationalized—and I wanted to know more. So I pursued both a doctoral degree in history and a law degree. After completing my education, I clerked for a federal appellate judge and spent a few years working as a trial lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice. I then began my academic career at Stanford.
What do you like the most about where you live and work? The Mediterranean climate, the access to great fruit and vegetables, the proximity to both urban and natural landscapes, the cultural diversity, and the myriad intellectual riches of Stanford itself.
What projects are you currently working on? I am exploring the early twentieth-century embrace of arbitration and conciliation, examining its institutional, rather than just legislative roots. Challenging the prevailing narrative which locates these developments in a turn to private ordering, I emphasize the ways they were shaped by state action and priorities. The New Deal state invested enormously in funding—and even mandating the use of—ostensibly private arbitration services. So too, some of the main proponents of arbitration and conciliation were not private commercial groups, but municipal-court reformers, interested in developing modes of public, court-based ADR that would enable the court to serve as an alternative to the burgeoning administrative state.
Have your interests evolved since finishing your studies? My Ph.D. studies and first book—A Revolution in Commerce: The Parisian Merchant Court and the Rise of Commercial Society in Eighteenth-Century France—were focused on early-modern European (and in particular, Old Regime French) history. But I recently published a book on nineteenth-century U.S. history: Inventing American Exceptionalism: The Origins of American Adversarial Legal Culture, 1800-1877. This later book emerged from my background in European legal history, which made me attentive to features of U.S. procedure that were much more akin to European practice than the standard adversarial account of U.S. procedure would suggest possible. In trying to understand the existence of seemingly European elements within U.S. procedure, I was led to explore the history of equity courts and procedure, as well as now forgotten efforts to adopt from continental Europe (and especially France) institutions known as conciliation courts. The book explores the links between these procedural developments and a range of contemporary, nineteenth-century debates concerning such questions as the role of government in regulating markets and promoting racial equality.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found in your primary sources? It’s hard to choose just one! One surprising and fascinating discovery in the archives that I made while researching A Revolution in Commerce was the extent to which Old Regime French merchant courts called on local parish priests to assist in arbitrating merchant disputes. Needless to say, priests do not fit the standard account of the lex mercatoria as created by and for merchants. In researching Inventing American Exceptionalism, I was amazed to discover in my review of New York Chancery records that core procedural changes that we associate with the enactment of the famous Field Code of 1848 were anticipated decades earlier through bottom-up initiatives pursued on a case-by-case basis by lawyers on the ground.
Is there an article, book, film, website, etc. that you would recommend to LHB readers? Please check out the website of our new Stanford Center for Law and History (https://law.stanford.edu/stanford-center-for-law-and-history/), where you can sign on to our mailing list and view a listing of all our activities. So too, you can find listed on the website a broad range of opportunities (not just at Stanford) for postdocs and students in legal history, which we update regularly.
What have you found to be the most surprising thing about academic life? The pleasures of aging! More particularly, the satisfaction that comes from building long-term relationships with students and mentees.