Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Anne Fleming: In Memoriam

Anne C. Fleming, Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center, died suddenly Tuesday night from natural causes.  We at the blog were fortunate to know her and we join her colleagues, students, friends, and family in mourning her passing. This post will not do justice to her life, but it is a first attempt to recognize the many ways in which she enriched our field.  We know that more remembrances will follow; when they do, we will post them here.

Anne was an honors graduate of Yale College and the Harvard Law School. Amidst her studies, she also found time to work at the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts, the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.  After law school, she clerked for the Honorable Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York and then with the Honorable Marjorie O. Rendell of the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Third Circuit.  From there, she went to the Foreclosure Prevention Project in South Brooklyn Legal Services, where she served as a Staff Attorney from 2007 to 2009.

Anne Fleming (credit)
In 2009, Anne enrolled in the doctoral program of the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania, immediately impressing fellow students with her clear-eyed sense of purpose, her maturity, and her generosity of spirit.  She wrote her dissertation under the direction of Sarah Barringer Gordon, but had many other fans and supporters on the faculty, including dissertation committee members Thomas Sugrue and Michael Katz. 

She also earned recognition outside of Penn. As a graduate student, she was a fellow in the J. Willard Hurst Summer Institute of the American Society for Legal History, a prestigious training ground for scholars entering the field of legal history. (Follow the link for some photos from the Hurst Institute class of 2013.) Two different learned societies awarded her their graduate paper prizes: the ASLH, for “The Borrower’s Tale: A History of Poor Debtors in Lochner Era New York City” (subsequently published in the Law and History Review) and the Business History Conference, for “The ‘Very Fibre of Personal Finance’: Changing Beliefs about the Regulation and the Small Sum Lending Industry in New York, 1900-1940."  Her dissertation, completed in 2014, was similarly well received, winning the BHC’s annual dissertation prize.

In 2012, Anne returned to the Harvard Law School as a Climenko Fellow and Lecturer in Law. She taught legal writing and thrived as a scholar, drawing on the methodological diversity of her fellowship class to widen her own scholarly range. But she remained devoted to the research questions that had grown out of her public interest legal work and animated her history training. She was "just so committed to the truth," recalls a colleague from her time there. 
Anne joined Georgetown’s law faculty in 2014.  In that year she also published “The Rise and Fall of Unconscionability as the ‘Law of the Poor,’” which placed Williams v. Walker-Thomas Furniture Company in the context of a statutory transformation of consumer protection law.  The article remains revered by contracts law teachers for the way it reframes a canonical case.

Anne’s book, City of Debtors: A Century of Fringe Finance (Harvard University Press, 2018), was a Choice Outstanding Academic Title and won the annual book prize of the American College of Consumer Financial Services Lawyers and the Ralph Gomory Book Prize of the Business History Conference, whose prize committee described it well:

In this deeply-researched, well-crafted, and timely book, Anne Fleming offers a rich history of the small loan industry, across most of the twentieth century.  Drawing on evidence from hundreds of court cases, among other sources, Fleming skilfully reconstructs the changing experiences and strategies of borrowers and lenders, as they navigated changing local and national regulatory regimes.  Using crisp prose, Fleming provides a clear discussion of a long and complex story about business and regulation, while highlighting the struggles of individual human characters.  City of Debtors is a detailed, scholarly study, but one that never loses sight of bigger, enduring problems and questions, including, as Fleming puts it, questions about the “meaning of justice within capitalism.”
She discussed the book in a series of posts on LHB. In characteristic fashion, Anne wrote about her work in a way that was the opposite of self-aggrandizing, studding her posts with words of wisdom for other writers.  She also discussed the book with the director of the American Bankruptcy Institute in the ABI’s podcast series.

At her untimely death, Anne had entered a new and ambitious phase of her scholarly career. For example, her 2019 article "The Public Interest in the Private Law of the Poor" explored "uncharted connections between private law and poverty law," showing "how concerns about public spending on poor relief have shaped debates over the private law of the poor for over a century." The article was aimed not only at legal historians and scholars of poverty law, but also at scholars of law and economics and policymakers concerned with contemporary economic inequality. 

Anne was also fully embarked on an enormously exciting book project, “Household Borrowing and Bankruptcy in Jim Crow America, 1920-1960.” Anne planned to describe “how working-class households, both black and white, organized their financial lives and navigated the shifting matrix of legal rules and institutions that governed credit relationships and debt forgiveness in the first half of the twentieth century.”  Although she had conducted research on Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and expected to sample bankruptcy files in other cities, her research centered on Birmingham, Alabama, where, for over five years in the 1930s, an innovative “Debtors Court” adjudicated the filings of 10,000 wage earners seeking debt adjustment or forgiveness.  The court inspired Chapter 13 of the federal bankruptcy law, which extended its system of court-supervised repayment to the entire nation.  Further, its docket and case files, when linked to the census and city directories and geocoded, made possible a rich portrait of the financial lives of the working class and showed how race shaped access to credit and debt relief.  She captured her preliminary findings in a website, The Bankruptcy Capital of the World: Debt Relief in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1930s, which she was still revising at her death.  We link to it with permission.

Her colleagues, students, and fellow historians all remember her warmth, generosity, utter lack of pretension, and above all her kindness.  A colleague at South Brooklyn Legal Services recalled her as “fiercely dedicated to her clients, a brilliant and selfless advocate.”  Tom Sugrue, one of her dissertation advisors, writes that she was “quietly brilliant and deeply humane.” “Losing a good scholar is bad enough,” writes Bruce Mann, who advised her when she was a Climenko, “but losing such a good person is far worse.”

We at the blog will miss her dearly and treasure her memory.  

-- Dan Ernst, Mitra Sharafi, and Karen Tani