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December 12, 2007

A True Innovator: Stanton Wheeler, 1930-2007

This past Friday, Yale Law professor Stanton Wheeler died in New Haven.   His influence both on students and cross-disciplinary scholarship was profound.  Prof. Wheeler came to Yale Law from the Harvard sociology faculty in 1968; a non-lawyer, he was one of the first "pure" Ph.D.'s to teach in law school.  His focus was largely on criminal subjects; his book with Austin Sarat, Sitting in Judgment:  The Sentencing of White Collar Criminals, remains one of the best studies of how, exactly, sentencing disparities come about as judges look at individual defendants.

From 1989-1990, I was Professor Wheeler's research assistant.  I put together material for a class on music law and worked with him on other projects.  The whole time, I was primarily watching his mind work.  More specifically, I was watching his eye.  The same way an artist has an eye for shape or color, Prof. Wheeler had an eye for that meaningful intersection between law and person, where the true effects of law become known.  For example, one project we worked on involved New York City's cabaret laws.  Those laws dictated that no more than three musicians could play at one time in many establishments.  We followed that law to where it mattered, to the place where musicians had to either work with or around that (somewhat bizarre) restriction.  On the one hand, it meant that trios predominated in New York clubs, and that sidemen had to be chosen carefully; on the other, it explained the existence of illegal clubs (featuring larger bands) in New York well after the end of prohibition.  The law shaped choices, he showed me, and even framed the sound of Miles Davis.

He may not have been a lawyer, but I have yet to meet someone else who so clearly saw what was real about the law.  I hope that his lessons live on in myself and others as the best legacy any teacher can leave.

-- Mark Osler

December 12, 2007 | Permalink


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