The Law School Magazine The New York University School of Law

Introducing Samuel Issacharoff

Bonnie and Richard Reiss Professor of Constitutional Law

Originally published in the 2005 issue of the Law School magazine.

Professor Samuel Issacharoff is not one to rest on his laurels. Just when he’s made a name for himself in a particular field, he moves on. Two years ago he was inducted into the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences for his expertise in employment law and his empirical work in behavioral law and economics. But “neither of those would come to the top of any list right now,” says the Renaissance man, whose interests currently lean toward complex litigation and procedure and constitutional law. “I tend to move across a lot of different fields. There’s tremendous excitement while you’re on the upward slope of the learning curve. Then you make the decision whether to stay with what you’ve become good at, or do something different.”

Apparently Issacharoff, who was lured from Columbia Law School to join the faculty this summer as the Bonnie and Richard Reiss Professor of Constitutional Law, has made that decision, going for the latter option several times over.

“He’s a lawyer hyphen scholar. He’s able to bridge the gap between high theory and a lawyer’s sense of how judges are thinking about issues. His practice informs his scholarship, and his scholarship informs his practice,” says coauthor Stanford Law professor Pamela S. Karlan.

On the lawyer side of the hyphen, Issacharoff started in the mid-1980s as acting director of the Voting Rights Project for the D.C.-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, litigating politically charged matters like racist gerrymandering. “These were great professional moments that gave me tremendous satisfaction. You felt you were on the right side of history,” he says. In 1992, as a junior faculty member at the University of Texas School of Law, he did a turn as an affirmative action lawyer, helping represent the school in the high-profile Hopwood reverse-discrimination case. (The University won at trial but lost on appeal.)

His earliest scholarly writings were on procedural law and employment law. In the late 1990s he started writing about the political issues he’d dealt with as a young lawyer, culminating in the seminal book The Law of Democracy: Legal Structure of the Political Process (with Law School Professor Richard Pildes and Pamela S. Karlan, 1998). He and his coauthors made the TV talk show circuit during the controversial 2000 presidential election, and by 2001 published When Elections Go Bad: The Law of Democracy and The Presidential Election of 2000.

“Sam is one of the refreshingly large personalities in the legal academic world—and not just because he is 6’5,” says Pildes. “While most academics aspire to shape a field, Sam’s scholarship has re-defined several fields: voting rights, complex litigation, civil procedure and employment law. He is not afraid to take strong, controversial positions, but his work is as respected among courts—which cite it regularly—as it is among academics.”

Issacharoff, 50, was born in Buenos Aires, to dad, Amnon, 77, a psychoanalyst, and mom, Dorah, 72, who taught college comparative literature. When he was five years old and spoke only Spanish, the family, which includes two younger siblings, moved to the U.S., eventually settling in Manhattan. In 1968, at the height of the student protests, he entered the competitive Bronx Science High School. “It was a time when schoolwork seemed very difficult to justify as a consuming event,” he recalls. “There were times when attention was focused on the wonderful chemistry courses, and times when we focused on the police arresting students in the building.”

A lingering effect of that period was to redirect his interests from math and science toward history and social sciences. “I was very much taken by the ideas of the day,” he explains. He graduated from SUNY Binghamton in 1975, having majored in history, spent a year studying at the Université Paris, then entered CUNY’s Graduate Center to study labor history.

When he started at Yale Law School, from which he graduated in 1983, he became immediately enthralled not only with the aspect of legal argumentation, but with the intellectual discipline of law itself. “I was tremendously taken by the craft side of law, fascinated by legal procedure, drawn to ways of conceptualizing a problem and strategizing a solution,” says Issacharoff.

After stints at the Lawyers’ Committee for International Human Rights, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and a D.C. labor law firm, he joined the University of Texas School of Law, where he became the Joseph D. Jamail Centennial Chair in Law. He left in 1999 to become a visiting professor at Columbia Law School, where he was eventually named the Harold R. Medina Professor in Procedural Jurisprudence. “I’ve had three chairs. That shows some instability,” he jokes.

Not so, however, when it comes to personal relationships.

He met Cynthia Estlund, his wife of nearly 20 years, in his first semester Constitutional Law class, taught by Robert Bork. She sat in front of him, and after a few months of fits and starts and a few hard-fought squash games, they became a steady pair. “He’d been out of school for several years and was beyond a lot of the law school neuroses,” recalls Estlund, a professor at Columbia University School of Law, who will be visiting NYU in the spring. “He was world-wise, iconoclastic and confident.” They married in 1986 and have two children, Jessica, 18, and Lucas, 16.

Issacharoff has published nearly 100 articles, essays and reports. And in addition to his two earlier books, he has just published Civil Procedure (Foundation Press) and Party Funding and Campaign Financing: An International Perspective (Hart Press).

What’s the secret to his productivity? “He is someone who can do three things at one time. He’ll get on the exercise machine with a manuscript in front of him and a basketball game on the television. And then while he’s cooling down, he’ll sit down at the computer for 10 minutes and write a paragraph,” says Estlund.

Most recently, Issacharoff has become interested in mass tort litigation where “everybody knows there has to be a resolution, but nobody knows quite how,” he says (e.g., cases involving faulty breast implants or DES exposure). He’s recently been appointed to produce a report and commentary for The American Law Institute for the Project on Aggregate Litigation.

His current interests also include the law of democratic participation—i.e., creating democracies in Bosnia and Iraq. This past summer he gave a talk on national security at Oxford University. He’s toying with the idea of writing a book on constitutionalism and fractured societies. “This work is newer,” says Stanford Law School professor and vice dean, Mark Kelman, “but it’s incredibly interesting and likely to be important over the next decade as we think about democracy-building as a foreign policy issue. He’s one of the outstanding scholars of his generation.”

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