Joseph Solomon Distinguished
Professor of Law
Edward A. Purcell Jr. is the Joseph Solomon Distinguished Professor at New York Law School and one of the nation’s foremost authorities on the history of the United States Supreme Court and the federal judicial system. His most recent book, Originalism, Federalism, and the American Constitutional Enterprise: A Historical Inquiry (Yale University Press, 2007), examines the original structure and subsequent operations of the federal system and refutes the widely accepted belief that the founding fathers crafted a careful constitutional balance of power between the states and the federal government. The book argues that there was no clear agreement among the founders regarding the “true” nature of American federalism, nor was there any consensus on a “correct” line dividing national authority from state authority. The book maintains that even if there had been some such true “original” understanding, the elastic, dynamic, and underdetermined nature of the constitutional structure would have made it impossible for subsequent generations to maintain any such specific balance.
Professor Purcell’s previous book, Brandeis and the Progressive Constitution: Erie, the Judicial Power, and the Politics of the Federal Courts in Twentieth-Century America (Yale University Press, 2000), examines how the Erie case provides a window into the legal, political, and ideological battles over the federal courts in the 20th century and also offers an in-depth study of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis’s evolving constitutional jurisprudence. The book has been hailed by reviewers as a work destined to occupy an important place in the constitutional-historical canon. It was awarded an American Bar Association Silver Gavel Certificate of Merit and the Supreme Court Historical Society’s Triennial Griswold Prize, only the fourth work to be singled out since the prize was established more than a decade ago. In 2004 it received the Association of American Law Schools’ Coif Triennial Book Award, an honor conferred on legal scholarship of the “highest order” over the relevant three-year period and conferred previously on the work of only sixteen other legal scholars.
Professor Purcell first became interested in legal and constitutional issues when he was studying 20th century American intellectual history at the University of Wisconsin, where he began work on legal realism and its relationship to democratic theory and on the rise of totalitarianism during the 1930s. After completing his Ph.D., he taught American history at the University of Missouri and, while there, took a year’s leave of absence to serve as Charles Warren Fellow in American Legal History at Harvard Law School. “My research on legal realism had made me realize that I was dealing with issues I didn’t fully understand,” he recalls, “and I knew I needed some legal training.” At Harvard he sat in on first-year classes, which he found “fascinating,” and finished his first book, The Crisis of Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism & the Problem of Value (University Press of Kentucky, 1973), which was awarded the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize by the Organization of American Historians. Returning to the University of Missouri, he became a tenured professor in the department of history but found himself increasingly drawn to legal subjects and decided to return to Harvard to complete his legal education. “While I was in law school as a full-time student,” he remembers, “I concluded that, if I was really going to understand law and the legal system, I had to go into practice for a time.”
After graduation, Professor Purcell joined Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison LLP and remained there from 1980 to 1989, periodically taking leaves of absence to work on what was to become his second book, Litigation & Inequality: Federal Diversity Jurisdiction in Industrial America, 1870–1958 (Oxford University Press, 1992). “By 1988 I realized that I wasn’t going to finish the book if I remained a practicing lawyer,” Professor Purcell says. “Then, I got a call from New York Law School asking me to teach Federal Courts and Civil Procedure—exactly what I was writing about. Both the timing and the subjects were perfect.” The law school environment has provided the “intellectual crackle” he loves. “When a law school class goes really well,” he believes, “it’s a fantastic experience.” In addition to teaching Civil Procedure and Federal Courts, he also teaches courses on civil rights law and complex litigation.
Professor Purcell was born in Kansas City, Missouri, where he grew up and attended Rockhurst College. Subsequently, he received an M.A. in American history from the University of Kansas before attending the University of Wisconsin. Prior to law school, Professor Purcell also taught at the University of California, Berkeley and at Wellesley College. He has served on the Board of Directors of the American Society for Legal History and the Community Law Offices of the Legal Aid Society, and he is a member of the Editorial Board of the scholarly journal Continuity and Change. He has been active in the Association of the Bar of the City of New York on its committees for Housing Court, the Legal Needs of the Poor, and the President’s Committee on Implementing the Report of the Pro Bono Housing Court Project. In 2004, he was elected Program Chair of the Federal Courts Section of the Association of American Law Schools, and in 2005–06, he served as the section’s Chair. In addition to his books, he has published widely in law reviews (including the Virginia Law Review, The University of Pennsylvania Law Review, and the UCLA Law Review) and history journals (including the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, and the American Quarterly). He has also contributed chapters to several books, including the Cambridge History of Law in America (Cambridge University Press, 2008), Progressive Lawyering, Globalization and Markets: Rethinking Ideology and Strategy (William S. Hein & Co., 2007), and Private Law and Social Inequality in the Industrial Age: Comparing Legal Cultures in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States (Oxford University Press, 2000).
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O: 57 Worth Street, E7
Rockhurst College, B.A. 1962
University of Kansas, M.A. 1964
University of Wisconsin, Ph.D. 1968
Harvard, J.D. 1979 cum laude (Harvard Civil Rights/Civil Liberties Law Review, Book Review Editor)