Emory Report
July 6, 2009
Volume 61, Number 34


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July 6, 2009
Washington work informs law professor’s teaching

By Leslie King

Clueless. An accidental feminist. Forrest Gump? Victoria Nourse has been called all of those things.
“Nothing in my early career suggested any concern whatsoever with women’s issues,” notes the L.Q.C. Lamar Professor of Law. “That’s not to say I didn’t think I was extremely lucky to have been born at the particular moment in time in which I had. I just wanted to be a great lawyer.”

Nourse’s career got under way when she left home for California. “I’m the only person I know who rebelled by going to law school.”

She wanted to be an engineer, like her grandfather, so she went to Stanford. “But I was one of just a few women in the program, and it was very lonely, so I quit,” she says. After graduating with a degree in history, she worked a year while weighing a decision to go to graduate school in history. “My father’s a banker; he hated lawyers,” Nourse says. So she used her waitressing money to pay for law school.

In her early law career, Nourse was called to go to Washington, D.C. with her mentor Arthur Liman, head of a large New York law firm who became the U.S. Senate’s counsel to the Iran-contra affair.

Nourse turned down the opportunity to return to New York and work on the high-profile case of Michael Milken, an investment banker convicted of securities fraud. “I went to the Justice Department instead because I thought I could get better experience.”

During her stint in Washington, Nourse worked for the Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by then-Sen. Joseph Biden. Vice President Biden thus became a mentor to the young lawyer.

She reflects: “Everything I did in Washington, whether it was for the current vice president or whether it was for the Justice Department, informs my teaching.”

Nourse, who teaches constitutional law, explains her deep reverence for that founding document: “A lot of people go to Washington and become extremely cynical.” Did she? “Not at all.”

But law is about more than the courts, she says. “Law is simply the representation of the people’s will. It’s not that the words of the Constitution ever change. It actually does something. It empowers people to ask their representatives to represent the people’s will.

“That structure is why America is the envy the world over. At the same time, it’s very slow and it can allow for horrible things like torture, slavery, women’s lack of the vote, to go unresponded to for very long periods of time. But, it works for our culture and our society. Look at this polyglot nation, we’ve only had one civil war in over 200 years. That’s impressive.”

Nourse published a book last year, “In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American Eugenics.” She’s now working on one with notoriety: Lochner v. New York.

Known for her work on the issues of gender and criminal law, she’s back on the case for the Violence Against Women act. “I’m working with Legal Momentum [a legal defense group] in New York on a new version of the civil rights remedy that was struck down by the Supreme Court in United States v. Morrison.”

Will she continue teaching?

“Absolutely. I think it’s important for students to understand their modern constitutional history as well
as 1787, particularly World War II and the Greatest Generation. It was the Greatest Generation that recognized fascism for what it was.”

So how is she Forrest Gump? “Because I had this very accidental, lucky career where I happened to be in Washington at moments of time that involved high political drama,” she explains.

“I show up at various points in time and in strange places, and there are a few pictures of me in the Rose Garden, which I’ve never even gotten. I just had my picture taken with the vice president up at Georgetown and for once I think my kids would like to see this!”