Flourishing Families


The law’s capacity to shape cities and families, long considered disparate subjects, should no longer inhabit separate academic spheres, Fordham Law Professor Clare Huntington told colleagues during the Fordham Urban Law Journal’s eighth annual Cooper-Walsh Colloquium on October 23.

“Flourishing Families in Context: A New Lens for Urban Law” featured scholars from across the country. The colloquium explored the broad social and economic context of family life, the impact of the government’s choices on family functioning, and the relevance of the urban setting.

“Clare raises sets of issues in a new and important way,” Fordham Law School Dean Matthew Diller said Friday morning in his opening remarks about Huntington, Fordham’s associate dean for research and author of Failure to Flourish: How Law Undermines Family Relationships.

The day’s first presenter, University of Texas Law Professor Sean Williams, inspired lively debate with his paper titled “Sex in the City,” part of a larger project exploring local and traditional norms and encouraging these norms to become more public rather than private.

Sean Williams and Clare Huntington

Sean Williams and Clare Huntington

The broad standards in family law give judges tremendous discretion, often to the detriment of families, Williams argued. As an alternative, he raised the prospect of cities passing “local rules of thumb” to guide discretionary rules in situations involving alimony, child custody, and other divorce matters. Williams’ ideas sparked differing opinions on whether local elected officials would be better at appraising marriage norms than local judges and whether a more localized family law might hurt families that did not meet community norms.

“If all they can do is adopt non-binding rules of thumb I’d be concerned this would turn into posture,” said Columbia Law School Professor Richard Briffault, the respondent to Williams.

Duke University Law Professor Katharine Bartlett also expressed concerns that local control would undermine family autonomy.

Whereas Williams’ paper addressed fallout from divorce, Boston University School of Law Professor Katharine Silbaugh’s article, “Housing Design and Policy for Households and for Families,” sought to “figure out how to talk about families in a post-marriage world.”

Family law is “deeply embedded in marriage and parenthood,” Silbaugh noted, but that “doesn’t describe family life very well anymore.”

Silbaugh raised the idea of urban housing units that would expand or contract more easily than they do now, in order to allow families to adjust to changing financial realities and family composition. Micro units, like the ones Silbaugh described, don’t offer a plausible business model for developers seeking certainty and cash flow, argued Professor Raphael Bostic of the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy.

The concept’s roots exist more in family law theory than practical application at the moment, Silbaugh conceded. Still, Huntington deemed Silbaugh’s ideas “a useful intervention on how the law should respond to changing family norms.”

Three other presenters—Naomi Schoenbaum, George Washington University Law School, Raphael Bostic, University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy, and Peggy Cooper Davis, NYU School of Law—also discussed issues relating to the intersection of family law and urban law.

Huntington organized the colloquium in collaboration with Fordham Law Professor Susan Block-Lieb, the Cooper Family Chair of Urban Legal Studies, Sheila Foster, the Albert A. Walsh Professor of Real Estate, Land Use and Property Law, Nestor Davidson, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, and Aaron Saiger, Professor of Law.

The articles presented during the colloquium will be published in spring 2016 as part of the Fordham Urban Law Journal’s Cooper-Walsh issue.

–Ray Legendre


Comments are closed.