Law as an Instrument of Social Reform

Charles R. Epp

in The Oxford Handbook of Law and Politics

Published in print August 2008 | ISBN: 9780199208425
Published online September 2009 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks of Political Science

Law as an Instrument of Social Reform


This article examines why groups seeking social reform in the United States (and elsewhere) commonly have resorted to litigation, and whether (and how) court-made law is an instrument of social reform. First, what is “law” and what is “social reform?” These definitions take on significance in light of the ongoing debate over judicial role and capacity generated first by the Supreme Court's social-policy interventions under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1950s and 1960s, and, more recently, by the growing role of courts virtually worldwide and its close link with civil rights and civil liberties litigation. In this context, when scholars have examined whether “law” may be used as a tool of “social reform,” they generally have meant whether judge-made law, particularly in cases brought by social movement litigators, improves the conditions of the disadvantaged groups targeted by such litigation, particularly racial minorities, women, inmates, and people living in poverty.

Keywords: United States; social reform; disadvantaged groups; litigation; law; courts; civil rights; civil liberties; women; racial minorities

Article.  8168 words. 

Subjects: Politics ; Politics and Law

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