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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Life and Work of Christian Legal Theorist William Stuntz

Event Recap

On September 22 University of Pennsylvania Law Professor David Skeel spoke at the Boisi Center about the life and work of William Stuntz, a close friend and long-time collaborator who passed away on March 20, 2011 after a battle with cancer. Stuntz was a distinguished and prolific law professor at Harvard whose humane sensibility and incisive analytic skills yielded innovative contributions to criminal law as well as Christian legal theory.

Stuntz is perhaps best known for his argument, expressed in the 2001 article “Pathological Politics of Criminal Law,” that criminal law is like a one-way ratchet that constantly tightens its grip with more and more crimes to enforce. He called into question the American legal system’s tendency to value procedural rights over substantive ones, pointing to its problematic obsession with privacy and its failure to address more pressing issues like the prevention of police coercion and violence. Skeel explained how Stuntz nearly single-handedly brought together analysis of criminal procedure and substantive criminal law, which were previously treated as entirely separate domains (the one focused upon judicial opinions, the other on the philosophy of punishment).

Stuntz’s influence on Christian legal theory was equally as profound, said Skeel. Until the Harvard Law Review published Stuntz’s essay on the topic in 2003, no article from a discernibly Christian perspective had ever been featured in a prominent law review. In this breakthrough article, Stuntz remained critical of legal moralism, arguing that true Christian legal theory should be about humility.

Skeel closed his remarks by recounting how his friend’s faith permeated every aspect of life. Stuntz saw God in everyone else and treated them better than himself, said Skeel. A 2008 cancer diagnosis only strengthened his faith commitment, enabling him to view the pain as “a form of discipline from God.” Skeel’s heartfelt tribute to Stuntz’s rigorous intellect and devout Christian values moved many in the room to tears as it lifted up the memory of this exceptional man.