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New Cal Western Faculty Member Publishes Groundbreaking Legal History Book

Professor Erin Sheley

The relationship between law and narrative is the cornerstone of much of Professor Erin Sheley’s scholarly work.

Sheley combines insights from the various fields of cultural studies to make the case that the narrative aspects of harm ought to play a more consistent role in shaping civil and criminal liability, procedure, evidentiary rules, and remedies.

Sheley joins California Western’s faculty this fall from the University of Oklahoma College of Law, where she was an Associate Professor. She will be teaching criminal procedure, evidence, and white-collar crime.

“I am deeply grateful, especially at this moment when we are all facing so much uncertainty, to return to my home state of California,” said Sheley. “I am excited at the opportunity to empower our students, who are coming up at such a deeply difficult moment in time, to attain the tools necessary to find their voices as lawyers.”

In serendipitous timing, her latest book, Criminality and the Common Law Imagination (Edinburgh University Press), was published as she joined California Western in 2020.

The book is published within the series of Edinburgh’s Critical Studies in Law, Literature, and the Humanities. With a global reach, this innovative series critically reimagines, through the most advanced conceptual frameworks and interpretive methods of contemporary theory available in the humanities and jurisprudence, the interdisciplinary relationship between law and cultural memory.

Criminality and the Common Law Imagination is a broad study of the relationship between the legal account of criminality and the cultural narratives sustaining it during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It presents transformative interdisciplinary readings of a range of literary and legal texts across 200 years, examining representations of English legal evolution in literary texts of this period. It considers how the importance of precedent to the common law made imagery of historical legitimacy critical to the cultural understanding of criminality.

“In my law review articles on contemporary legal topics I always like to think about how common law concepts like consent and harm can expand to take into account our new understandings of gendered violence and individual subjective experience,” said Sheley. “But I have also always had a deep interest in legal and literary history that started in my undergrad days as an English major. So I was interested in writing a book that would look at how the power of evolving cultural narratives about criminality shaped the legal system we have inherited. (If you want to nerd out with me in office hours, ask me why I think the novel Jane Eyre affected the development of modern divorce law.)”

Sheley’s scholarly papers have appeared in the Duke Law Journal, the Wake Forest Law Review, the Indiana Law Journal, the North Carolina Law Review, and the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, among others. Much in demand as a speaker, Sheley has presented her work across the U.S and in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the Republic of Georgia.

“My recent papers all deal with the problem of fitting gendered violence into the formal legal definitions of harm that often ignore gender,” explained Sheley. “When I teach criminal law I learn from my students about these topics at the same time that I teach them: how do we, for example, think about psychological coercive control in domestic or human trafficking settings under the rubric of the criminal law? How do we avoid the adverse and racially unjust effects of over-policing on communities while trying to respond to real harm to victims? These are hard, high-level conversations that do not admit of easy answers, but everyone has something to contribute to them. And these conversations allow students to hone their legal analytical skills, to marshal their own perspectives and experiences into coherent legal arguments.”

Prior to academia, Sheley practiced as an Associate Attorney at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Washington, D.C. Her practice areas included white-collar criminal defense, securities litigation, and government contracts. While in practice, she was commended by the Humane Society of the United States for her pro bono work on animal welfare cases.

As Sheley brings her extensive teaching experience and scholarly research to California Western, she is excited to start building relationships with her new students.

“I had hoped to meet you all under happier circumstances,” said Sheley in a message to her students. “I hate that you are beginning your legal careers in the midst of so much chaos and I wish I could bring to you the classes I have worked so many years to develop, the way they were intended to be taught. But sometimes disaster can lead to growth and greatness; we have seen that already in the recent protests and the incremental changes they have started to bring about. So, while our work together won’t always be as pretty or as tidy as I would like thanks to the Zoom format, I think it will be the most important work I will ever do as a teacher. And I’m excited to do it with you.”

The California Western community welcomes Professor Erin Sheley to the law school.

To learn more about Professor Sheley’s new book, Criminality and the Common Law Imagination, click here.