Deborah Hellman, Expert on Discrimination, to Join UVA Law Faculty

April 2, 2012

Deborah Hellman, a University of Maryland School of Law professor and expert on discrimination, constitutional law and campaign finance, will join the University of Virginia School of Law's faculty in August as a professor of law.

test image
Deborah Hellman

Hellman is currently the Jacob France Research Professor of Law at the University of Maryland, where she teaches constitutional law, the legal profession, contracts, bioethics and jurisprudence. During the fall semester, Hellman was a visiting professor at UVA Law, and taught two courses, "Constitutional Law II: Law and Theory of Equal Protection" and a seminar on "Money and Rights."

"Professor Hellman's teaching and scholarship ranges over fields as diverse as antidiscrimination law, jurisprudence and bioethics," said Virginia Law Dean Paul Mahoney. "She is a rigorous thinker who tests moral intuitions with painstaking analysis. We are excited to have her join our faculty."

Hellman is the author of "When is Discrimination Wrong?" a 2008 book that attempts to define when discrimination is morally permissible and when it is not.

"If you think about discrimination without its pejorative connotation, just to mean drawing distinctions among people on the basis of any trait — we do it all the time," she said. "You've got to be 16 to drive. That's discrimination on the basis of age, but I take it [that it is] perfectly permissible, right? Yet in other cases, age discrimination might be morally wrong, such as when it expresses that old people are less worthy of our concern and respect."

The book's central argument is that it is morally wrong to draw distinctions among people when it is demeaning and not morally wrong to do so when it is not.

"It's not about what the person or entity drawing the distinction intended, nor even predominantly about the effects," she said. "It's about what the action of drawing the distinction expresses — does it express that the group treated differently is of lesser worth?"

As an example, Hellman pointed to California's Proposition 8, a 2008 voter referendum that removed the rights of same-sex couples to marry.

"If you think the fact that Proposition 8 took away the ability of gays and lesbians to marry someone of the same sex is wrongful discrimination, this is not because the people of California intended to treat gays and lesbians as second-class citizens," she said. "Nor is it predominantly about the effects of that law. Rather, in my view, Proposition 8 is wrongful discrimination because keeping gays and lesbians out of the institution of marriage expresses that their unions are not as good, that they're lesser in some respect."

Hellman's interest in discrimination continues today. For example, she is writing an article about profiling, by which she means, for example, that airport screeners decide which passengers to subject to greater scrutiny based on certain traits about them. Profiling is common. Is it morally or legally problematic and if so, when and why? And how should we think about these questions? Should we think about it as an equal protection issue or as a Fourth Amendment issue?

Hellman earned her law degree from Harvard Law School, a master's degree in philosophy from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree from Dartmouth College. Her background in philosophy, she said, informs her legal scholarship, particularly with regards to her thinking about moral questions as they occur in law.

In addition to discrimination, Hellman is also interested in campaign finance.

She recently wrote a forthcoming article, "Defining Corruption and Constitutionalizing Democracy," that explores the nature of corruption and questions whether courts should be in the business of defining corruption.

Since 1976, she noted, the U.S. Supreme Court has said that restrictions on campaign contributions are a restriction of speech and can only be justified by a compelling government interest. And the sole interest the Court has so far found compelling is avoiding corruption or the appearance of corruption.

"Defining corruption requires a court to define bad government," she said. "But in order to define bad government, you are necessarily defining what is good government. And in other areas of constitutional law, the court [has been] very reluctant to put forward a concept of good government — This article argues it should be similarly tentative in the campaign finance area and leave it to legislative judgment about what is the proper role of the legislator in a well-functioning democracy."

Hellman said she is excited to join UVA's faculty, saying that her time here as a visiting professor was "fabulous."

"It's a terrifically engaged and exciting faculty," she said. "There are so many people that I want to learn from. I love the degree of intellectual engagement … I also found [the students] a delight to talk to. People were just so phenomenally warm and friendly — a real community."

Hellman will join UVA Law's faculty on Aug. 25, though she will be in residence at the Law School starting in July.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

News Highlights