Stephen Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale Law School. He has taught at Yale since 1982. Carter is known for his legal and social policy writings, which include Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, The Culture of Disbelief, and God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics. He has also written novels, including New England White and The Emperor of Ocean Park. Carter's areas of expertise include constitutional law, contracts, intellectual property law, secrets and lying, and law and religion. He clerked for Judge Spottswood W. Robinson III of the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals for and Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court. He was educated at Stanford University and Yale, where he earned his law degree.
Question: What do you do?
Stephen Carter: I do a lot of things today, and the first things that I do today are not about my work because I think of myself first, I admit, as a husband and a father. And those are my highest duties, the ones I take the most seriously. Maybe that’s a part of my Christianity, I don’t know; but those are my highest duties. My duty to my neighbor, my duty to be a good citizen is high. I was the head of a Boy Scout troop with a mission to an inner city in New Haven for many, many years. And I think the reason I did that wasn’t so much for the fun of it. I’m not gonna claim that I enjoyed it that much. I probably didn’t. But it seemed to me something I ought to be doing. I think really that was a big part of it. But what I do otherwise is I’m a law professor and I’m a writer. I teach and I write. Teaching, to me, is fundamental to human experience. We all teach every day by example whether we want to or not. I teach, I admit, particularly arcane subjects. I teach law. I create future lawyers. I don’t know if that’s a valuable social enterprise or not. I certainly hope that it is. But in the work that I’ve done as a scholar – and I’ve been writing . . . I’ve been a legal scholar for a quarter century now. In the work that I have done as a legal scholar, I’m particularly interesting in the ways that law can and should be used to constrain power. I’m a lot less interested in what we should use law, as I said before, to force people to do or to keep them from doing. I’m interested in how to use law to constrain power, public or private. That really is, to me, quite important because I think that so much human misery comes when power – whether public or private power – cannot be resisted; where there’s no forces to stand against it. And I believe in those forces of many different kinds to stand against power. That motivates me as a legal scholar. It motivates me as a commentator on public issues. It also motivates me in another life. I’m also a novelist. I write novels. I’ve written two best-selling novels. And in my novels, I’m often confronting people. The novels are . . . I guess you’d call them thrillers. And yet within the thriller structure, what strikes me as important is how to constrain power. I don’t mean how is the bad guy gonna lose and the good guy gonna win. I mean to see how bad guys are created in a sense by power unconstrained; by something inside . . . the way there’s something inside each of us that can rise to the surface at unexpected moments can take advantage of not being restrained. I’m not saying there are no evil people in the world. I think there are. But I also think there are a lot of people who wouldn’t seem to act the way they do if they lived in a world where they themselves had a stronger sense of constraint, of limits on what they’re able to do.
Recorded on: 7/25/07