FALL 2000 ISSUE

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Enamored with learning, one year after joining the Penn Law faculty as an assistant professor, in 1995 Gordon was awarded a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University. In a continuation of her earlier work on law and religion, her dissertation focused on the polygamy cases, the first religion cases to reach the Supreme Court in the late nineteenth century. Gordon is currently revising her dissertation for publication in 2001 by the series Studies in Legal History at the University of North Carolina Press, entitled "The Constitution of Faith: Marriage, Mormonism and the Meaning of Liberty in Nineteenth-Century America." She is also working on an article on the law of blasphemy for publication later this year, and a bibliographic essay for a volume on legal history of the American West. "It's really a scholar's tool, collected essays about the West," she explains. "Mine, of course, is on the law and how it changed as the country spread West. There was a tremendous amount of legal experimentation going on as this new nation grew and expanded. Just look at the Compromise of 1850, which admitted the State of California and other territories. There was the question of what to do with slavery in these new areas. This constitutional question was key, only a few years later, in beginning the Civil War."

Her desire to map out American legal and religious history has been the foundation for a career as teacher and scholar. As a teacher, love of the law and its history manifests itself differently, depending on whom she is teaching. "I love teaching at the undergraduate level, as well as the Law School," she says. "With college students, you're trying to teach them to think openly, to experiment with ideas. At the law school level, you often don't have that luxury. Here you teach students that ideas have consequences, that there really are right and wrong answers. Students are taught to sift through various ideas and legal concepts and find the one that works best for the law and for their client. They have to know that if their idea or strategy is not in their client's best interests then it can't be the right answer."

Gordon knows that functional, practical aspects of the law exist in the present - what does the court say the law means today, here and now? But courts inevitably draw those meanings from past conflicts, and past decisions. As a legal historian she emphasizes the fundamentally historical underpinnings of church-state relations in America today. "Constitutional questions dealing with church and state matters are among the most difficult of all governmental questions, and they all come from historical sources," she explains. "I tell my students that you can't even begin to understand the questions without understanding the past conflicts out of which they come. It's like trying to do a crossword puzzle backwards. Also, my growing conviction is that thinking about this field in any depth means knowing how the questions have been recast at different times in history."

It has been this desire to think deeply about history that has Gordon thinking about the Law School itself. As chair of the School's Sesquicentennial Committee, she heads a task-force charged with bringing to life 150 years of Penn Law's greatest moments. The anniversary year, which kicks-off in September, is a cornucopia of events - dinners, lectures, symposia, conferences, and reunions - all geared toward commemorating the life of the School, as well as the lives of those whose love and labor built it. The School's history, she points out, is a rich and important one that she worked to capture in the Legal Oral History Project with assistance from Edwin Greenlee, Associate Director for Special Services and Lecturer, Biddle Law Library. The first two-year phase of the project concluded in June and involved the work and collaboration of students, faculty and staff as they recorded on videotape first-person narratives of Penn Law graduates and faculty of note.