Covid-19 Colloquium: Socio-Legal Dimensions


Covid-19 has sent shockwaves through every segment of society — from the ways we live, work, and learn, to our government structures and beyond. Questions are daily arising about what the law can do for us, or to us, in these exceptional times. Some questions are new. Some are old but recast anew. Some are hypothetical, and some are happening.

In the face of this uncertainly, Washburn University School of Law’s commitment to our students, alumni, and community is certain. We do not have all the answers, legal or otherwise. But we have come together, through the wonders of technology, to provide you with some information and perspectives about the socio-legal dimensions of Covid-19. The Colloquium consists of two parts.

Part 1 (March 24, 2020) topics are: Introduction; Constitutional Dimensions; Family Law; Crisis Leadership and Management; State and Local Government; Housing and Homelessness; Therapeutic Jurisprudence; and Contract Law.

Part 2 (April 6, 2020) topics are: Introduction; Labor Law: Pandemics and Safety Strikes; Public International Law; Economic Impacts: Consumer and Commercial; The Precautionary Principle; Tort Liability: Negligence; Indian Country; Water Policy; and Criminal Justice System.

See below for summaries of the presentations.

Part 1 (March 24, 2020)

Photograph: Carla Pratt. Photograph: David Rubenstein. Photograph: Thomas Sneed. Photograph: Linda Elrod.

Photograph: Shawn Leisinger. Photograph: Michelle Ewert. Photograph: Bill Rich. Photograph: Frederic Sourgens.

Introduction (00:57): Carla D. Pratt, Dean and Professor of Law

Photograph: Carla Pratt.Each participating faculty member is using his or her areas of expertise to examine how this crisis affects and is affected by various areas of law.

Constitutional Dimensions (8:22): David Rubenstein, Professor of Law and Director of the Robert J. Dole Center for Law and Government

Photograph: David Rubenstein.This segment offers a general overview, and a framework for thinking about, constitutional issues implicated by recent and foreseeable government responses to Covid-19. Public health emergencies call for extraordinary action and difficult decisions. But the constitution limits the range of tools available to government officials—not only what they can decide, but also who gets to decide and the process by which those decisions are made.

Family Law (8:04): Linda Henry Elrod, Richard S. Righter Distinguished Professor of Law and Director of the Children and Family Law Center

Photograph: Linda Elrod.This segment highlights some of the many ways that Covid-19 will uniquely impact family law. Family lawyers will need to meet with clients online, which presents special challenges. Moreover, the economic uncertainty, health fears, and forced proximity in home units will exacerbate tensions among parents, partners, and children. For victims of domestic violence, forced quarantine can be lethal. For parents operating under a parenting plan pursuant to a divorce or paternity establishment, the virus creates anxieties and complications beyond those that already exist. Family lawyers will need to account and adjust for these and other challenges in the months ahead.

Crisis Leadership and Management (5:38): Thomas Sneed, Associate Professor of Law and Law Library Director

Photograph: Thomas Sneed.With the Covid-19 outbreak, we are seeing daily examples of both good and bad leadership. This segment spotlights two crucial leadership concepts of crisis management and effective communication and provide tips for navigating a crisis in any context. Strong leadership is essential to properly navigate these difficult times.

State and Local Government– Authority in Action (1:10:58): Shawn S. Leisinger, Associate Dean for Centers and External Programs

Photograph: Shawn Leisinger.This segment discusses the parameters and use of local government authority to address a range of social challenges of a public health emergency like Covid-19. It also provides a broad overview of the legal intricacies that arise at the intersection of public emergency and public health law.

Housing and Homelessness (7:54): Michelle Y. Ewert, Associate Professor of Law

Photograph: Michelle Ewert.This segment first examines the eviction process and interventions around the country to protect against eviction during the Covid-19 crisis. It then highlights some of the unique challenges facing people in emergency shelters and homeless encampments, and what homeless services providers are doing to limit the spread of the virus.

Therapeutic Jurisprudence (6:39): William Rich, James R. Ahrens Chair in Torts and Constitutional Law Professor of Law Emeritas

Photograph: Bill Rich.Therapeutic jurisprudence adds a unique focus to questions about the meaning of “law” and “justice,” recognizing emotional and psychological dimensions of those terms. Mediation and “collaborative law” as paths to resolving disputes while preserving ongoing relationships exemplify those dimensions, as do modern “drug courts” or “mental health courts” designed to address treatment needs rather than focusing only on rules or sanctions. Understanding that relationship is a significant part of what law and justice are really about, and our reactions to Covid-19 can illustrate this point.

Contract Law (7:42): Frédéric G. Sourgens, Professor of Law and Director of the Oil and Gas Law Center

Photograph: Freddy Sourgens.This segment discusses the default rules for impossibility and outlines how Covid-19 may create issues for force majeure clauses. Special attention is given to the oil and gas sector, in which factually thorny questions are likely to arise.

Part 2 (April 6, 2020)

Photograph: Carla Pratt. Photograph: Joseph Mastrosimone. Photograph: Craig Martin.

Photograph: Andrea Boyack. Photograph: Frederic Sourgens. Photograph: Alex Glashausser.

Photograph: Tonya Kowalska. Photograph: Burke Griggs. Photograph: John Francis.

Introduction (0:37): Carla D. Pratt, Dean and Professor of Law

Photograph: Carla Pratt.Each participating faculty member is using his or her areas of expertise to examine how this crisis affects and is affected by various areas of law.

Labor Law: Pandemics and Safety Strikes (11:48): Joseph Mastrosimone, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Law

Photograph: Joseph Mastrosimone.This segment addresses rights that employees have under Sections 7 and 502 of the National Labor Relations Act to protest workplace safety concerns related to COVID-19 exposure. The segment also explains how these rights, in turn, impose limits on employer responses to workplace safety protests.

Public International Law (10:20): Craig Martin, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the International and Comparative Law Center

Photograph: Craig Martin.This segment discusses two of the many ways that national responses to the Covid-19 pandemic are shaped by international law. First, it surveys the affirmative legal obligations that each state has, both to other states and to the people within its own territory, to make best efforts to protect against the spread of the disease. Second, the segment outlines the legal constraints that limit the actions that each state can take. Pandemics are by their nature global threats to humanity. International coordination, cooperation, and respect for human rights are essential to any response.

Economic Impacts: Consumer and Commercial (12:36 and 12:44): Andrea J. Boyack, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Business and Transactional Law Center

Photograph: Andrea Boyack.This two-part segment explores the economic impacts on consumers and commercial markets caused by Covid-19. Part A focuses on government responses to the unemployment spike and challenges of debt repayment. It also discusses how the most vulnerable segments of society will bear the brunt of this public health pandemic. Part B focuses on markets and commercial transactional activity, including business challenges related to decreased revenue and obstacles to forming and performing transactions during the crisis.

The Precautionary Principle (6:43): Frédéric Sourgens, Professor of Law and Director of the Oil and Gas Law Center

Photograph: Freddy Sourgens.This segment discusses the precautionary principle, which is a strategy for decision-making in the context of scientific uncertainty. This principle, as its name suggests, emphasizes caution and preventative measures when the consequences of policymaking are unknown. The segment explains the objections to the principle that have been raised in the U.S. and proposes a way to reframe the principle to address those concerns. Faced with the uncertainties of Covid-19, careful and discerning exercise of judgment in assessing scientific projections are needed.

Tort Liability– Negligence (7:19): Alex Glashausser, David A. Fenley Professor of Law

Photograph: Alex Glashausser.This segment addresses the issue of tort liability for spreading contagious diseases. People who were stuck on cruise ships and feared contracting Covid-19 from fellow passengers have already filed lawsuits against cruise companies, alleging that the companies negligently failed to make the ships safe. Other similar suits are sure to follow, and although their context may be novel, those suits will rely on traditional tort law principles of negligence.

Indian Country (9:15): Antonina Kowalska, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the International and Comparative Law Center

Photograph: Tonya Kowalska.This segment addresses just a few of the likely impacts the pandemic will have on Indian Country—in other words, on Native American peoples and their territories. This short presentation begins with the briefest of primers on Tribal sovereignty. It then touches upon the disparate effect that the pandemic will likely wreak upon Native American Nations, including their developing economies, community health, and cultural protection.

Water Policy (8:20): Burke W. Griggs, Associate Professor of Law and Associate Director of the Oil and Gas Law Center

Photograph: Burke Griggs.This segment discusses some of the important parallels between the Covid-19 health crisis and our water resources challenges—and where these might be converging.

Criminal Justice System (14:00): John J. Francis, Professor of Law

Photograph: John Francis.This segment addresses a few of the broad ranging challenges that Covid-19 presents to the criminal justice system. Proceedings in court, conditions in jails and prisons, and face-to-face meetings with court services, community corrections, and parole personnel place people in close proximity to each other. Each of these contact points increases the risk of the virus spreading. To reduce that risk, government leaders are rapidly taking steps to adapt the way court proceedings are held and to adjust correctional settings. Implementing these steps involves balancing public health concerns and constitutional requirements.

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Photograph: Glen McBeth.

Thank you to Glen McBeth who provided invaluable behind the scenes technical and editing support to help make this colloquium possible.

Part 1 Full Video (54:30)

Part 2 Full Video (1:19:55)