University of Denver Sturm College of Law Included In Major Funding to Study Children’s Constitutional Rights

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A gift of more than $2 million has been given to the University Denver-affiliated consortium focused on children’s constitutional rights. / Law Week file.

An anonymous donor has given a gift of more than $2 million to help create the University of Denver-affiliated Consortium for the Advancement of Children’s Constitutional Rights.

The partnership includes University of Denver Sturm College of Law professor Catherine Smith, along with professors Robin Walker Sterling from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and Tanya Washington Hicks of Georgia State College of Law. According to a press release, the three scholars are nationally recognized experts in the field of children’s rights and will work together to rethink constitutional law when it comes to children’s rights.

Smith told Law Week children’s constitutional rights are not as strong as some might think, adding the Constitution is usually interpreted from an adult lens. 

“Even though the Supreme Court and courts have traditionally interpreted kids to have constitutional rights, they’re not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution,” Smith said. “Children have constitutional rights, but they’re usually either limited because they’re kids in certain contexts or not as developed in the law because they’re … not thought of as much.”

Smith noted children have been pioneers in establishing a lot of the pillars of constitutional law like in the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.

“What I think what happens is once kids are sort of a breakthrough case, sometimes the focus on them drops,” Smith continued. 

Some of the major issues the consortium is focused on include climate change, juvenile justice, education, family law and gun violence and the rights of kids when dealing with these legal issues. 

“We don’t know the answers,” Smith said. “This is why we’re creating this consortium to start really thinking more about these issues from a kids’ rights perspective and encouraging other people to collaborate with us.”

One of the things the consortium will be doing is writing a “Children and the Constitution” casebook that they hope will be in every law school in the country. Smith noted that subject isn’t talked about nearly enough in law schools and this book would either be the first or one of few law school books focused on this issue.

“The way to reframe how we think about children and children’s constitutional rights is to change the way lawyers and law students and judges think about children and their constitutional rights,” Smith said. “They’re very few courses across the country … that focus on children and the Constitution and it’s because [it] just has been overlooked.”

The group also hopes to design course curriculum that focuses on children and their rights and interests. Another aim is to run four workshops over the next three years to bring together scholars and advocates to talk about the issues. The first workshop will be held at Georgia State College of Law during the 2023-24 academic year and focus on education, according to the press release.

“There’s just three of us,” Smith said. “We have our areas of expertise. We need other people who have interest in different areas.”

The dean of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law noted a consortium like this is needed.

“Over thirty years ago, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child declared that children should be raised ‘in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality, and solidarity,’” said University of Denver Sturm College of Law Dean Bruce Smith in a press release. “But our legal system in the United States has too often failed to deliver on these noble aspirations. Professor Smith and her academic partners are uniquely positioned to advance the cause of children’s rights in this nation and across the world, and we applaud their important and timely work.”

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