The Journal of Things We Like (Lots)
Select Page

Micah L. Berman, Defining the Field of Public Health Law, 15 DePaul J. Health Care L. (forthcoming 2014), available at SSRN.

In a methodical, comprehensive exposition, Micah Berman’s forthcoming article considers why public health law remains the Rodney Dangerfield of the legal academy. As a member of a working group of scholars and practitioners who share the mission of advancing the prominence of public health law, I am well versed on the issue but was enlightened by Berman’s insights. I especially appreciated that he began by begging his own question: What difference does it make to recognize public health law (or any other area of law, for that matter) as a “field”? Why it matters, he answers, is respect: For an area of law to be recognized as “field” is to be in the mix of law school hiring priorities, to headline symposia and conferences, and generally to be taken seriously within the academy and practicing bench and bar.

Berman’s article is exceptionally well organized, stepping through difficult foundational questions, clearly explaining the paradigms, testing those paradigms with other examples, and engaging the leading scholarship on the problem presented. His roadmap proceeds by: (1) Defining a field of law; (2) defining public health law; and (3) evaluating whether public health law is a field of law.

To frame his first question, “What is a field of law?,” Berman carefully sets out two alternative rubrics. The first is Todd Aagaard’s two characteristics: (1) commonality and (2) distinctiveness. The second is Ted Ruger’s more traditional test: (1) a reductionist focus on internal logic; (2) a focus on essential legal form; (3) an emphasis on linear historical development, and (4) a high level of institutional specification and centralization. Underlying both schema are prescriptive and descriptive approaches; members of the field might share a normative perspective or might simply write and teach the same subject matter.

Before applying the definitional rubrics to public health law, Berman applies them to two other relatively recently recognized legal fields: environmental law and health law. Descriptively, each of those fields involves common subject matter but neither offers a distinct analytical perspective on the law. Prescriptively, environmental lawyers may seem to share the goal of protecting natural resources and future generations. But Berman finds that suggestion under-inclusive of existing environmental law scholarship. For health law, it is even harder to identify a shared normative perspective, with scholarship presenting a range of social justice, patient autonomy, economic, and other analyses of the law. Both environmental law and health law lack universal organizing principles or unique methodological approaches.

Tellingly, Berman finds health law even harder than environmental law to defend as a field under either Aagard’s or Ruger’s characteristics. That admission should give pause. If health law does not meet the definition of a field of law, how can an arguable sub-topic, public health law, possibly receive that recognition? Yet Berman ultimately concludes that the volume of scholarship and active debate regarding the definition of health law is sufficient to establish it as a field. So concluding, Berman unfortunately sidesteps his otherwise careful analysis, effectively suggesting that if enough people are doing it, or wanting it to be a field, then it is a field.

Berman hits his most comfortable stride in answering his second question, “What is public health law?” He begins where many of us do, with Larry Gostin’s definition, ultimately tweaking and simplifying it to a more manageable mouthful. Gostin is widely credited with giving academic gravitas to the public health law renaissance at the beginning of the millennium and continuing the mission of bringing coherence and distinctiveness to the “field” in the post-9/11, post-Katrina, post-Bloomberg era. As Berman notes, Gostin’s recent revisions to his seminal texts, strike a notably more prescriptive cord, defining as public health law’s “prime objective,” the pursuit of “the highest possible level of physical and mental health in the population, consistent with the values of social justice.” Berman acknowledges that this more strident tone is likely to turn off those who do not share Gostin’s objectives and who resist more invasive government action, or “nanny state-ism.”

Ultimately, Berman concludes that the key to defining public health is its population-based perspective. This view exposes the hyperindividualism that characterizes much American legal discourse and instead focuses on populations, rather than individuals, as the primary objects of law and policy. Berman aptly notes that Wendy Parmet has done extensive work infusing traditional areas of law, especially constitutional law, with public health’s population-based perspective and scientific methodologies. He would go further and include the population-based perspective as a defining element of a separate field, not merely an analytical approach applicable to already recognized fields. Berman’s streamlined, “workable” definition of public health law starts with Gostin, including the reference to social justice, but not as the field’s “prime objective.” He adds Burris’s notion of “incidental” public health laws (e.g., land use) and Parmet’s focus on population health and public health science.

Finally, Berman turns to his third question, “Is public health law a field of law?” He readily concedes Ruger’s “traditional” test unmet but finds Aagaard’s two characteristics more easily satisfied. The population-based perspective is critical, establishing public health law as not merely a field addressing common subject matter – Aagaard’s “commonality” prong. That approach also offers, if not unique legal rules or doctrine, a distinct value and concern of the law – the “distinctiveness” prong. Moreover, public health law’s reliance on epidemiological and social science methodologies distinguishes it from traditional legal analysis. The population-based perspective also answers the question whether public health law is a field separate from, or merely a subfield of, health law. The two are “direct opposites” in many ways, urges Berman. Public health law focuses on disease prevention and population-level interventions, while health law perpetuates an individualistic focus on medical care and the patient-provider treatment relationship.

Although Berman ultimately concludes that public health law does not entirely satisfy any formal definition of a legal field, he finds promise in the proliferation of public health scholarship, centers and programs, and course offerings across the country. As with health law, he suggests that more people doing public health law brings it closer to the respect and legitimacy that fields of law enjoy.  But it is not clear how a deeper public health law infrastructure would establish it as a “field” under the tests that Berman sets out at the beginning of the article. A more satisfying conclusion, after finding Aagaard’s and Ruger’s tests inadequate to the task, might have been for Berman to define an alternate approach applicable to emerging, interdisciplinary areas like public health law.

Download PDF
Cite as: Elizabeth Weeks Leonard, Don’t Get No Respect: Defining the Field of Public Health Law, JOTWELL (December 17, 2013) (reviewing Micah L. Berman, Defining the Field of Public Health Law, 15 DePaul J. Health Care L. (forthcoming 2014), available at SSRN), https://health.jotwell.com/dont-get-no-respect-defining-the-field-of-public-health-law/.