Lea VanderVelde

Lea VanderVelde

Josephine R. Witte Chair

BS, University of Wisconsin, 1974
JD, University of Wisconsin, 1978

Lea VanderVelde is the Josephine R. Witte Professor of Law at the University of Iowa College of Law.  She writes in the fields of employment law, property law, legal history, and constitutional law.  She has again re-invented her approach to legal research and law teaching using computer technology.  New digital research technologies allow writers and researchers to see the expansion of the American nation in the critical years before the Civil War in new ways. This, in turn, gives important insights into the unique role the law played in the expanding American empire.


Currently, she is the principal investigator for The Law of the Antebellum Frontier project at the Stanford Spatial History Lab. This project seeks to digitally analyze the legal and economic mechanisms at work on the American frontier in the early 1800s. Understanding these mechanisms reflects upon how empires expand and how American expansion into the Ohio and Mississippi river basins shaped American identity and the constitutional amendments after the Civil War.  The project uses very new techniques—of GIS mapping, geolocation, social network modeling and text mining—to examine large amounts of very old texts in the antebellum frontier.  More about the project can be found here: http://www.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/project.php?id=1057.

Using computer technology in the class room, she has adapted her Employment law course to be organized around a class wiki project rather than from a casebook.  In this course each student develops the law of a different state by doing basic research which is collectively posted for the course.  Employment Law is perfect for this methodology because it is a subject that is state-based and differs considerably from one state to another.  There is no consensus on what a national law of employment is or should be; instead each state follows common law patterns developed by its State Supreme Court with a few statutory interventions.  She also teaches a new course entitled the Law of the Frontier, 1800-1857.

She has been an active participant in the debate over whether there should be a Restatement of Employment Law, both inside the American Law Institute and in conferences held by the Labor Law Group.  She organized and hosted the fall 2011 Experts Conference on the Restatement of Employment Law, held at the American Bar Foundation in Chicago.

Her second book, currently under contract to Oxford University Press, is Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom, which follows her 2009 book, Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier.  The book is based upon the discovery of almost 300 freedom suits brought by slaves in the St. Louis courts.  Those files are now available on the web.   An article describing her role in the discovery can be found in the Los Angeles Times, March 18, 2003.  She is also at work on a monograph, entitled The Master Narrative of 19th Century Law, which explores how master-servant law resisted the forces of modernization. Although the circumstances for most Americans evolved in the direction of greater equality, in the realm of employment relations, master-servant law continued to reinforce subordination. She spent spring semesters, 2011 and 2012, with the sociologists at the American Bar Foundation in Chicago.  

In the 1990s, her trio of articles, published in the Yale and Stanford law journals, demonstrated the significance of gender in the historical development of rules in contracts, torts, and constitutional litigation respectively. "The Gendered Origins of Specific Performance Doctrine" (1992) responded to a then current claim that gender had nothing to do with contract law.  "The Legal Ways of Seduction" demonstrated the special place that gender and the tort of seduction played in tort law.  "Mrs. Dred Scott," the article, with Sandya Subramanian, provided an analysis of gender, marriage and slavery in the notorious U.S. Supreme Court case.  Other articles have explored cultural patterns in land use law and the 13th Amendment and law of slavery.

She often spends spring semester in Vienna where she teaches American law at the the Juridicum of the University of Vienna. She has also taught at Yale Law School and the University of Pennsylvania.

She is a member of the Wisconsin bar and the American Law Institute. She has been the University's Faculty Scholar and Global Scholar in various years.  In search of cultural comparisons, she has visited South Africa, the Three Gorges of the Yangtse River and the dam-building site in China, Mount Koya and Kyoto, Japan, and Jaipur, India where she interviewed Kailash Satyarthi and observed an organization called the Global March to End Child Slavery.   In 2011 she was the Guggenheim fellow in Constitutional Studies.