Miller Center

Jefferson Decker

History, Columbia University

The Conservative Legal Movement and American Government, 1971–1987

Decker photo

Jefferson Decker is Assistant Professor in the Department of American Studies at Rutgers University.

Decker writes about politics and government in twentieth-century America.  He is the author of The Other Rights Revolution: Conservative Lawyers and the Remaking of American Government (Oxford University Press, 2016) in which he illustrates how a series of legal battles over property rights and the regulatory state shaped the public ideas and policy agenda of modern U.S. conservatism.

His dissertation described the political mobilization of conservative lawyers and their attempt to reform and reshape American government. In the 1970s, conservative lawyers, political activists, and donors created a network of non-profit legal foundations in order to challenge liberalism in the courts. These groups took on a variety of cases, from challenging local land use regulations and offering a "pro-business" perspective on environmental disputes to challenging "sweetheart deals" between government agencies and liberal trial lawyers. In doing so, they sought to reassert principles of federalism and limited government, while restricting (or rolling back) the regulatory state. After Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, veterans of these firms took jobs in the new administration, where they had an opportunity to rework some of the policies they had litigated from inside the government. In describing this journey from outsiders to policymakers, this dissertation described the evolution of public policy and conservative ideas about the law during the Reagan era.

Fellowship year: 2008

Mentor: Daniel Ernst, Georgetown University Law Center

Selected Recent Publications

The Other Rights Revolution: Conservative Lawyers and the Remaking of American Government. (Oxford University Press, 2016)

Legal Conservatism.” in Oxford University Encyclopedia of American Political, Policy, and Legal History (Oxford University Press, 2011)

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