Vol. 14 No. 8 (August 2004), pp.688-691

TWO VOICES ON THE LEGAL RIGHTS OF AMERICA’S YOUTH, James R. Acker and Elizabeth B. Acker.  New York: Wadsworth, 2004.  288pp.  Paper.  $45.95.  ISBN: 0534196497.

Reviewed by Odeana R. Neal, University of Baltimore School of Law. Email :oneal@UBmail.ubalt.edu      

I sometimes have difficulty, when reviewing a text, determining whether I am reviewing the book as it is or the book that I wish had been.  Such is the case with TWO VOICES ON THE LEGAL RIGHTS OF AMERICA’S YOUTH.   While there are some aspects of this text that I enjoyed a great deal – its provocative issues and its readability – the authors made some choices that I did not understand, especially since it would have been easy to make better choices.  One caveat is in order: I am a law professor reviewing a text for undergraduates, so there may be some ways in which my discipline’s analysis affects the way I look at the book. 

James and Elizabeth Acker are father and daughter.  (I will refer to them as James and Liz, as they refer to themselves in the book.)  He states in the introduction that he turned fifty years old as the first draft of the book was being written; Liz graduated from high school that same year.  The book’s convention is that father and daughter will engage in a dialogue about “youth law,” that is, “the legal rights of young people – i.e., minors who have not yet attained the status of adulthood and all of its attendant privileges and responsibilities.”  Added to this dialogue are the perspectives of students who participated in a Youth Law seminar for three weeks in the summer of 2002. 

The introduction to the text presents the authors of the book as well as their agenda.  Having stated in the Preface that “[t]he law is much too important to be entrusted to the legal profession”(p.iii), the authors set about providing the framework for reading and understanding appellate judicial decisions, using the briefing method all too familiar to law students.  Readers are instructed that they “will be expected to know what ‘the law’ is – that is, to be able to state the precise ruling in a case – but you should also be equipped to explain why the court held as it did, and be able to defend your agreement or disagreement with the outcome” (p.2).  YOUTH LAW’s six chapters explore issues having to do with: 1) when the law should make categorical decisions about when young people can engage in certain activities and when, instead, there should be tests for competency to engage in those activities; 2) young people’s First Amendment rights of speech and association; 3) young people’s First Amendment rights respecting religion; 4) issues affecting young people in school; 5) young people’s rights concerning medical decisions and reproductive rights; and 6) the juvenile justice system.  The book is structured around a set formula.  Each chapter begins with a well-written and quite accessible description of the issues that it will address.  There is then an excerpted appellate court decision, more [*689] often than not from the United States Supreme Court, followed by a dialogue between the younger and older Acker concerning the case.  After the dialogue, the authors:  1) introduce a new case; 2) give factual or jurisprudential follow-up about the primary case; or 3) give the results of the Youth Law seminar students’ vote on the primary case, along with a description of their reasons for so voting. 

What I found most maddening about the book is that it does not fully integrate the voices of “young people” as the presence of its young co-author seems to promise.  The dialogues between Liz and James feel not so much like discussions between daughter and father or younger person and older person as they do traditional law school Socratic exchanges between teacher and student.  Liz is more than twenty years old by the time the book is written and so perhaps no longer has the young person’s perspective that the reader expects.  But to the degree that there is Socratic dialogue occurring, I wish that James would have left his questions – and they are quite good questions – for the reader to answer instead of having his daughter answer them in the text.  Allowing Liz to be the voice of the younger person takes the thinking burden off the student reader, but her voice often feels inauthentic.  For example, here are Liz’s words at the end of a dialogue concerning EDWARDS v. AGUILLARD, a case concerning a Louisiana statute which required public school teachers giving instruction on evolutionary theory also to teach “creation science”: 

[W]hat is the purpose of the statute?  Once again, it’s to require public schools, at the behest of the state, to teach students a religious belief.  While it might broaden students’ education to learn about creationism, we can’t allow the state to endorse religion.  There is nothing preventing teachers from presenting the theory objectively; perhaps Justice Scalia should be content with that if his real goal is “academic freedom.” (p.143) 

Perhaps I am underestimating young writers or Liz Acker, but that does not sound like a “younger person’s” voice to me.  One could understand using Liz as the Socratic student if she were to bring some perspective that the readers might not otherwise have, but it is difficult to see what she lends to the discourse. 

I would be remiss, however, if I did not take note of the exchanges between father and daughter that were enlightening or interesting.   These exchanges focused not on legal discourse, but on the different life experiences of the authors given the different eras in which they came into adulthood.  These discussions are valuable in analyzing the kinds of assumptions courts often have about childhood, adolescence, and young people generally.  These assumptions may or may not be accurate and will change over time, though the legal precedents they are based on remain etched in stone.  The authors, however, do not seem to adequately take note of the significance of what they are discussing.  For example, during a dialogue after INGRAHAM v. WRIGHT, the U.S. Supreme Court case which concluded that notice and a hearing are not constitutionally required before imposing corporal punishment on a child, James writes: 

When I went to high school in Indiana, [*690] it was pretty routine for unruly students to get sent to the dean of boys’ office ... to get “whacks” for misconduct. . . .  To my knowledge, nobody even thought twice about challenging this practice; it was just a part of growing up in school. (p.239) 

Liz’s response includes the following: 

Only half the states have outlawed [corporal punishment in schools]?  It’s the 21st century!  Physical punishment in schools seems so severe and unnecessary.  If it happened in my school, even if it wasn’t illegal, you can bet there would be parents and students ready to go to the Supreme Court again. (p.240) 

I wish that Liz and James had expounded on these generational differences more instead of taking up space with the answers to the professor’s (i.e., James’s) questions. 

It is also curious that more of the voices of the Youth Law seminar participants are not included in the text.  Although the outcome of their seminar votes is included, as well as the rationales given by the majority and the dissenters in those votes, we have no sense of who these students are or why their votes are important or recorded.  This is especially so given that the students’ votes seem to have as much to do with their view of the wisdom of policy as it does with law.  This might send a naive reader a confusing message, since the authors take the position that policy decisions are not within the purview of courts: 

When courts are asked to rule on the constitutionality of laws or other official, governmental action they must decide, for example, whether a legislature or city council had the power to pass a law or whether a public school principal had the lawful authority to act in a certain way.  They do not concern themselves with whether the policy of practice in question is particularly wise or sensible, as long as the Constitution is not offended. (pp.71-72, emphasis added) 

Why then, would information about the Youth Law students’ sensibilities about the wisdom of policies be included in the text?  In BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA v. DALE, the Supreme Court determined that the state of New Jersey could not prohibit the Boy Scouts from excluding gay boys and men from membership.  In the notes following the case, however, the readers are told about the Youth Law seminar participants’ views on whether the Boy Scouts should exclude gay boys from membership (p.130).  Does policy matter in interpreting law or does it not?  I am not sure whether the reader would know. 

Despite these concerns, I believe that the book may be useful for some purposes, though perhaps not the purposes that the authors intended.  The cases have been well-excerpted and the dialogues between James and Liz can steer a teacher of these issues towards ways of engaging their students concerning the cases.  The book can also serve as a good introduction to legal reasoning using issues that have relevance for young people.  I just hope that the next edition gives students a bit more work to do. 


BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA v. DALE, 530 U.S. 640 (2000). 

EDWARDS v. AGUILLARD, 482 U.S. 578 (1987). [*691] 

INGRAHAM v. WRIGHT, 430 U.S. 651 (1977).


Copyright 2004 by the author, Odeana R. Neal.