Comparative law: back to the future

November 14, 2000

Nick Marinello

One hundred years ago, a group of the planet's top legal minds met in Paris to discuss, compare and contrast the legal systems of the world. In doing so they gave form and structure to the concept of comparative law, a process of thought that has increasingly guided and influenced how law is enacted, implemented and analyzed.
After the 1900 conference comparative law began to be taught as a course in universities, it became influential to legislators and judges and it expanded legal doctrine and treatises, said Athanassios Yiannopoulos, Eason-Weinmann Professor of Law and chair of the Eason-Weinmann Center for Comparative Law. This month, Yiannopoulos led a group of legal scholars who paid homage to that auspicious event by convening the Centennial World Congress on Comparative Law at Tulane Law School.

The conference, which took place Nov. 14, brought to New Orleans members of the world's three leading comparative law organizations: the International Association of Legal Science, American Society of Comparative Law and International Academy of Comparative Law. While each group typically convenes every four years, it is rare when members of all groups meet in a unified interchange of ideas, said Yiannopoulos.

Approximately 160 scholars attended the conference. Of them about 60 were members of the American Society of Comparative Law, said Yiannopoulos. The remaining 100 were top-notch legal scholars from around the world, and very famous within their fields. The law school's Eason-Weinmann Center for Comparative Law, which was host and co-sponsor of the event, is accustomed to organizing international events, said Yiannopoulos, but in terms of sheer magnitude, never anything like this.

Conference sessions included Comparative Law 100 Years after the First World Congress, Comparative Law and Lawmaking and Comparative Law and Legal Practice. According to Yiannopoulos, all papers presented at the conference will be published in a forthcoming edition of Tulane Law Review, which is published by Tulane law students and enjoys a wide circulation among the nations law schools.

The study of comparative law, said Yiannopoulos, offers a particular method to understand law and legal systems. Comparative law is like a looking glass, he said. You gain a better understanding of your own system by comparing it to other systems. In addition, Yiannopoulos said that comparative law is increasingly having a wider impact on society. Basically, it is a way of improving your system. In recent decades comparative law has been expanded to include sociological aspects of law.

We are now comparing ideas of how we structure our societies, and this is relevant to issues such as feminism and critical race analysis. Although organizers had initially considered holding the centennial congress in Paris, Yiannopoulos was able to convince his fellow organizers to hold the conference in New Orleans, based primarily on the fact that Louisiana is a mixed jurisdiction that practices within both the common law and civil law traditions.

Louisiana is a living laboratory of comparative law, he said. Besides, he added, holding the centennial in the New World added a forward-looking dimension to the conference. Yiannopoulos, who has taught at Tulane since 1979, holds four law degrees from schools located in Greece, the United States and Germany. That means, he said, I am a student of comparative law by definition.

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