Introducing Melissa Murray

Melissa Murray

Professor Melissa Murray’s 2012 article “Marriage as Punishment,” published in the Columbia Law Review, earned two awards from the Association of American Law Schools. It earned her husband a good deal of ribbing. “As I explained—to my husband and everyone else—my interest in these issues was academic, not personal,” says Murray, who on July 1 joined NYU Law as a tenured member of the faculty. Her paper’s exploration of marriage as a historical sanction for out-of-wedlock “seduction” reflects her longtime focus on the legal regulation of intimate life.

A graduate of Yale Law School, Murray clerked for US District Judge Stefan Underhill in Connecticut and then-Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. She spent 12 years on the Berkeley faculty, eventually serving as faculty director of the school’s Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice and, from March 2016 to June 2017, as Berkeley Law’s interim dean. At NYU Law Murray will join Professor Florencia Marotta-Wurgler ’01 as co-faculty director of the Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network.

“Rarely do you find in one colleague an insightful and cutting-edge scholar, a gifted and dedicated teacher, and an inspiring and tireless leader,” says Yale Law School Professor Douglas NeJaime, who has known Murray for years. “Melissa is all of these things.” NYU Law Professor Erin Murphy, who was Murray’s colleague at Berkeley, concurs, calling her “a triple threat.”

In her writing and in the classroom, Murray focuses on constitutional, criminal, and family law, and on law and sexuality, often examining the ways these fields intersect. “When you get married,” she notes as an example, “it’s not just that you’re signing on for a monogamous relationship, it’s that adultery historically was a crime.” And, until the Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia, interracial couples not only could not marry in many states, but faced prosecution if they wed elsewhere. “There are so many ways in which criminal law has really functioned as family law’s muscle,” Murray says.

Murray has also examined marriage as a “prevailing orthodoxy” that diminishes the legal space for nonmarriage. While she celebrated the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that struck down bans on same-sex marriage, in a California Law Review article she lamented the fact that the decision “builds the case for equal access to marriage on the premise that marriage is the most profound, dignified, and fundamental institution that individuals may enter.” She noted that “even as [the ruling] expands the right to marry, it may also diminish the constitutional protection for life outside of marriage.”

The topics Murray tackles often connect to social and cultural developments and debates in the headlines. In May, she agreed to be interviewed by a video producer who was looking for an expert to discuss how the singer Beyoncé highlights social justice issues. “I was delighted to do it,” Murray says, “Beyoncé invokes feminism from the perspective of women of color and that really speaks to me as a scholar of feminist legal theory who thinks about where women of color enter into the conversation.” The following month, after the US Supreme Court issued its ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, she began writing about the decision, which on narrow grounds upheld a baker’s refusal to design a cake for a same-sex couple. Murray’s forthcoming article compares the case to the #MeToo movement as examples of “private actors functioning as sexual regulators.” 

Murray says she was drawn to NYU Law because “it has a terrific faculty and the city is an amazing campus.” The Law School community is gaining a member who is as disarmingly relatable as her scholarship is formidable. The biggest adjustment from California, Murray says, has been the weather. “I tried really hard this year to go without wearing socks for as long as possible,” she says, “and I caved really early—like November.” Then she had to get boots. “Footwear,” Murray says, “is hard here.”

Posted September 4, 2018