Athens, Ga. – Recently, University of Georgia School of Law Associate Professor and Director of Civil Clinics Alexander W. Scherr became the first full-time law professor in the School of Law to receive a grant from the National Science Foundation. The $100,000 grant was awarded to Scherr and Clark University Assistant Professor of Geography Deborah G. Martin to study the impact that legal practices have on the formation of a community’s identity. The study will focus on disputes between neighborhood residents and privately-run group homes for homeless and mentally ill individuals.
People often object if a vacant house next door becomes a group home or if an empty lot becomes a shelter for the homeless, according to Scherr. “It is not that those facilities are bad things to have. They are needed and are present in most communities. However, locating a facility in a neighborhood has the potential to change the neighborhood’s identity and can affect strongly felt values for its residents,” he said.
“The goal of this research is to look at cases in which residents have hired lawyers to fight new facilities,” Scherr said. “We want to look at how lawyers influence these conflicts through their choices about process, strategy and outcome. Those choices can shape the community’s sense of itself and may impact later disputes involving similar values.”
Another focus of the research is to describe how lawyering and the legal process affect community activism, and thus to increase the understanding of the relationship between geographical identity and the law. “The findings may also lead to improved ways of dealing with similar disputes, including ways to better equip the attorneys who work on them,” Scherr said.
The study, titled “Legalizing Community: Lawyers and Citizen Activism in Neighborhood Disputes,” is scheduled to be completed by spring 2009.