American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
April/May 2019

Sociologist Rebecca Sandefur Receives a MacArthur Grant

Rebecca Sandefur

Rebecca Sandefur

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced in October 2018 the 25 winners of this year’s “genius” grants. Sociologist Rebecca Sandefur, associate professor in the Department of sociology and the College of Law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is among the selected. Each fellowship carries a $625,000 stipend, paid out over five years, with no strings attached, to extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential. 

The MacArthur Fellows Program is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. They may use their fellowship to advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers. Fellowship recipients don’t apply; they’re nominated. After a thorough, multi-step review, the Selection Committee makes its recommendations to the President and Board of Directors of the MacArthur Foundation. 

Rebecca Sandefur plans to use her stipend to bring new attention and energy to solving the issue of access to civil justice, which she said is a “problem on a national scale” that’s every bit as important as education, health care and national security.

Her research on how legal services are delivered and consumed is informing emerging models for more equal access to civil justice. Although the outcomes of civil cases are potentially life-changing—including eviction, loss of custody of a child, wage garnishment, or loss of government or insurance benefits—one or more parties lack legal representation in more than three-quarters of cases filed in state civil courts today. Sandefur’s investigations of the civil justice needs of low-income populations are shedding light on the availability of civil legal aid services, the help-seeking behavior of individuals facing civil legal issues, and the impact of lawyers in civil cases.

Her observations have led to the hypothesis that the gap in access to civil justice might be closable without lawyers and, in current work, Sandefur is advising and evaluating pilot projects in New York and Montana that use non-lawyer alternatives. By bridging legal scholarship and practice, Sandefur is providing the empirical evidence necessary to guide and implement wide-scale reforms to address the civil legal needs of low-income people.