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Professor Vera Bergelson Explores Questions of Law and Morality

Consensual physical harm, victim provocation, and self-defense are among the thorniest issues in criminal law and social science. In her scholarship and teaching, Vera Bergelson, Professor of Law and Robert E. Knowlton Scholar, considers how criminal law should view the kind of behavior that does not fall into a neatly divided
Vera Bergelson   

Vera Bergelson

world of “good guys” and “bad guys.” Her book Victims’ Rights and Victims’ Wrongs (Stanford University Press, 2009), which one reviewer described as “a work of breathtaking intellectual courage and honesty,” suggests reforming criminal law to recognize that victims sometimes share responsibility for their losses or injuries. Her popular seminar on Moral Puzzles of Criminal Law draws from cases as well as movies and news stories to explore such legal and moral questions as how the law should treat a person who did the right thing but for a wrong reason.

Works in progress include “Victimless Crimes” in Wiley-Blackwell’s International Encyclopedia of Ethics (2010), in which she explores the meaning of “victimless” crimes and explores arguments for and against victimless crime legislation, and “Strict Liability and Affirmative Defenses,” a consideration of the relationship between strict liability offenses and affirmative defenses of justification and excuse.

Bergelson is 2010-2011 chair of the Association of American Law Schools’ Section on Jurisprudence. She is also a member of the editorial boards of BdeF and Edisofer (Buenos Aires and Madrid) and Law and Philosophy.

Bergelson joined the Rutgers faculty in 2001 after six years as an associate with Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton in New York where her practice focused on domestic and international transactions. In addition to the Moral Puzzles of Criminal Law Seminar, she teaches Criminal Law, Property, International Law, Property and Privacy, Advanced Criminal Law, and Punishment and Sentencing. A native of Russia, she is fluent in Russian and Polish and has a reading proficiency in Bulgarian, Belorussian, and Ukranian. Bergelson holds a diploma in Slavic languages and literatures from Moscow State University, a Ph.D. in philology from the Institute of Slavic and Balkan Studies in Moscow, and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Bergelson discusses her work and her hobbies in the following Q&A:

What brought you from Russia to the United States?
I am still trying to answer this question. Today, my tentative answer is different from the one I would have given you 10 or 15 years ago. Perhaps we should wait for another 10 or 15 years and then confront it again.

What inspired you to go to law school and to focus your academic career on criminal law?
The decision was largely accidental. I knew close to nothing about American legal education or careers. But sometimes you just luck out. That was my lucky strike, I realized it right away, and, as pathetic as it sounds, the following three years were some of the happiest in my life. I admired my professors and was inspired by their intellectual openness and the sense of justice, compassion, and moral responsibility they were trying to instill in their students.

At that time, Penn Law School hosted perhaps the strongest team of criminal law scholars in the country. Among them were Heidi Hurd, Leo Katz, Michael Moore, and Stephen Morse. I remember one day when I was waiting for one of them to ask a question and Leo Katz rushed into Stephen Morse’s office screaming “I think I got it!” His joy and the pleasure of sharing ideas with a fellow scholar were so intense that I felt an immediate pang of jealousy and told myself: “I want it too.”

Bergelson book cover 

What has been the reception to your argument for comparative criminal liability, as proposed in your new book Victims’ Rights and Victims’ Wrongs and several articles?
So far, my arguments were accepted with interest and appreciation, even by those who entirely disagree with them. I was very fortunate to have my initial article, “Victims and Perpetrators,” published as a forum piece accompanied by four outstanding commentaries. The need to reply to those devastatingly challenging commentaries prompted me to rethink and refine my arguments, which later, when I worked on my book, significantly helped me to address and anticipate possible counterarguments.

In May, the book will be discussed at a book session of the Law and Society Association Annual Meeting. In addition, a few journals have expressed interest in reviewing my book. So, in a few months, I will be able to answer this question more fully.

What are your current scholarship interests?
I am interested in the so-called “victimless crimes” – actions that are proscribed by law yet they do not violate the rights of any particular person. At the moment, I am working on an entry on this topic for the International Encyclopedia of Ethics. More generally, I am puzzled by the limits of criminal law and would like to spend some more time exploring the relationship between the law and morality.

As a Fulbright Specialists Roster candidate, in what overseas project do you hope to be able to participate?
I am rather flexible. Ideally, I would love to participate in drafting a new penal code or any other criminal legislation for the hosting country. I would very much appreciate any experience involving the International Criminal Court. And I would enjoy any forms of cooperation, including workshops, seminars, symposia, etc., with colleagues from other countries and legal systems.

What is your favorite subject to teach and why?
To be honest, I love all my subjects, for different reasons. And, even though I certainly enjoyed my sabbatical the past semester, I missed my classes a great deal.

What do you do for relaxation?
Many things. I love to travel, both far away and just for the weekend. I also love to play bridge and experiment with cooking. I enjoy bicycling and tennis. I go to the gym but don’t enjoy it at all even though I admit that for relaxation it works better than anything I enjoy. I also read quite a lot of fiction, watch movies, and go to theaters and art exhibits. Finally, I waste an inordinate amount of time on the Internet.