Professor goes to bat for non-traditional families

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By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Melanie Jacobs originally dreamt of being a doctor, possibly a surgeon.

But advanced placement biology and dissection of a fetal pig quickly cured her of that career plan.

Jacobs, a professor at Michigan State University College of Law, turned from pigs to politics and earned a bachelor's degree in political science, with an emphasis in international relations, from Columbia University in her native New York City.

During her second undergrad year, she took a course in constitutional law.

"The course was actually taught at the law school, using the traditional Socratic method. I was both terrified of being called on and exhilarated by what I was learning," she says.

"I was a real 'geek' and cut short my Thanksgiving break with my family so that I could spend a few days in the law library, reviewing microfiche to write my final paper. I even contacted the attorney involved. I was hooked!"

Jacobs went on to earn her J.D. from Boston University, and LL.M. from Temple University School of Law.

Her first job after law school was with the Massachusetts Department of Revenue's Child Support Enforcement Division.

"I had actually wanted to be a prosecutor, but no one was hiring and I thought this job was quasi-prosecutorial and at least gave me some good courtroom experience," she says.

"I ended up finding myself very interested in family law issues and left the job after 15 months to work at Harvard Law School's Hale & Dorr Legal Services Center, where I was able to engage in a wider array of family law matters while supervising law students."

Jacobs, who was also in private practice with Witmer, Karp, Warner, & Thuotte in Boston, has written articles and given numerous national and international presentations about legal recognition for non-traditional families. She has argued in favor of preserving non-biological parental relationships to foster the best interests of children and her current research and scholarship focuses on moving beyond biological bases of parental determination and recognizing multiple parents.

A Massachusetts Supreme Court decision concerning a lesbian partner fighting for visitation rights with the child she had helped raise with her former partner made Jacobs think about the applicability of paternity law to such a situation.

"In 1998, no court had ever used that approach but by now more than one state court has done so," she says. "I feel so lucky to write in an area that is rapidly and consistently changing. Thinking about the legal mechanisms by which we can formalize nontraditional families is a wonderful challenge and there is always something about which to write."

Jacobs, who joined the Spartan faculty in 2002, teaches Family Law: Child, Parent & the State; Decedents' Estates and Trusts; Property; and a seminar in Assisted Reproductive Technologies and the Law.

Awarded an MSU Lilly Teaching Fellowship in 2006-07, Jacobs has been teaching in some capacity since 1996--as a visiting assistant professor at the William & Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law; a Freedman Fellow and a lecturer at Temple University School of Law; a clinical instructor for the Hale & Dorr Legal Services Center at Harvard Law School; and an adjunct instructor at the Boston University School of Law.

She also was a guest lecturer at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, in 2008, something that grew from her original college plan to be an East Asian Languages and Cultures major.

"A semester of a five-credit Chinese language class made me re-think that plan," she says. "But I had always had a fascination with China and when I had a sabbatical during the fall of 2008, I arranged to lecture at a university in Shanghai."

Jacobs spent almost two weeks in Shanghai and a long weekend in Beijing.

"Shanghai reminded me of New York City, where I grew up," she says. "It felt familiar and exotic at the same time. Beijing was grander and to see the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the Great Wall was truly a dream come true."

As for a true highlight, her boyfriend Shane Broyles joined her in China and proposed to her on the Great Wall. The couple married almost five months later.

"My husband and I vowed to return--and bring our child, if we had one," she says. "Well, I'm now the proud mother of a seven-month-old, Jacob, and I promised him I will bring him to China! I hope to spend a full semester there in the coming years.

"My time there only made me more fascinated with the culture, language, food, and people. Of course, discussing family law issues there was a really fabulous opportunity and the students I met were smart and engaged and asked great questions."

Travel is a passion, and China is just one of many places on her itinerary.

"Shane jokes that I enjoy planning my trips as much as I enjoy taking them," she says. "We try to get to Europe at least once a year. Jacob already has his passport and he joined us in July when we went to Berlin and Prague. I was a speaker at a conference in Berlin, so it was a wonderful opportunity to take him overseas.

"I also love to cook and read, although being the mother of an infant has reduced the time I have to do both of those."

As a new academic year at MSU Law gets under way, Jacobs is looking forward to this year's class and students. "I still get excited about the first day of school," she says. "I was always a kid who enjoyed school and I feel very lucky that I have a career in academia. There's always something new to read, to discuss, to learn. Each class has its own personality. Also, there's always something new for me to learn and teach during a semester."

Published: Wed, Aug 31, 2011

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