Professor champions the rights of children

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Law professor Susan Bitensky, who teaches Evidence, Constitutional Law, Jurisprudence, and International Human Rights Law at Michigan State University College of Law, took an interesting career path – from tutus to torts.
 
Bitensky was an apprentice in the Robert Joffrey Ballet Company in New York City before attending Case Western Reserve University where she became a member of Phi Beta Kappa and earned her bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude. She then earned her J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School.

 “During college, I decided that I wished to become an attorney because that seemed to be one of the best ways to fight for social justice,” she says.

She spent three years in Pittsburgh as assistant general counsel to the United Steelworkers of America, where her work included negotiations with 10 major steel companies for collective bargaining agreements and negotiations with the United States Steel Corp. concerning health and safety conditions on coke ovens; and followed this with four years of private practice with the Manhattan labor law firm of Cohen, Weiss and Simon; and six years as associate counsel to the New York City Board of Education, where she dealt mainly with commercial law and education law matters.

Bitensky, who joined the MSU Law College faculty in 1988, finds her vocation very satisfying.

 “I love teaching law students,” she says. “There’s something very satisfying about mastering various fields of law and transmitting that hard-won knowledge, in all its complexity, to the next generation of jurists.”

Her scholarship focuses on children’s rights under the federal Constitution and international human rights law.

The issue of corporal punishment is one of several that she has focused on. Other issues include: advocating that the U.S. Supreme Court should recognize a positive federal constitutional right of all children to receive an excellent elementary and secondary education; and arguing that public schools can, within the strictures of the Free Speech Clause, teach children those values that promote peace and a civilized social order.

 “I’m drawn to children’s rights for two basic reasons,” she says. “One is that, from a legal point of view, children are often shortchanged in our society. Given that they are basically politically powerless and utterly dependent on adults for their welfare, I wished to empower them in certain ways and to rectify some of the ways in which they have been victimized.

 “Two, I think that bringing justice to, and a concomitant respect toward, children will, over the long haul, help to make children grow into adults who shun committing or tolerating human rights abuses. That could make for a much more peaceful and secure world.”

Bitensky’s book “Corporal Punishment of Children: A Human Rights Violation,” for which she received an award by the Law Review of MSU Law College, was referred to in Canadian Senate debates, cited by the New Zealand Law Commission, and is included in the collection of the library of the European Court of Human Rights.

She wrote the chapter “Educating the Child for a Productive Life,” for the book “Children’s Rights in America: U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child Compared with United States Law,” jointly published by the American Bar Association and Defense for Children International - USA; and a piece titled “International Rights of the Child” in an encyclopedia on childhood from The University of Chicago Press.

A host of law review articles in leading journals include “Legal Theory: Theoretical Foundations for a Right to Education under the U.S. Constitution: A Beginning to the End of the National Education Crisis,” in the Northwestern University Law Review and “A Contemporary Proposal for Reconciling the Free Speech Clause With Curricular Values Inculcation in the Public Schools,” in the Notre Dame Law Review.

She has presented papers around the United States and at numerous international symposia; been quoted in The New York Times and referred to by The Economist, and been featured on National Public Radio, and several radio stations and Internet presentations. A few years ago, she was invited by the Turkish Ministry of Education and UNICEF in Turkey and spoke in Istanbul to Turkish teachers and officials about the illegality of school corporal punishment of students under international human rights law.

While being a law professor is extremely consuming of time and energy, in her spare time Bitensky – a busy wife and proud mother of a 26-year-old son in graduate school – enjoys reading literature “and catering to the every whim and desire of my very spoiled dog.”

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