In Memoriam: Constitutional Scholar Kenneth Karst

June 27, 2019
Professor Kenneth Karst

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Professor Kenneth Karst

Kenneth Karst, an influential constitutional law scholar, teacher and longtime faculty member who had a profound effect in shaping UCLA School of Law, died on April 9. He was 89 years old.

A prolific and celebrated author in a wide range of fields, Karst was also a favorite of students, colleagues and peers. His efforts to address inequities in access to justice and legal education helped develop early minority outreach programs by the law school and shaped broader debates on access and equality.

Several legal titans participated in a 2000 issue of the UCLA Law Review that was published in Karst's honor. They praised him as a premiere legal scholar who had been cited 12 times by the Supreme Court and another 77 times by other federal courts, promoted fairness in every aspect of his work, enjoyed hiking in Hawai'i and was devoted to his wife, Smiley, and four children.

"Ken's knowledge of constitutional law is, quite literally, encyclopedic," Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote. "His writings on the law's promise of equality have inspired teachers, students and political actors worldwide."

Ginsburg also recorded a video remembrance of Karst that was first shown at a celebration of his life, held at UCLA Law on June 26, 2019, which would have been Karst's 90th birthday. "Ken Karst was a prince of man, a prolific legal scholar, gifted teacher, acclaimed expositor of constitutional law, and a sympathique human, revered for his wit and wisdom, kindness and caring about all of the people law exists, or should exist, to serve," she said in the tribute.

More than 100 people representing several generations of the UCLA Law family — including six current or former deans or interim deans of the law school — attended the event. UCLA Law Dean Jennifer Mnookin, Cornell Law School emeritus professor Steven Shiffrin and UCLA Law professor Adam Winkler offered remarks, along with Karst's four children and granddaughter.

"He was rightfully described as the soul of the school," said Shiffrin, who worked closely with Karst for a decade at UCLA Law and long admired his groundbreaking scholarship. "If there was a better legal writer than Ken in his generation, I don't know who that would be."

Much of Karst's scholarship focused on the intersection of the Constitution with changing social and political mores. His book Belonging to America: Equal Citizenship and the Constitution (Yale University Press, 1989) received the James A. Rawley Prize from the American Organization of Historians. Karst wrote, co-wrote or co-edited several other books, including Law's Promise, Law's Expression: Visions of Power in the Politics of Gender, Race and Religion (Yale University Press, 1993); the six-volume Encyclopedia of the American Constitution (MacMillan, co-edited by UCLA Law professor Adam Winkler and others), which won the Dartmouth Medal from the American Library Association for best reference work; and several books on law in Latin America.

His voluminous law review articles addressed a vast number of subjects: the First, Fifth and Fourteenth amendments; women's rights; affirmative action; civil rights and discrimination; gay and lesbian rights; lawyers and social change; and land-use reform in Latin America.

Karst was also a celebrated teacher. Accolades for his work with students include the UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award and the Rutter Award for Excellence in Teaching, and he was twice selected by the graduating class of UCLA Law students as teacher of the year. In 2010-11, UCLA honored Karst with the Dickson Award for emeriti who continue their distinguished academic pursuits in retirement.

Karst earned his bachelor's degree from UCLA in 1950 and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1953. He worked briefly at Latham & Watkins and as a judge advocate general in the U.S. Air Force before entering academia, spending seven years as a law professor at Ohio State University before joining UCLA Law in 1965. Karst was an active member of the UCLA Law faculty for 40 years, and he was named the David G. Price and Dallas P. Price Distinguished Professor of Law.

In 1996, Karst was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the highest honors in the nation recognizing cross-disciplinary leadership and vision.

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