Mari J. Matsuda is a professor of law at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, William S. Richardson School of Law. From her earliest academic publications, the prolific Professor Matsuda has spoken from the perspective and increasingly used the method that has come to be known as critical race theory. She is not only one of its most powerful practitioners, but is among a handful of legal scholars credited with its origin. Her first article, “Liberal Jurisprudence and Abstracted Visions of Human Nature,” published in 1986, boldly—albeit respectfully—took on liberal legal philosopher John Rawls’ theory of justice and in doing so announced her own philosophical orientation. Matsuda concludes her piece with an idea that informs much of her work in subsequent years: “There is, as Rawls suggests, a place called Justice, and it will take many voices to get there.” The voices she has in mind are the voices that have been left out, “outsider” voices speaking as individuals and as members of their communities of origin, voices of subordinate peoples. Voices from the bottom, Matsuda believes—and critical race theory posits—have the power to open up new legal concepts of even constitutional dimension. Paradoxically, bringing in the voices of outsiders has helped to make Matsuda’s work central to the legal canon. A Yale Law School librarian ranked three of her publications as among the “top 10 most cited law review articles” for their year of publication. Judges and scholars regularly quote her work.
Mari Matsuda is also known as a teacher. Her elective courses are typically over-subscribed, she has lectured at every major university, and she is much in demand as a public speaker. Judges in countries as diverse as Micronesia and South Africa have invited her to conduct judicial training, and other law professors count her as a significant influence on their own work. Harvard professor Lani Guinier says, “Mari Matsuda taught me that I have a voice. I did not have to become a female gentleman, a social male. Nor should I strive to become someone else in order to be heard.” And social critic Catharine MacKinnon says of Matsuda’s book, Where Is Your Body: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Law, “Her writing shines, her politics illuminate, her passion touches and reveals…Community grows in her hands. Read her. We need this.”
For Matsuda, community is linked to teaching and scholarship. She serves on national advisory boards of social justice organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Asian American Justice Center. By court appointment, she served as a member of the Texaco Task Force on Equality and Fairness, assisting in the implementation of the then-largest employment discrimination settlement in U.S. history. “Every one of the publications that I am known for came out of some kind of pro bono community project I was working on,” she says. Her Yale Law Journal article on accent discrimination, for example, came out of her representation of Manual Fragante, immigrant and Vietnam veteran. Although he placed first of 700 applicants on a civil service test for the job of clerk in the Hawai`i Department of Motor Vehicles, Fragante was passed over because of his accent. For her work on such cases, A Magazine recognized her in 1999 as one of the 100 most influential Asian Americans.
Judge Richard Posner, in his quantitative analysis of scholarly influence, lists Mari Matsuda as among those scholars most likely to have lasting influence. Yet in other venues, he has criticized the narrative methods of critical race theory. This paradox of criticism combined with recognition perhaps best characterizes reaction to Matsuda’s work. People, in her optimistic words, “learn and grow through interaction with difference, not by reproducing what they already know.” A faith in law’s potential for reconstruction to create a more inclusive democracy illuminates all of Mari Matsuda’s work.