Blogpost: Reflections from the Graduate Student Conference on Public Law

Blogpost by Wesley Maraire

Over the years, public law has increasingly taken a larger space within the broader political science field. It’s a natural progression really when you think about the relationship between law, politics, and society. For, it would not be scientific rigour if we analysed the behaviour of legal decision-makers and the law-related behaviour of citizens in isolation. After all, we gain deeper insights when we understand the role that law, legal theory, and legal practice play in the governmental process.

This leads me to the Graduate Student Conference in Public Law, 2022. An annual conference organised by graduate (postgraduate/PhD) students at the Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin. The conference survived Covid and so I must salute Matthew Martin, Candace Terman and Kyle Shen who hosted a group of seventeen PhD candidates on their campus on October 28-29, 2022.

We kicked off the conference with a Keynote from Professor Lisa Hilbink from the University of Minnesota who presented on the topic ‘Understanding Judicial Populism’. Her work centres around Latin America and so for someone like me, who mainly researches sub-Saharan Africa, it was highly insightful to listen and learn about judicial behaviour in a different part of the world. And of course, it was fitting for her to present inside the Eidman Courtroom, which typifies the Supreme Court in its grandeur.

The annual conference follows thematic panels, with each consisting of between 4-5 papers. Each presenter was given 7-minutes to present, which was followed by 5-minutes of comments from a faculty discussant, before the other panellists provided 1-2-minutes of comments. Some of the themes included: Human Rights and International Law, Judicial Politics, Comparative Constitutionalism (my panel), Constitutional Theory. The papers were and for the most part remain in development stage and so the conference served as a platform to obtain feedback from experienced academics as well as peer-to-peer learning.

Personally, the conference was a godsend! Since moving to Norway and starting a fellowship at the Centre on Law & Social Transformation last year, I had been working on a paper that I just couldn’t finish. I was attempting to apply an analytical framework on inherent and unacceptable risk of unfairness within legal systems to assess access to justice in Zimbabwe, and (perhaps) more broadly in common law countries with plural legal systems. After having received a few rounds of feedback from the Gender and Rights research group at the Chr. Michelsen Institute, the feedback I received from the conference was the final nail that led to the submission of the paper to a journal. Ashley Moran, the discussant on my panel provided feedback covering the framing of the paper, operationalising terms for the Zimbabwe context, something I had taken for granted. I really couldn’t be more thankful to LawTransform for sponsoring the trip.

It’s true that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy! And I along with the other conference attendees were not trying to be dull. We properly took on the Texas way of doing things by starting the day with breakfast tacos. Lunch starts at 11am and it is never too early to have barbeque. For a meat-eater, there may be very few places I could go where I would be left wondering where the salad is. And, when someone did ask for a salad at a restaurant, the waitress came with cheese that had melted cheese on top (that’s salad in Texas) – take me back there…

More practical information: the conference happens every year and a call for extended abstracts (1,500 words) is published on the UT at Austin, College of Liberal Arts website as well as affiliated universities. They aim to accept up to 20 abstracts each year and provide a grant of US$500 to each participant. The full paper, max 10,000 words is due two weeks before the conference.

I encourage all PhD candidates with an interest in public law and political science to apply for the 2023 edition. In addition to looking out for the call on the website, you can send an email to: with any questions.