Turning the page

Leslie Ridgeway • November 29, 2023
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Led to practice law by legal legends and popular author, Professor Aya Gruber finds career fulfillment in academia

Professor Aya Gruber’s influences include legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow, Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis and William J. Brennan, legal giant Charles Ogletree, critical legal studies movement founder Duncan Kennedy, and feminist/queer legal scholar Janet Halley. And then there’s Stephen King.

Yes, that Stephen King, author of horror classics including “The Shining,” “The Stand” and “Pet Sematary.” Gruber, whose scholarship focuses on criminal law and procedure, violence against women and critical theory, credits King’s literary techniques for helping her to understand and accept human nature.

“I love the way he draws in readers and presents characters that are conflicted and complicated. In the law – especially criminal law – we often hear black-and-white narratives,” says Gruber. “But people’s stories are always more complex. We have to live with that uncertainty.”

Gruber comes to USC Gould from the University of Colorado and in her first semester at Gould, is teaching criminal procedure. Other topics include criminal law and a seminar on race, gender and criminal law.

After graduating from Harvard Law School magna cum laude, Gruber worked in Washington, D.C. and Miami, Florida as a public defender. She gravitated toward academia after mentoring a student law clerk, and hoped that through writing and teaching she could help tackle the problems of the overbroad and racially biased American carceral system. She welcomed the opportunity to conduct research that would change policy — and minds.

Her work covers subjects that provoke strong opinions and emotions, including how the law treats sex crimes, why policing is a poor solution to social ills such as homelessness, and feminism’s relationship to mass incarceration — a subject she explored in her first monograph, “The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration” (2020, UC Press). She’s working on a book tracing the origins and development of sex-crime laws in the United States.

“Everyone wants sexual abuse to be regulated, but at the same time, history reveals that concepts of who is a sexual transgressor, deviant and groomer has underwritten extreme political discrimination against sexual minorities and other oppressed groups,” she says. “The book traces how societal preoccupation with sex has shaped criminal law and contributed to the current state of American mass incarceration. Sex is a topic that makes many people uncomfortable, but somebody needs to talk about it.”

For Gruber, her arrival at USC is a kind of homecoming. During World War II, the government forcibly removed her family from their California home and incarcerated them in a military detention camp for Japanese Americans. After release, they settled in the Los Angeles suburb of Lincoln Heights, and two of her aunts and her uncle eventually graduated from USC.

“The faculty at the law school is second to none — I’m impressed by my new colleagues and humbled to be part of this faculty,” she says. “And I’m over the moon to be teaching students that are so bright, diverse, and interesting. I’m grateful for that.”

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