Much of Valerie Snow’s political science education at Haverford was colored by her passion for social justice work. The Peace, Justice, and Human Rights concentrator spent three different winter breaks traveling with Center for Peace and Global Citizenship delegations—to Mexico City to study immigration, to Bangladesh to study microfinance, and to Nicaragua to study maternal health. So when it came time to pick a thesis topic, it wasn’t surprising that international human rights and poverty were on her mind. Snow’s paper, “Subsisting on Constitutional Promises: Socio-Economic Rights Litigation for the Poor,” examined the ability of the judiciary to help realize the social and economic rights of the poor, including rights to water, education, housing, or health care. To do so, Snow studied and compared judicial enforcement of those rights in Colombia, India, and South Africa.
“I was interested in taking an international comparative approach to highlight how paradoxes and trends can enrich our understanding of this topic, but also because of my travel experience and interest in international contexts and politics,” says the aspiring lawyer, who is currently working as a paralegal focusing on human rights cases in a small law firm in Philadelphia.
How did your thesis advisor help you develop your topic, conduct your research, or interpret your results?
My thesis advisor was [Associate Professor of Political Science] Craig Borowiak, who has been an important influence on my political science interests. Craig supported my topic even though it was outside of his research focus and direct expertise. He made suggestions about resources or people I could consult while I was forming my topic… [And I] benefited from his experience and editorial eye as I crafted chapter outlines and tried to fit all the pieces together in a logical manner.
What did you learn working on your thesis?
Substantively, I learned about social and economic rights in constitutions; comparative constitutionalism as a body of literature; and how the highest judiciaries in various countries operate within their social and political contexts. The most important takeaway is that enshrining socio-economic rights in constitutions and allowing judiciaries to engage with them is an important but not sufficient way in which those rights can be realized. There are so many other factors that influence outcomes that are far beyond judicial control.
What are the implications for this research?
The primary implication of my thesis involves the ability of judiciaries to act as guardians of socio-economic rights. Socio-economic rights are of vital importance to poor and/or marginalized communities, so their enforcement is an important matter for those concerned with poverty and inequality within and between societies. In the countries I studied, the constitutions in which those rights were enshrined also self-consciously set out to transform the country in the direction of social justice. If the highest courts fail to adjudicate the most basic socio-economic rights to benefit the most disadvantaged, then the legitimacy of the constitution and democracy are undermined.
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of members of the Class of 2014.