For The Record

Photograph by Chris Ijams

Professor Carol N. Brown is writing a book about real estate law, but it isn’t a dry text on the finer points of land use and ownership rights. The book weaves her scholarly work on property law with her family’s personal stories about the land they owned in an impoverished part of North Carolina. 

Brown became fascinated with real estate law because of those stories. Her mother, one of nine children, grew up on a farm in Littleton, North Carolina. “Her family was very poor, but they owned their own land, as opposed to being sharecroppers,” Brown said. “They were cash-poor, but they were never hungry.” 

As each of the children was set to go to college, the family would cut down trees on the land to sell in order to scrape enough money together to pay the tuition. “I think poor people have always understood there’s something permanent and grounding in owning a piece of land and working themselves out of poverty.”

Brown, who has written three casebooks on property law, said writing a combination memoir/scholarly book is a new challenge. “It’s nice to pause and say, ‘How did I get here?’”

A graduate of Duke University School of Law, Brown has written scholarly papers in her specialty, including one in the Iowa Law Review that examined a 1992 case, Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council. That paper was cited recently in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on state compensation for privately owned property. The high court ruled that when a government regulation deprives a landowner of all economically beneficial use of their property, it amounts to a total taking. Justice Clarence Thomas cited Brown’s paper in his dissent; Brown had found that in the 25 years since the Lucas ruling, the standard was only applied in a minute number of cases. (Regarding the mention by Thomas, she said, “I’m very glad he saw my article and found it worthy to cite.”)

Brown also enjoys teaching her students the universality of real estate law. While her property law course is a requirement for her students, many of them aspiring prosecutors, Brown wins them over with her passion for the subject and her knack for making it relevant to their everyday lives. And, marrying her academic interests with community service, she also volunteers as a board member for Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia.