The papers document the career of Thomas Emerson, primarily during his time as a professor at the Yale Law School from 1946 to 1976. Correspondence runs throughout the papers but is concentrated in Series I, residing in both the general correspondence section and the subject files. The subject files consist largely of collected material and detail Emerson's involvement in organizations. His activities on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, and the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women are among those most thoroughly documented. The subject files also contain a limited amount of material from the period Emerson spent working for the federal government from 1933 to 1946. The papers include copies of the files the Federal Bureau of Investigation kept on Emerson and large amounts of Emerson's writings and course materials. While his legal career is represented in the papers, legal documentation is not a large part of the collection. Records of Griswold v. Connecticut are present, but not extensive. There is no documentation of Powell v. Alabama or the other "Scottsboro Boys" cases in these papers.
The papers provide a comprehensive view of many of the debates over civil liberties in the United States during the twentieth century. Material within the papers details American society's ongoing struggle to define the boundaries between an individual's rights and government sovereignty in the political, social, and intellectual arenas. Emerson's involvement in the Progressive Party, support of the Equal Rights Amendment, and work on Sweezy v. New Hampshire are well-documented civil liberties issues within the papers, but many others are present in the subject files in Series I. On a more personal note, the Federal Bureau of Investigation files in Series II show how the FBI conducted an investigation of a suspected member of the Communist Party, the scope of the investigation, and the effect it had on the person being investigated. Emerson was one of many people to be investigated in this way by government agencies after World War II.
The Thomas Irwin Emerson Papers were processed as part of a collaborative effort between Manuscripts and Archives and the Yale Law School to document the careers and accomplishments of law school faculty and alumni.