America’s First Law School

Posted on Categories Legal Education, Legal History, Legal Profession, Public, UncategorizedLeave a comment» on America’s First Law School

V__9AECI had the opportunity in August to spend a day at the Litchfield Law School in Litchfield, Connecticut.  Although several universities enrolled students in law departments during the final decades of the eighteenth century, almost all lawyers of the period prepared for practice by completing apprenticeships in lawyers’ offices.  Attorney and Judge Tapping Reeve thought that education at a formal law school would be a better way for lawyers to prepare, and therefore he founded the Litchfield Law School in 1774.

More than 1,100 students attended the Litchfield Law School before it closed in 1833.  Two of Reeve’s students (Aaron Burr and John C. Calhoun) went on to become Vice President.  Fifteen of the students became governors.  Three of the students became Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States.  Twenty-eight students became United States Senators, and another ninety-seven served in the United States House of Representatives.  Clearly, the Litchfield Law School was important in educating and credentialing a significant portion of the era’s most accomplished lawyers. Continue reading “America’s First Law School”

Donald Trump and the Belief in Law

Posted on Categories Judges & Judicial Process, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Uncategorized3 Comments on Donald Trump and the Belief in Law

Donald_Trump_-_CaricatureAmong Donald Trump’s many provocative statements, his recent claims that a specific federal judge with a “Mexican heritage” and Muslim judges in general would be biased against him have apparently struck a special chord.  Even Trump’s fellow Republicans have been highly critical.  Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, for example, completed disavowed Trump’s claims, noting “All of us come here from somewhere else.”

Most of the criticisms deplore Trump’s lack of respect for American diversity and also his racism.  House Speaker Paul Ryan said in this regard that Trump’s comments amounted to “textbook racism.”  However, I wonder if some part of the strong negative reaction also relates to Trump’s challenge to an American belief in law and in the courts’ ability to apply law in a fair and objective manner.

I have argued in several of my writings that a belief in law should be recognized as an important tenet of American ideology, with “ideology” being understood as a normative expression of dominant beliefs rather than as a manipulative falsehood.  Americans have traditionally believed in law, which is presumably understandable, made in public, and useful for one and all.  In addition, law is supposed to be applied without bias, and independent courts in particular are expected to adjudicate disputes fairly and to decide similar cases in similar ways.  “Ideologues” — that is, believers in and promoters of this ideology– routinely assure us that Americans live by the rule of law more so than any other nation. Continue reading “Donald Trump and the Belief in Law”

For Sale: George Zimmerman’s Property

Posted on Categories Public, UncategorizedLeave a comment» on For Sale: George Zimmerman’s Property

Forsale2-300x236Most law school classes in Property begin with the venerable bundle of sticks metaphor.  The “bundle” includes those rights and interests held by the owners of property.  The assorted “sticks” take on different shapes and sizes, and owners invoke one or more of them to a different extent as the times change.  In the opinion of many, the right to sell one’s property has supplanted the right to use one’s property as the most important “stick” of  in the present.

The recent efforts of George Zimmerman to market the gun he used to shoot Trayvon Martin is a particularly distasteful example of an attempt to sell one’s property.  While patrolling as part of a self-styled neighborhood watch in a gated community near Orlando, Florida, Zimmerman confronted and fought with the seventeen-year-old Martin.  In the midst of the struggle, Zimmerman fired his 9 mm Kel-Tec PF-9 pistol and killed Martin.

Zimmerman was tried for the murder in early 2012, and the media absolutely feasted on the courtroom proceedings.  Zimmerman and his attorneys successfully argued the shooting was in self-defense.  Zimmerman was acquitted in February, 2012, and he publicly delighted in his victory at trial.  What’s more, the United States Justice Department at that point returned the weapon to Zimmerman.

This past week, Zimmerman put the gun up for sale on several gun auction sites. Continue reading “For Sale: George Zimmerman’s Property”

R.I.P. Harper Lee (1926-2016)

Posted on Categories Popular Culture & Law, PublicLeave a comment» on R.I.P. Harper Lee (1926-2016)

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdAmerican letters lost one of its legendary figures when Harper Lee died at 89 on February 19.  Lee’s beloved To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961, and it was the most popular of all twentieth-century novels by American authors.

Lee’s work also ranks at the top in the more specialized world of law-related popular culture.  Atticus Finch, the novel’s protagonist, inspired many to become lawyers and to work for equality for African Americans.  Gregory Peck won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1963 for his portrayal of Atticus Finch in the film version of the novel, and the respected American Film Institute has ranked Peck’s Atticus Finch as the greatest hero in the history of the cinema.  Heroism is hard to rank, but Atticus Finch is surely popular culture’s most important lawyer.

Sadly, Lee’s final years were full of controversy.  Continue reading “R.I.P. Harper Lee (1926-2016)”

Atticus Finch Revisited

Posted on Categories Civil Rights, Popular Culture & Law, PublicLeave a comment» on Atticus Finch Revisited

Atticus_and_Tom_Robinson_in_courtHarper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has an undeniably odd publication history. Ms. Lee wrote the novel in the 1950s, well before she wrote and published her beloved To Kill a Mockingbird. When she finally agreed to publish Go Set a Watchman in 2015, it registered on critics and readers as a sequel of sorts for To Kill a Mockingbird.

Go Set a Watchman involves the moving rebuilding of a parent-child relationship after the child has lost respect for the parent, and this account deserves contemplation and reflection. However, the novel as a whole is only mediocre. Furthermore, many readers will be shocked and disappointed by the novel’s suggestion that Atticus Finch is not the heroic man they thought he was.

In particular, Finch is hardly a staunch defender of civil rights for the people he calls “Negroes.” He tells his daughter Jean Louise, who was known as Scout as a young girl, “Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” He also reveals he is taking the case of an African American defendant so that the case does not fall into the hands of NAACP lawyers. In Finch’s opinion, the latter are too eagerly seeking cases they can rush into the federal courts.

If Finch is not the champion of civil rights people took him to be in To Kill a Mockingbird, his attitude about the law has supposedly remained consistent. Uncle Jack Finch tells Jean Louise: “The law is what Atticus lives by. He’ll do his best to prevent somebody beating up somebody else, and then he’ll turn around and try to stop the Federal Government if it is breaking the law . . . . [B]ut remember this, he’ll always do it by the letter of the law. That’s the way he lives.” Continue reading “Atticus Finch Revisited”

A Different Perspective on Sir Thomas More

Posted on Categories Legal History, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public1 Comment on A Different Perspective on Sir Thomas More

Obelisque_alexanderNext year is the quincentennial of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia, and celebrations of the book and its author have already begun. More, of course, is a darling of Western culture and politics. He was canonized and is considered the patron saint of politicians and statesmen. Essayist C.K. Chesterton said that More may be “the greatest historical character in English history.”

It therefore comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that More also has a following on the political left. None other than Marx and Engels praised More’s thinking, and Lenin honored him by listing his name on a monument erected in Moscow’s Aleksandrovsky Gardens.

More’s description of an ideal society in Utopia is what leads to the leftist lionizing. His society has no private property, state ownership of the means of production, and extensive welfare programs for the poor and elderly. Because of these public policies, More seems to some to be a “proto-Communist.”

None of these policies are even remotely possible in the contemporary U.S., and the collapse of actual Communist regimes of the late-twentieth century is well-documented. However, More deserves credit for reflecting on what type of socioeconomic structure might produce what type of consciousness. More thought that the population of his utopian society would avoid alienation and adopt a genuinely social worldview rather than a greedy, self-interested individualism.

More was a dreamer. Yet his variety of dialectical materialism remains appealing 500 years after he teased it out – in Latin no less!

Narrative and Social Control

Posted on Categories Civil Rights, Criminal Law & Process, Media & Journalism, Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public, Race & LawLeave a comment» on Narrative and Social Control

copslogoIn recent decades, awareness of narrative and of stories in general has increased in many fields and academic disciplines, law included.  However, it is nevertheless surprising to see that even law enforcement specialists in the Justice Department have developed an appreciation of the workings and importance of narrative.

This heightened sensitivity surfaced in the recent Justice Department report on police conduct in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting of Michael Brown.  Issued by the Department’s “Community Oriented Policing Services” office, the report outlines no fewer than 113 lessons that police in Missouri and elsewhere might learn from developments during the seventeen days following Brown’s death and funeral.

Much of the report is predictable.  It criticizes such police tactics as the use of dogs, tear gas, and so-called “overwatching.”  With the latter, police use rifle sights to survey a crowd from positions on top of police vehicles.  Overall, the report warns that “militarization” of a volatile situation will probably make things worse.

Toward the end of the report, its authors turn to what they label “lost narrative.”  In their opinion, Missouri law enforcement was too slow to provide information about the shooting of Brown and thereby created an opening for alternative representations of the incident.  Supporters of Brown and his family seized the opportunity and offered an alternative narrative, one conveyed largely but not completely through the social media and one stressing that “Black Lives Matter.” Continue reading “Narrative and Social Control”

The Rule of Law in the United States

Posted on Categories Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public6 Comments on The Rule of Law in the United States

US Supreme CourtThe highly regarded World Justice Project, an independent organization in Washington, D.C. that promotes the rule of law, has used 47 indicators organized around nine themes to generate a so-called “Rule of Law Index.” Using this Index, the World Justice Project then ranked 99 of the world’s nations according to the extent to which the rule of law was truly operative in those nations’ daily life. The United States ranked nineteenth.

This ranking is surely respectable. Americans could conceivably be pleased the United States compares so well to nations such as Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, and Venezuela, which do in fact appear at the bottom of the World Justice Project’s ranking. But at the same time Americans could be disappointed that the top four nations are, in order, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. What’s more, other nations with a common law heritage such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand also rank higher than the United States.

The ranking is especially surprising given familiar American boasting that their nation lives by the rule of law rather than by the rule of men and that their nation is exceptional in this regard. A belief in the rule of law, in my opinion, has been a central tenet of American ideology since the earliest decades of the Republic. However, all ideological tenets should be subject to vigorous critique, lest they be used for political purposes.

Stanley Kutler, American Legal Historian

Posted on Categories Legal History, PublicLeave a comment» on Stanley Kutler, American Legal Historian

Stanley KutlerThe obituaries for Stanley Kutler, a retired University of Wisconsin professor who passed away on April 7, tended to stress Kutler’s large role in obtaining public access to the Nixon Watergate tapes. Only 63 hours of those tapes had been released before Kutler’s lawsuit against the National Archives and Records Administration, but his efforts resulted in the release of more than 3,000 additional hours. Kutler and other scholars were then able to use material on the tapes to detail the Nixon Administration’s frequent and sometimes shocking abuses of political power.

Unfortunately, the obituaries largely overlooked Kutler’s decades of extraordinary work as a legal historian. His numerous books and articles include Judicial Power and Reconstruction Politics (1969), Privilege and Creative Destruction: The Charles River Bridge Case (1971), and American Inquisition: Justice and Injustice in the Cold War (1984). All of these works explored specific cases in the context of broader historical movements. The facts and social complexities of the cases were always more important for Kutler than were the rules and corollaries spouted from one appellate bench or another.

Kutler’s work as a legal historian placed him at the center of the “new legal history” that emerged during the 1960s. Continue reading “Stanley Kutler, American Legal Historian”

Karl Marx on Religion

Posted on Categories Political Processes & Rhetoric, Public3 Comments on Karl Marx on Religion

marxReligious people sometimes express disdain for Karl Marx and his philosophies because he supposedly characterized religion as “the opiate of the masses.” It turns out that this isn’t exactly what Marx said. Furthermore, he wasn’t necessarily negative about religion and its role in social life.

Appearing in Marx’s projected but never completed A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy, Marx’s words on religion are of course in German. Continue reading “Karl Marx on Religion”

Big Tobacco Sues Uruguay

Posted on Categories Business Regulation, Health Care, Public4 Comments on Big Tobacco Sues Uruguay

fda cigarette warning lungsThose who follow efforts to use law to reduce smoking will be aware the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found in R.J. Reynolds v. FDA, 696 F.3d 1215 (D.C. Cir. 2012) that mandatory graphic imagery on cigarette packs was a violation of commercial speech rights. As a result of the decision, cigarette packs continue to have only prosaic warnings, which go not only unread but also, for the most part, unnoticed.

Foreign countries, of course, are not bound by U.S. law, and Uruguay forged ahead with its own laws requiring graphic warnings. They include photos of decaying teeth, premature babies, and disturbing hospital scenes, with each picture covering 80 percent of each pack. Big Tobacco cannot invoke its commercial speech rights in Uruguay, but Philip Morris has sued Uruguay for $25 million, alleging the required warnings violate treaties protecting intellectual property rights.

The case is in the courts, with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg paying many of Uruguay’s legal costs. Smoking is on the rise in developing countries, and many think the decision in Uruguay will have significant impact on other developing countries’ willingness to require graphic warnings.

For my own part, I strongly endorse the required graphic warnings in the name of social justice. Smoking in both the United States and abroad is increasingly concentrated among poor and working-class men and women, and the health problems associated with smoking are also greater in these sectors of the world population. For the poor and members of the working class, reading skills and even any interest in written texts are limited, but poor and working-class smokers are aware of and receptive to visual imagery. If they could literally see what smoking causes, they might fight harder to break their deathly, addictive habit.

The Most Popular Hollywood Law Movies

Posted on Categories Popular Culture & Law, PublicLeave a comment» on The Most Popular Hollywood Law Movies

Liar LiarThe consensus among film critics seems to be that the “law movie” does not constitute a shaped genre comparable to the thriller or the romantic comedy. However, we can still speak more generally of movies in which a lawyer is a major character, a courtroom proceeding occurs, and the law itself has some role in the plot. Which are the most popular law-related movies of this sort in the history of the American cinema?

One answer to the question can be found on the International Movie Data Base website and on that website’s “All-Time USA Box Office Ranking.” The latter derives exclusively from theatrical box office sales and does not include video rentals, television rights, and other revenues. As of 2014, the most popular law-related movies are in order: “Liar Liar” (1997), “Chicago” (2002), “The Firm” (1993), “A Few Good Men” (1992), “Erin Brockovich” (2000), and “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979).

I’m surprised by the list and by how few of the movies on the list correspond to what I consider the “best” law-related films. I’m also struck by how different the six movies are from one another. Indeed, going back to the notion of genre, with which I began this post, the six movies represent a wide range of genres.

Here’s how I would categorize the movies: Continue reading “The Most Popular Hollywood Law Movies”