Category: History of Law

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Book Review: The Charge Was Treason — The Trial of John Brown

John Brown’s Trial by Brian McGinty.  Harvard University Press, 2009.  384 pp. $27.85

That in all capital or criminal prosecutions a man hath a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, to call for evidence in his favor, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of twelve men of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty; nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; that no man be deprived of his liberty, except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers.

§ 8 The Bill of Rights, Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, June 12, 1776

Now when many believe it is weakness to treat as criminals those who attacked us on September 11, 2001 Brian McGinty’s John Brown’s Trial is a timely arrival.  His compelling narrative shows Virginia thought it had something to prove by both the swiftness and the propriety of the trial and prosecution that began eight days after the anti-slavery warrior’s capture and ended forty seven days later with Brown’s death by public hanging on December 2, 1859.  Yet Virginia afforded a trial by jury, and Brown was represented by appointed lawyers, slaveholders who diligently advocated for the leader of a cause they deplored.

The modern narrative is of the Bill of Rights imposed clause-by-clause on the states by the  Supreme Court. But we see in McGinty’s account that Virginia did not need the Sixth Amendment.  The 1787 Federal Convention’s omission of a bill of rights was not oversight but reliance on the States which, like Virginia in 1776, had adopted bills of rights.

On October 16, 1859 `Captain’ John Brown and a company of twenty one  overwhelmed the lightly defended United States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry.   Like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed John Brown was seized on the battlefield. Yet no one pressed for a court martial.   Virginia Governor Henry Alexander Wise embraced trial in state court.  No one denounced a civilian jury trial as a plan to “wrap our enemies in our Bill of Rights” as former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy said of the plan to try 9/11 planners in federal court in New York.

An `unlawful combatant’ and enemy of the slave state, Brown’s raided Harper’s Ferry as part of a plan to free the slaves.  His men pledged allegiance to Brown as Commander in Chief.  His anti-slavery “Provisional Constitution and Ordinances of the People of the United States” included a new constitutional office – Commander in Chief.  Since Article II of the 1787 Constitution designates the President “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States” there could be little doubt of Brown’s seditious intent despite his protestations after capture.

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William Prosser and the Privacy Torts

I recently posted on SSRN a draft of my forthcoming article (with Professor Neil M. Richards of Washington University School of Law).  The piece is called Prosser’s Privacy Law: A Mixed Legacy, 98 California Law Review __ (forthcoming 2010).  It was written as part of a symposium “Prosser’s Privacy at 50.”

By way of background for those readers not familiar with William Prosser, he was the leading torts scholar of his generation — the undisputed king of the subject throughout the middle of the twentieth century.  And he played a profound role in shaping the privacy torts — four causes of action recognized by most states today.  His article, Privacy, 48 Cal. L. Rev. 383 (1960), still stands as one of the most influential articles in privacy law.

For this symposium, Neil and I examined Prosser’s influence and concluded that his legacy was mixed.  Here’s the abstract of our paper:

This article examines the complex ways in which William Prosser shaped the development of the American law of tort privacy. Although Prosser certainly gave tort privacy an order and legitimacy that it had previously lacked, he also stunted its development in ways that limited its ability to adapt to the problems of the Information Age. His skepticism about privacy, as well as his view that tort privacy lacked conceptual coherence, led him to categorize the law into a set of four narrow categories and strip it of any guiding concept to shape its future development. Prosser’s legacy for tort privacy law is thus a mixed one: He greatly increased the law’s stature at the cost of making it less able to adapt to new circumstances in the future. If tort privacy is to remain vital in the future, it must move beyond Prosser’s conception.

Comments are welcome.

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Natural Law, Imperialism, and the Birth of Free Exercise Jurisprudence

I have been researching Reynolds v. United States (1879), the Supreme Court’s first Free Exercise case, on and off for several years. For those who are interested, my paper on the topic is now available for download at SSRN. My interest in the case is historical rather than doctrinal. I am interested in what Reynolds, which held that religious polygamy was not protected by the First Amendment, and the anti-polygamy crusade that followed tell us about constitutional politics in the nineteenth century. Historians have generally situated the case within the context of the post-Civil War politics of Reconstruction. The anti-polygamy crusade kicked off by Reynolds is seen as an extension of Reconstruction into the West. I offer a new interpretation.

I began my research by asking myself what the theory of the First Amendment put before the Court by the Reynolds’s lawyers looked like. The Court — following the arguments of the Attorney General — characterized the Mormons as claiming that all religiously motivated action was exempt from the criminal law. This sort of absolutist position, the Court and the government pointed out, would allow absurd results such as the inability to criminalize religiously motivated murders. The Court, however, was knocking down a straw man. The Mormons never in fact made this claim. Rather, they argued that the First Amendment only protected religiously motivated conduct that was not malum in se, that is wrong in and of itself as opposed to being wrong merely because of the law (malum prohibitum). Actions could be judges as malum in se, they went on to argue, by appeal to a set of well-established natural law arguments. These arguments were based in part by a series of more-or-less positive analogies to non-Western legal systems. The Court responded implicitly to this argument by analogizing Mormons to Indians and the federal government to the British Raj. In other words, the Court in effect looked at “The Mormon Question” through the lens of imperialism.

This imperial analogy was more than a one-off rhetorical fillip in the Court’s opinion. It shows up all over the anti-polygamy battles, where it is important for distinguishing the situation in Utah from the situation in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction South. It also gets picked up on in the first generation of cases that invoke Reynolds and its progeny as precedent. These cases, known as The Insular Cases, arose in the context of the United States’ conquest of the Philippines in the Spanish American War of 1898 and addressed the question of the federal government’s authority to engage in imperialism and colonialism abroad. In these cases Reynolds was seen not as a First Amendment case as much as a case about the scope of Congressional power over a conquered people. My paper thus suggests that Reynolds and the anti-polygamy battles need to be seen not only in the context of the domestic debates over Reconstruction that proceeded them. Rather, Reynolds and its heirs must also be seen as a prelude to the international debates over imperialism that followed the Spanish American War.

For those interested, here is an abstract of the paper: Read More

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An Overdue Thank You and a Resource for IP Folks

Mike Madison is a great friend. Don’t take my word for it. Just take a look at one example of his generosity. Mike has always been a wonderful resource for anyone looking to improve their scholarship. I know I have benefited from his time and advice. We have talked a few times about a concern that Mike had raised: “younger IP scholars either have lost the knack of knowing something about the history of the discipline – or never acquired it in the first place.” A month ago Mike took action to help remedy the concern. I, for one, am most grateful to have the resource (and Mike might be happy that I contact him less often about such matters). I hope it helps anyone in the field. In addition, I hope others who perceive similar possible gaps in knowledge take the time to construct and share analogous lists in their fields. Until then, here are links to Mike’s gifts.

Lost Classics of Intellectual Property Law – Background and Introduction
Lost Classics of Intellectual Property Law – Copyright
Lost Classics of Intellectual Property Law – Trademark
Lost Classics of Intellectual Property Law – Patent

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A Splendid Exchange

I just finished reading William Bernstein’s A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World.  The goal of the book is to provide a global history of international trade from ancient times to the present.  The book doesn’t quite deliver on this promise.  For example, trade within Africa and the Americas prior to the age of discovery is almost completely ignored.  Likewise, for those who know their international economic history, the book isn’t likely to contain anything new.  Still it’s a good read, and there is something to be said for seeing huge swaths of history in a single view.

The bulk of Bernstein’s discussion focuses on the history of long distance trade between Europe and the Far East from Roman times through the nineteenth century.  He tells how this trade was dominated successively by Greeks, Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch, and finally the English.  One of the striking themes is how little there was in the West that the Chinese or Indians actually wanted.  Another theme is the often symbiotic relationship between trade and violence, most dramatically illustrated by the Opium Wars between Britain and China in the nineteenth century.

After recounting the Opium Wars, Bernstein’s focus shifts to the politics of free trade and protectionism.  Bernstein clearly believes that the free traders have the better of this argument (which, of course, is true) but he is sensitive to the way in which trade can hurt particular groups even if its benefits ultimately outweigh its costs.  He also has a good nose for stories of how protectionism has backfired in the past.  For example, in the first part of the eighteenth century English weavers rioted repeatedly, placing pressure on Parliament to exclude cheaper (and higher quality) cotton textiles from India.  Shielded from low wage Indian labor, English weavers claimed victory.  The tariff, however, also gave manufacturers and incentive to find some other way of avoiding high-wage English weavers.  The result was the mechanization of cloth production in the late eighteenth century, which ultimately displaced more high-wage weavers than the India trade ever did. Read More

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Asking new questions or at least hoping for more useful answers

From 1933 to 1934, Senator Ferdinand Pecora, the senior lawyer for the Senate Banking Committee, led an examination into securities market abuses that inspired the regulatory framework set out in the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.  The legislation noted the predatory practices that motivated its consideration and adoption:

“Alluring promises of easy wealth…freely made with little or no attempt to bring to investor’s attention those facts essential to estimating the worth of any security. High pressure salesmanship rather than careful counsel was the rule in this most dangerous enterprise.” H.R. Rep. No. 85, 73d Cong., 1st Sess. 2 (1933).

More than seventy years later, as the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission begins to hold hearings to unravel the causes of the recent financial crisis, Congress again takes up the task of addressing the accuracy of disclosure regarding valuation of complex financial instruments sold to the public (pension funds and other institutional investors). Throughout the hearings, we can anticipate accusations of greed and retorts equating greater federal government intervention with paternalism. As regulators, independent experts and senior management of the largest financial services firms arrive in Washington DC, however, we should take this opportunity to consider carefully the broader weaknesses in the structure and substance of federal securities market regulation.

The testimony solicited publicly and privately prior to the commission’s inaugural meeting suggests that disclosure will present a critical point of departure for inquiries about the recent crisis. For example, Congress is likely to challenge the practices of banks that sold clients financially engineered products like collateralized debt obligations which involve the sale of interests in bundles of residential and commercial mortgages. While the same banks encouraged credit rating agencies to assign strong, positive ratings to these products to increase revenues, they contemporaneously entered into short position contracts on these investments which rewarded the banks when the CDOs declined in value.

While important, questions or legislation focused exclusively on increasing the quality and quantity of disclosure are myopic and solutions arising out of this approach will prove insufficient to address broader market concerns. Questions or legislation should also address financial innovation or the development of new financial products or uses of products or processes not previously available and the ethical obligations of the firms that develop and distribute these products, the fragmentation among securities market regulators and the absence of consistent, effective inter-agency collaboration and the influence of international economic interdependence and regulatory competition on the development of U.S. regulation and the regulation in foreign jurisdictions. As often is the case in the securities regulation debates, there are many challenging questions and far too few effective answers.

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Best Supreme Court cases illustrating American thought?

A friend who is a history professor posed this question: “If you had to choose one single Supreme Court decision that exemplified the best in American jurisprudential thought and elegant language, what would it be?” I asked her to clarify, and she said that she is putting together a syllabus for a class on History of American Thought, and that, because America does some if its important thinking in Supreme Court cases, these can be a good illustration of American thought (not just jurisprudence or legal thought). So she’s looking for one or more cases to include in her class reading. They should be clear and well written; illustrative of some important principle in American thought; and they should be important, in that they have impacted American thought in some way. Also, if possible, they should be recent-ish — 20th century.

It turns out, those are some daunting criteria. Read More

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What would LBJ do?

I am almost done with Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate, his magnificent biography of the years Lyndon Baines Johnson served in the United States Senate. This is the third volume of his-yet unfinished biography of the life of LBJ. This work in progress is now approximately 2500 pages long and has not even covered the years where LBJ was Vice-President and President.

All three volumes focus on Johnson’s ambition for power and leadership. Master of the Senate begins with the history of the Senate and its role in our Constitutional structure as the place where dramatic political and social change goes to die – by design. Even after Senators were directly elected, the longer terms, the rules of the Senate, the role of seniority, committee chairmanships, the ease of filibuster, and the difficulty of cloture have made the Senate a unique institution.

Caro focuses mostly on two developments in the years between 1948 and 1960 before Johnson was elected Vice-President. First, was his meteoric rise as the first (and possibly last) Senate Majority Leader to wield true power. Second, was his burning ambition to be the first Southerner to be elected President since the Civil War.

These two developments combined in Johnson’ epic struggle to pass the Civil Rights of Act of 1957. Out of burning ambition, but also a complicated attitude toward race that was different than most Southern Senators, Johnson wanted, needed, some, any, civil rights legislation to lay the foundation for a run for the White House in 1960. Passing such legislation meant a weak enough bill so the Southern Bloc (his bloc as Caro makes clear in detail) wouldn’t filibuster, and yet enough of a bill that the Republicans, Northern liberals, and Western Democrats could support. To ensure passage, and no filibuster, Johnson had to stitch together a coalition that had never been successfully created on civil rights from the Jim Crow era on.

Caro lays out the cajoling, wheeling, dealing, strong arming, and compromising in the fight for the civil rights bill as well as the complicated linkages between the civil rights bill and other legislation to obtain LBJ’s winning coalition. Among other things, Johnson brokered a deal between Western Democrats who wanted public power and conservative Southern Democrats who wanted the most watered down civil rights bill possible. The Southerners voted for a public power bill they had previously opposed, but did not filibuster the emerging civil rights bills once key changes were made. The Southerners opposed the bill on the floor and voted against it, but would never used the one weapon which could have killed it entirely. The Western Democrats got their public power (at least in the Senate) and supported watering down the civil rights bill which would not hurt them politically back home in that era. Northern Democrats eventually were reconciled to the fact that some bill was better than nothing and Southern Democrats were reconciled to the fact that some bill was inevitable.

Does this remind you of anything currently going on in the Senate? We are seeing the same type of struggle now play out in the Senate over health care reform. Only a fraction of the sausage making is taking place in public, but the same issues of power, leadership, and strategy seems to be unfolding. Some bill, any bill, will probably ultimately pass. Obviously Harry Reid is no LBJ, but the demographics of the House, Senate, and White House are different enough that something is likely to emerge.

But the issues of power, leadership, and strategy remain. Is some bill better than no bill? Is this the first step to more comprehensive reform down the road? Is the watering down of the public option to build coalitions within the Democratic Party, and perhaps a couple of Republicans, leadership, weakness, or just rent seeking? While we will never know, what would LBJ have done on health care, and will we ever see the likes of him as a legislative leader again?

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Thanks to Danielle, Dan, and the rest of Concurring Opinions for the chance to blog for the month of October. I look forward to the new group of guest commentators for November including my Loyola-Chicago colleague Mike Zimmer.

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Shame on the Brits!

By temperament, I am not a particularly passionate person. Every so often, however, the world throws up an event of such mindless horror that even phlegmatic me is roused to ire. Chris Lund points out such a horror in this post over at Prawfs. All I can say is, “What the hell are their Lordships thinking over at the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom?” Shame! Shame on you! Read More

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Fire — Good or Bad?

Today is the 175th anniversary of the Great Fire of 1834, which destroyed most of the British Parliament buildings. A vivid audio description, by the Parliament’s current Clerk of the Records, can be found here

The hazardous state of the Parliament buildings, which were made of plaster-covered timber, was noted in the eighteenth century.  In 1789, a report signed by fourteen architechts complained of the danger of great damage in case of fire.  But few precautions were taken.

In October, 1834, the Clerk of the Works had to dispose of two cartloads of wooden “tally sticks” — remnants of an obsolete accounting system used by the Exchequer, a government finance department.  On October 16, 1834, the Clerk had a couple of workmen burn the tally sticks in furnaces that were part of the heating system of the House of Lords.  About 4 pm that afternoon, the deputy Housekeeper, Mrs. Wright, was conducting some visitors through the  Lords chamber, and the visitors noticed that the floor was hot and had smoke seeping through it so thickly that they couldn’t see their hands in front of them.  But she did nothing. 

By 6 pm, the House of Lords was on fire.  Through the night, the fire spread to the House of Commons chamber, the Commons Library, and other Parliament buildings.  Heroic firefighting action by fireman, soldiers, and private citizens saved Westminster Hall.

Obviously the fire was a terrible, devastating event.  But it did have consequences that some might regard as beneficial.  Even as the fire occurred, Augustus Charles Pugin, an architecht, rejoiced that later additions to the Parliament buildings, which he regarded as ruining the original medieval structure,  were finally gone.

And there is something else too.  I became familiar with the 1834 fire when researching my forthcoming article, Law and Longitude.  The article is a legal analysis of the controversy occasioned by the Longitude Act of 1714, which established a public prize for the discovery of a method of finding longitude at sea.  (If you’ve read Dava Sobel’s delightful book, Longitude, you know all about it.)

Much of the controversy concerned the proper interpretation of the Longitude Act, and, in accordance with modern interpretive practices, I wanted to research the Act’s legislative history.  But I couldn’t!  The history was destroyed in the fire, except for such small portions as were preserved in the official Journals of the House of Commons.

Today there is, of course, a lively controversy about the use of legislative history in statutory interpretation.  But one thing is certain:  courts couldn’t use legislative history if the history were destroyed.  Then we would be compelled to live in the textualists’ ideal world, in which we could only look at the text of the statute and try to determine what it means.

If you had the choice, would you put all legislative history to the fire?