Category: History of Law


The Forgotten Man

A book that is getting a lot of attention these days is “The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression” by Amity Shlaes. Shlaes argues that FDR’s policies prolonged the economic downtown (or at least did not help). Now that we are in another severe recession, her book is being invoked by those who oppose to President Obama’s interventionist measures (such as economic stimulus) as evidence that the New Deal was a failure.

Let’s assume for purposes of discussion that Shlaes is right about the economics. Is that the end of the matter? I don’t think so. The next question is whether activist government was necessary to prevent something worse from happening. I’m not talking about a dictatorship. I’m simply referring to a political movement in favor of even more interventionist or redistributive policies that would have gained traction because the government was not doing enough.

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John Bingham


After I finish my book on Populist and Progressive era constitutionalism, my next book will be a biography of John Bingham (1815-1900), the principal drafter of Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment. It’s a bit daunting, as I’ve never written a biography before and much of the relevant material is scattered around the country. Nevertheless, given his importance (Hugo Black called Bingham the “James Madison of the Fourteenth Amendment”), he really deserves a full-fledged biography (not to mention an HBO miniseries, if anyone wants to buy the rights from me). There was one written by Erving Beauregard about twenty years ago, but it is pretty obscure and was based on an inaccurate view of Bingham’s role that dates back to Charles Fairman’s flawed scholarship in the 1940s.

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John Hope Franklin 1915-2009

I wanted to note the passing of John Hope Franklin, the great historian of the African-American experience in this country, who passed away last week. Professor Franklin was part of Thurgood Marshall’s team during the Brown litigation, and his 1947 book “From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American-Americans” is still considered a classic in the field.

I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Franklin three years ago when I was doing research at the FDR Library in Hyde Park. The reading room there is rather small and only a few people were there when he came walking in with a librarian who blurted out, “Hey, everybody! It’s John Hope Franklin.” We all went over to chat and he couldn’t have been more gracious, asking me about my work in detail. (He did seem a tad disappointed when I told him I was a lawyer rather than a historian, but that passed quickly.) I was struck by his approach because I’d seen an interview with him not long before where he explained that as a young man he met W.E.B. Dubois, who was pretty nasty and dismissive towards him — a lowly graduate student. He made sure not to treat others that way.

John Hope Franklin led an exemplary life as a scholar and a citizen. We can all aspire to that standard, but it’ll be hard to match.


Law and Tradition (herein of Iowa, Coke, Hale, and Selden)

Coke.jpgIn the Iowa Supreme Court’s opinion declaring traditional marriage unconstitutional, the justices dealt with the claim that the law was justified because it protected the integrity of the tradition of heterosexual marriage. The opinion states:

A specific tradition sought to be maintained cannot be an important governmental objective for equal protection purposes, however, when the tradition is nothing more than the historical classification currently expressed in the statute being challenged. When a certain tradition is used as both the governmental objective and the classification to further that objective, the equal protection analysis is transformed into the circular question of whether the classification accomplishes the governmental objective, which objective is to maintain the classification.

As presented by the Court (and for all I know as presented by the attorneys defending the law), the argument sounds circular and absurd. As a technical matter the court was applying intermediate scrutiny, but as presented by the Court the appeal to tradition would seem to fail even a rational basis test.

To anyone with a familiarity with the history of the common law, the notion that the appeal to tradition is circular or vacuous is striking. The classical common law theorists of the seventeenth century – Coke, Hale, and Selden – thought that tradition was the primary justification for the law’s authority. Independent of the particular issue of same-sex marriage, the Iowa Supreme Court’s opinion shows how far our legal thinking has traveled.

It is, of course, always easy to dismiss the strange thoughts of the past as so much benighted nonsense, and to look at the seventeenth century appeal to tradition as a bit of rhetorical clap trap and nothing more. Certainly, there was more than a little bit of fiction in the appeal to immemorial custom. The appeal to tradition, however, was not without its reasons.

There are, it seems to me, at least three reasons for adhering to tradition because it is tradition.

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Government Competence During Recessions

An often raised objection to President Obama’s economic policy (or its natural extensions) is that the government is ill-suited to run private firms. I want to raise two counter-arguments that I think diminishes the force of that claim, and which I haven’t seen elsewhere: (1) government workers are smarter during severe recessions; and (2) we know more than we used to about what makes non-profit governance work.

1. Government Eats Brains During Severe Downturns

Because it is familiar, consider the market for legal jobs. A year ago, or two, top law students would be trading present income for the possibility of future income & (difficult to quantify) life satisfaction if they took a job with a government agency instead of a large private firm. That calculation being uncertain, many argued that government jobs were disproportionately filled by individuals seeking to increase the power and prestige of the State, i.e., that they weren’t maximizing wealth. Today, that calculation looks different. Students have to consider the likelihood that the firm will rescind their offers, either before they start work or after. (Odds helpfully summarized here.) So, assume that a student has an offer from (say) Ditto Dot, LLP, with a starting salary of $150K, and she determines that the likelihood that the firm will honor its offer is 50%. The student’s expected salary, obviously, is 75K. A DOJ job (taken after a clerkship) pays in that zone, and there is zero chance that the job will disappear. Since the likelihood that some of these firms will honor their offers appears to be significantly lower than 50%, the DOJ now “pays more” than large parts of the private sector. (Incidentally: another argument against increased federal judicial pay.) Thus, the competition for government jobs should be much more fierce today than it was last year, and will be severe in the Fall hiring season. The result ought to be better qualified government lawyers at all levels.

This same dynamic will be in play in other government departments, including the Treasury & the Fed. During very severe recessions, Washington will be a tremendous talent magnet. Thus, though it is true that the government will never be as nimble as a private firm, our views about its relative level of competence may be unduly influenced by its performance during the times of plenty that we’ve had over the last two generations. Better employees should lead to better government work.

2. Non-profit organizations can work well

At the same time, I think that the claim that the profit motive is necessary to drive effectively governed institutions also needs a bit of rethinking. Universities and other complex non-profits thrive because of internal cultures of performance, driven by strong leaders. Nonetheless, they can be incredibly effective, at making money (consider the success of Yale’s endowment), at inculcating loyalty, at being stable, etc. The literature on non-profit governance is just beginning to influence the legal academy, but appears to offer some promising ideas about how to structure a non-profit so that it can function well absent traditional market pressures. The government, though not a non-profit technically, ends up looking something like it in terms of how its employees are governed and rewarded. We might draw on the lessons of the NP literature in thinking about how to organize the new public-private firms that we’ve seized – at least for the brief period of time that we will be running them.


The Bard of the Financial Crisis

shakespeare.jpgOver the weekend, I re-read A Merchant of Venice, and I was struck by the fact that Shakespeare manages to include in the play virtually every element of the current financial crisis. Scene one begins with a discussion of risk assessment, and Antonio’s belief that he has managed to tame the vagaries of commercial fate through diversification. Asked by Salarino if he “Is sad to think upon his merchandise” (I.i.40), Antonio responds:

Believe me, no. I thank my fortune for it

My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,

Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate

Upon the fortune of this present year.

Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad. (I.i.41-45)

Having ignored the problem of fat tails and black swans, Antonio decides to engage in a bit of dodgy finance. He borrows in the wholesale market from Shylock under terms that appear favorable, but have a huge downside in the unlikely event of his default. Antonio, of course, is unconcerned. From his point of view he is getting cheap money by taking on what seems like an extremely remote risk. He then takes these borrowed funds and uses them to make what can only be described as a no doc, subprime loan. Bassiano wants money for a speculative venture — the wooing “In Belmont [of] a lady richly left” (I.i.161) — and Antonio agrees, in effect renting out his credit rating:

Try what my credit in Venice can do;

That shall be racked even to the uttermost

To furnish thee to Belmont to fair Portia.

Go presently inquire, and so will I,

Where money is; and I no question make

To have it of my trust or for my sake. (I.i.180-185)

Shylock, for his part, does not approve of the loose monetary policy in Venice, which he rightly blames on wild lending practices, such as Antonio’s loans:

How like a fawning publican he looks.

I hate him for he is a Christian;

But more, for what is low simplicity,

He lends out money gratis and brings down

The rate of usance here with us in Venice. (I.iii.38-42)

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The Worst Contract Ever

zong.gifI just finished Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings: Britain, Slaves, and the American Revolution. I leave an assessment of its ultimate merits to the historical experts on slavery in the late 18th-century Atlantic world, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book. By taking characters that usually sit at the margins of narratives about the American Revolution — slaves who escaped to British lines — and placing them at the center of the story, a story that ultimately sits in Britain looking west rather than American looking east, it made an old story new. Also, despite his efforts at even handedness, one can’t help but pick up on the fun that Schama is having poking at American hypocrisy and lauding “British Freedom” (the name that one of the escaped American slaves actually took). To be sure, Schama is at pains to point out the frequent expediency and hypocrisy of British policy toward African-Americans. This is not a bit of Rule Britannia flag waving. Still, reading about Glanville Sharpe and other English abolitionists, or the final English general in America — Guy Carleton — a blustering non-entity who nevertheless refused to abandon escaped slaves to their masters, despite pressure from Washington and more-or-less explicit language in the Peace of Paris gave my inner Anglo-phile a thrill. As a contract geek, however, the most fascinating part of the book was the story of The Zong, an episode that surely must stand as the most hideous example of perverse incentives in the history of contract drafting.

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William Cuddihy’s The Fourth Amendment: Origins and Original Meaning 602-1791

cuddihy1.jpgI’m delighted to announce the publication of William J. Cuddihy’s The Fourth Amendment: Origins and Original Meaning 602 – 1791 (Oxford University Press, January 2009). The book has just come out in print, hot off the press, and it’s an absolutely essential volume for any scholar of constitutional history, criminal procedure, or the Fourth Amendment.

Cuddihy’s book is the most comprehensive history of the Fourth Amendment I’ve ever read. It spans over 1000 years of history, tracing the origins of the concepts underpinning the Fourth Amendment from the Middle Ages to the Founding. It clocks in at 940 pages, but much of the heft comes from the extensive footnoting and detailed appendices. The book it is highly readable and contains a wealth of information and insight into the intellectual history of the Fourth Amendment and its original meaning. It comes with a high price tag, but I can assure you that it’s worth every penny.

I first encountered the book as an unpublished manuscript (which was completed over 15 years ago) when I was doing research into the history of the Fourth Amendment. I kept seeing it cited in articles and judicial opinions (it was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court a few times) and so I tracked it down. I couldn’t believe that this detailed, exhaustive, and immensely valuable research had never been published. William Cuddihy wrote it while a doctoral student under the late eminent legal historian Leonard Levy. I contacted Cuddihy and helped him find a publisher. And so I’m delighted that the manuscript is now in print, revised, updated, and with an afterward that responds to scholarship by Akhil Amar and Thomas Davies. I wrote a short preface for the book, in which I conclude:

No other work on the Fourth Amendment has synthesized so many sources, let alone done so as deftly and clearly as Professor Cuddihy’s The Fourth Amendment: Origins and Original Meaning 602-1791. I am very honored to introduce it.

Get your copy today. Tell your librarian to get a copy for your school’s library. It’s truly an impressive book, and is indispensable for anyone who wants to understand the origins of the Fourth Amendment.


Soothsayer Law

cystalball.jpgAccording to the WashPo, St. Johnsbury, Vermont has decided to make the plunge and legalize soothsaying. It turns out that a number of jurisdictions still have anti-fortunetelling statutes on the books. Contemporary Pennsylvania law, for example states:

A person is guilty of a misdemeanor of the third degree if he pretends for gain or lucre, to tell fortunes or predict future events, by cards, tokens, the inspection of the head or hands of any person, or by the age of anyone, or by consulting the movements of the heavenly bodies, or in any other manner, or for gain or lucre, pretends to effect any purpose by spells, charms, necromancy, or incantation, or advises the taking or administering of what are commonly called love powders or potions, or prepares the same to be taken or administered, or publishes by card, circular, sign, newspaper or other means that he can predict future events, or for gain or lucre, pretends to enable anyone to get or to recover stolen property, or to tell where lost property is, or to stop bad luck, or to give good luck, or to put bad luck on a person or animal, or to stop or injure the business or health of a person or shorten his life, or to give success in business, enterprise, speculation, and games of chance, or to win the affection of a person, or to make one person marry another, or to induce a person to make or alter a will, or to tell where money or other property is hidden, or to tell where to dig for treasure, or to make a person to dispose of property in favor of another. (18 Pa.C.S.A. § 7104 )

The law apparently dates back to an 1861 state statute. A quick Westlaw search reveals reported cases dealing with anti-fortunetelling statues in California, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Washington, and other states.

Witchcraft and cursing, of course, were crimes at common law on the straight-forward theory that they were a method of harming others that ought to be suppressed. One may dispute the metaphysics behind this crime, but as a normative matter it seems simple enough. One might even object to love potions as a kind of officious intermeddling. The suppression of fortunetelling — along with other forms of beneficent magic like peering in stones to find lost treasure — however, rests on a more subtle calculation, some of it less than pretty.

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Eric Muller on the Lies of Hirabayashi

Professor Eric Muller (U. North Carolina School of Law) has posted a new paper, Hirabyashi: The Biggest Lie of the Greatest Generation on SSRN. From the abstract:

This Article presents newly discovered archival evidence demonstrating that government lawyers told a crucial lie to the United States Supreme Court in the case of Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81 (1943), which upheld the constitutionality of a racial curfew imposed on Japanese Americans in World War II. While the government’s submissions in Hirabayashi maintained that the curfew was a constitutional response to the serious threat of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast, new archival findings make clear that military officials foresaw no Japanese invasion and were planning for no such thing at the time they ordered mass action against Japanese Americans. Even more disturbingly, the archival record demonstrates that at the time that Justice Department lawyers filed their brief in Hirabayashi emphasizing a threatened invasion, they knew this emphasis was false.

The Article seeks to understand what might have led otherwise ethical Justice Department lawyers to present such a big and consequential lie, suggesting that the then-prevalent racial schema of the “Oriental” as an invading horde may have overpowered the lawyers’ evaluation of the facts. And perhaps more importantly, the Article demonstrates that the Hirabayashi decision – which has never been repudiated in the way that the more famous Korematsu decision has been, and which remains a potent precedent for race-conscious national security measures – deserves to be installed in the Supreme Court’s Hall of Shame, alongside Korematsu, Dred Scott, and the Court’s other biggest mistakes.

According to Eric’s blog post about his article: “My article documents all of this from primary archival sources, and then goes on to speculate about what might have led Justice Department lawyers to such a large and consequential deception.”