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Category: History of Law

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President Fred Vinson

93px-Fred_m_vinsonFred Vinson is one of the more obscure Chief Justices and is widely seen as a mediocre member of the Court.  He was appointed by President Truman in 1946 (the last Chief Justice from the Democratic Party) and served until he died in 1953.  As Carlton Larson pointed out in this terrific piece a few years ago, Vinson would be viewed very differently if he had written Brown, which he almost surely would have he had not died when he did.  Vinson penned the opinions in Shelley v. Kramer, Swett v. Painter, and McLaurin v. Oklahoma striking down racial segregation, and there is no reason to think that he could not have in Brown (though whether it would have been unanimous is another question).

What I didn’t know until recently is that Truman really wanted Vinson (a former Congressman and Treasury Secretary) to succeed him as President.  He tried to talk Vinson into running in 1952, and with Truman’s backing Vinson would have been a formidable candidate for the Democratic nomination.  Vinson declined, though, partly for health reasons and partly because he felt that a Chief Justice should not reenter politics.

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Fifty Years of “I know it when I see it.”

On June 22, 1964, Justice Potter Stewart coined the phrase “I know it when I see it” in his concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio. Fifty years later, that expression holds the distinction of being one of the few modern legal phrases to become a regularly accepted expression among educated Americans. The half-century anniversary of Jacobellis provides a fitting opportunity to ask why “I know it when I see it” has enjoyed such popularity and what lessons that phrase and its history might hold for us today.

Jacobellis reversed the conviction of an Ohio movie theater manager for showing obscene material in the form of the French film Les Amants (The Lovers), which included a sex scene at its conclusion. The court’s 6-3 decision was highly fragmented, with six opinions in total and the plurality garnering only two votes.

Potter Stewart

In a short 144-word concurring opinion, Stewart wrote that he found it almost impossible to define obscenity precisely, which should only include “hard-core pornography.” His now famous line concluded the opinion:

 “But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

At the time, the pithy phrase actually garnered little interest in the public sphere. Many newspapers chose instead to focus on another obscenity case decided that same day, Quantity of Books v. Kansas. Those journalists who did write about Jacobellis largely ignored “I know it when I see it” and chose to focus on the legal technicalities the case posed.

While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Stewart’s iconic expression became common, we can chart its growing popularity via Google’s Ngram search engine. Google Ngram measures the percentage of English language books that contain a phrase up to five words long. Because “I know it when I see it” is seven words, I ran the search for each five-letter segment of the phrase (“I know it when I;” “know it when I see;” “it when I see it.”). The graph clearly shows the steeply rising and still growing interest in Stewart’s phrase, starting slightly after 1964:

I know it when I see it Ngram

 

The Ngram search also reveals some interesting instances of similar phrases, both legal and not, pre-dating Jacobellis. Consider two examples: In an obituary for Benjamin Cardozo that ran in the Columbia, Yale and Harvard law journals in 1939, Learned Hand praised Justice Cardozo for his wisdom, writing:

“And what is wisdom — that gift of God which the great prophets of his race exalted? I do not know; like you, I know it when I see it, but I cannot tell of what it is composed.”

Read More

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Richard Posner & NAACP v. Button — A Short History

Since I had to prepare remarks for a panel discussion for today, I was unable to do my weekly First Amendment News column. Instead, I opted to present an abbreviated essay from a work-in-progerss, actually two. In the main, I  stitched together something from one of my books (We Must not be Afraid to be Free) and a future article (“The Maverick – A Biographical Sketch of Richard Posner”), this in addition to some reliance on Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion (2010) by Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel and other works. I also benefitted from the thoughtful assistance of Judge Posner and Robert M. O’Neil. The result is this post, also a prelude to a more scholarly work on NAACP v. Button (1963). Shortly, I will say more about Judge Posner’s involvement in Button, but before I do I thought it might useful to say a few prefatory things about the history of the case.

* * * *

The case’s original name was NAACP v. Patty, which began in 1957. After cert. was granted, the case name changed to NAACP v. Gray. Later it would be changed to Button, the last name of the Virginia Attorney General at the time. The controversy involved a challenge to five Virginia laws which, according to Fourth Circuit Court Judge Morris Aimes Soper, “were enacted [in 1956] for the express purpose of impeding the integration of the races in the public schools of the state which the plaintiff corporations are seeking to promote.” The laws in question banned the encouragement of certain kinds of litigation (“barratry” statutes) and the solicitation of clients (including in pro bono cases) and/or the financing of litigation (“champerty” statutes). The lawyer who represented the NAACP was Robert L. Carter (1917-2012), Thurgood Marshall’s chief legal assistant (and later General Counsel to the NAACP). By 1957, recalled Carter in his memoir (A Matter of Law), the group was involved in 25 cases in various states employing barratry and champerty laws aimed at halting civil rights litigation. Henry T. Wickham (1920-2008) represented the state of Virginia. In his obituary it was noted that Mr. Wickham “served as a special assistant to former Virginia Attorney General J. Lindsay Almond Jr. representing Virginia in an effort to preserve segregated public schools” in Brown v. Board.

 For an informative and thoughtful account of Button, see Harry Kalven, Jr., The Negro and the First Amendment 75-90 (1965).

The Hand of Fate

Robert Button was the Attorney General of Virginia (1962-1970) who backed policies of Massive Resistance to prevent public school desegregation.

Robert Young Button was the Attorney General of Virginia (Dem. –1962-1970) who backed policies of Massive Resistance to prevent public school desegregation (see short video clip here)

When it came time for a conference vote in the Button case, Chief Justice Earl Warren, predictably, voted to reverse. “The purpose of the statute is obviously to circumvent Brown,” he said. Justice Hugo Black agreed. “This is part of a scheme to defeat the Court’s order, and sooner or later we will have to grapple with these problems in those terms. The NAACP is finished if this law stands.” But Justice Felix Frankfurter pushed back. “I can’t imagine a worse disservice than to continue being the guardians of the Negroes. . . . There is nothing in the record to show that this statute is aimed at Negroes as such.” Justices Tom Clark and Charles Evans Whittaker agreed. “To strike this law down, we would have to discriminate in favor of Negroes,” said Clark, to which Whittaker added: “We should be color blind on this law.”

Warren added up the votes. It was a five-to-four split in favor of the state of Virginia. Justice Frankfurter eagerly began work on his majority opinion upholding Virginia’s law—the laws that made the NAACP’s brand of non-pecuniary solicitation and financing of litigation a disciplinary offense that could result in disbarment. (For a discussion of Frankfurter’s early role in the case, see Mark V. Tushnet, Making Civil Rights Law 277-278 (1994).)

At the same time, Justice Black circulated drafts of a dissent in which he claimed, among other things, that perhaps the law should be renamed “[a]n Act to make it difficult and dangerous for the [NAACP] and Virginia lawyers to assert the constitutional rights of Virginia Negroes in state and federal courts.” Then Black added a passage revealing how far removed he was from his days as a hooded member of the Ku Klux Klan. “The job of lawyers under [the] Constitution is not to lead revolutions, but to lead their people in taking advantage of the American methods for correcting injustice.” And courts, Black continued, had a responsibility to serve as “sanctuaries of justice.” To ignore that role here, he concluded, was to leave the courts “a little less havens of refuge than they were before this Virginia law was sustained.”

Robert L. Carter, lawyer for the NAACP

Robert L. Carter, lawyer for the NAACP

Justice Black’s internal comments exposed just how wide the ideological chasm had grown between the members of this Court. But Robert Carter wouldn’t get a chance to read them. Nor, for that matter, would anyone else. On April 1, 1962, before the Court could announce its decision in NAACP v. Button, Justice Whittaker retired on the advice of his physician. He was sixty-one. The “great volume and continuous stresses of the court’s work,” he explained in a written statement, had brought him to the “point of physical exhaustion.” That left a four-to-four split among the remaining jurists, who scheduled a rehearing of the case the following term. Then, a few days later, seventy-nine-year-old Felix Frankfurter collapsed at his desk from a stroke. He lived, but shortly afterwards he announced his retirement. Just like that, President Kennedy could appoint two new Justices—and Robert Carter could feel new hope.

 An audio of the arguments in NAACP v. Gray can be found here.

New Faces, New Result

By the fall of 1962, President Kennedy had successfully appointed to the bench his top two choices—Byron White and Arthur Goldberg. And it promised to be a busy fall at the Supreme Court after they were both confirmed. Sometime around then, as Stern and Wermiel recount it, Justice Brennan busily circulated a 63-page memo that detailed the activities of the NAACP and its Virginia branch.

After hearing rearguments in Button, the Justices met privately to discuss the case on October 12, 1962. Chief Justice Warren had not changed his mind since first discussing the facts a year earlier. “The NAACP has a right to be in business,” he began. “If this suit goes against the NAACP, it is out of business.” Justices Black, Douglas, and Clark also maintained their original opinions. So did the typically restrained Justice John Marshall Harlan, who continued to claim that Virginia’s new law was “plainly constitutional. . . . Brown v. Board of Education will never work out if it is left in the federal domain. The states must do it. We have no reason to reverse Virginia on this law.” Justice Potter Stewart, the Eisenhower appointee from Cincinnati with the unpredictable voting record, was the first of the veteran Justices to suggest a possible change of heart. “I am not sure,” he said, “but I am inclined to reverse.” Justice White, the first of the two new members to speak at the private conference, was even less certain than Stewart. “I do not know where I stand.” Goldberg was more certain. “There is a substantial equal protection point here and I could reverse on that,” he said. Read More

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The English Bill of Rights of 1689

Before putting together a longish post on how the “Bill of Rights” evolved as a term of art in the United States, I wanted to note a related item of interest that I’m come across in my research.  The English Bill of Rights of 1689, which was the canonical text of the Glorious Revolution and an inspiration for our Bill of Rights, was also not called the “Bill of Rights” when it was enacted.  The actual name of the statute was “An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown.”  At some point not long afterwards, the Act became known as a bill of rights or the bill of rights, but I do not know how or why that happened.

UPDATE:  The formal Short Title “The Bill of Rights” was not given to the Act until 1896.

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There & Back Again: John Rizzo & Yuri Nosenko

John Rizzo gave thirty-four years of service as an attorney for the Central Intelligence Agency, serving with distinction under eleven directors and rising to acting general counsel.  Yuri Nosenko, who died in 2008, was a lieutenant colonel in the KGB, a Soviet defector, and suspected double agent.

RizzoNosenkoWhat do they have in common?  A late night, one-on-one, vodka-soaked discussion of Nosenko’s three years of unremitting torture by Rizzo’s employer. The torture produced nothing, neither confirmation that Nosenko was a Soviet mole nor confidence that he was not.  In his new memoir, Company Man, Rizzo asserts that this meeting left an indelible impression on him as a young lawyer. But just how did he put that experience to use when he evaluated the legality of the “Enhanced Interrogation Program” that landed on his desk in the CIA General Counsel’s office after 9/11?

His answer is not found in his memoir.  But he did give an answer last week, when I asked him this question at an outstanding symposium on the future of national security law held at Pepperdine Law School.  The conference was organized by Professor Greg McNeal ably assisted by 3L Shelby Doyle and her team of student editors at the Pepperdine Law Review.

Comrade Nosenko’s story, and Mr. Rizzo’s answer, follow after the break. Read More

Now you can insist on control of your material. You can insist on veto power over everything; down to casting and choice of directors and script approval, you can insist on all those things. J.K. Rowling insisted on all those things. And J.K. Rowling got all those things because there were enough people interested in that. Now if you’re not J.K. Rowling, and you insist on all those things, the studios are not going to be very interested or less studios will be interested in it so you’ll get less money or none at all. Or alternatively, you can not insist on everything and you can just sell them the book and what they do with it is what they do with it and you have to live with it. You no longer have approval over anything, you no longer have…you know what I mean? And those are the two extremes. In between of course there’s a vast area of shades of gray.

— George R. R Martin

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George R. R. Martin on Copyright, Inheritance, and Creative Control

He cares much more about French dynastic history than you do.

He cares much more about French dynastic history than you do.

This is Part 3 of the interview I did with George R. R. Martin in  2007.  For background and part 1, click here.  For Part 2, click here. For the audio file, click here.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, but you just generally right. The trope something that really speaks to folks. I guess maybe that raises a question about your fans generally. You’ve obviously got a huge fan base and I’ve been reading a little bit about them. One question that comes up a bunch of different times is fan fiction and what do you think about fan fiction?

MARTIN: I’m opposed to fan fiction.

HOFFMAN: Why?

MARTIN: Well number one, its copyright infringement and it can potentially endanger my copyrights and my trademarks if I were to allow it. Also, yes maybe it’s a gesture of love that they love your characters and they love your world and all that but it’s not the kind of gesture of love that I really want. And for aspiring writers and some of these people, sure it’s a wide range of fan fiction writers, some who are terrible. Some of them are actually talented writers. I think for the talented writers it’s particularly tragic because they should be doing their own material.

Read More

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Gatekeeping and the Economic Value of a Law Degree (Part 1)

gatekeepers image

When I first read the commentary concerning Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre’s “The Economic Value of a Law Degree,” I was most surprised by the attention that the commenters paid to the paper’s passing reference to the typewriter. S&M are aware that their work arrives at a time when it is popular to believe that technology has wrought a structural change to lawyers’ earnings. For their part, S&M cite Frank Miles Finch’s obloquy against typewriters in the first volume of the Columbia Law Review to show that worries of technological ruin are nothing new in our line of work. After listing several other examples (such as word processing and Westlaw), S&M maintain that “lawyers have prospered while adapting to once threatening new technologies and modes of work.”

Taken out of context, this last statement might sound as if S&M are engaging in bold fortunetelling based on a scant historical record, but a few paragraphs later, S&M concede that “past performance does not guarantee future returns” and “[t]he return to a law degree in 2020 can only be known for certain in 2020.” When read in conjunction with the rest of the paper, the typewriter reference serves as a brief and lighthearted reminder that we, like others before us, can fall victim to nostalgic gloom and doom.

Despite its minor role in the article, commenters have been eager to mention the typewriter observation, with references ranging from the favorable (here), to the neutral (here and here), to the mildly dismissive (here and here), to the critical (here). Having given some thought to the last entry on this list, Deborah Merritt’s wonderful blog entry on Law School Cafe, I now realize that I shouldn’t have been surprised by the attention paid to the typewriter; it turns out to be an important point for S&M to make.

Merritt argues contra S&M that (1) Finch was not engaging in sky-is-falling melodrama and (2) that the typewriter “may have contributed” to a structural change in lawyers’ earnings—specifically, the creation of three-year law schools and formal schooling requirements for bar admission.  As to the first point, Merritt explains that Finch mentioned the typewriter to bolster his argument that apprenticeships had ceased to be a viable training environment for lawyers. He was not predicting that the typewriter would lead to the demise of his profession; rather, he was talking about the need for an adequate training substitute. As to the second point, Merritt points out that the New York bar adopted Finch’s recommendations, in part, because it was persuaded by his Columbia article. I add that the ABA would eventually adopt similar requirements as well, also referencing Finch’s article in the process. Merritt highlights that Finch’s main point was that the typewriter limited apprentices’ exposure to the study of important legal texts and created a difficult learning environment. As a result, Finch argued, law school was the far better educational option.

Merritt’s post is thoughtful, well-researched, and concise. Moreover, she is largely right. Finch was not engaging in nostalgic sky-is-falling reasoning. In S&M’s defense, however, the notion of a Typewriter Doomsday was not altogether uncommon in the early Twentieth Century. To take but one example, Arkansas law titan George B. Rose mentioned the following in a 1920 speech to the Tennessee Bar Association:

A great menace to the wellbeing of the bar is the disproportionate increase of its numbers. With the invention of the typewriter, the simplification of pleadings and the improved methods of travel, one lawyer can now do the work of two in the olden time; yet the proportion of lawyers to the remainder of the community has enormously increased.

Rose’s remarks were received with great applause and an honorary membership into the Tennessee bar.

More importantly, Merritt stands on solid ground when she argues that technological change contributed to a shift in the business practices of legal professionals and, in turn, the shape of American legal education. There can be little doubt that this shift can be described as “structural.”

But I disagree with Merritt insofar as she believes that a structural shift in schooling requirements weakens S&M’s paper. To the contrary, it helps the paper by providing a prima facie explanation for relative stability in the law degree’s value.

We must be mindful of the distinction between structural shifts in lawyers’ earnings and structural shifts in other aspects of the legal profession, such as educational requirements. Clearly, Merritt’s focus is the latter, and S&M’s focus is the former. And just because S&M have chosen to focus on one kind of structural shift does not mean that they have “dismissed” other structural shifts, as Merritt says. S&M readily acknowledge that the structural shifts can occur with law school enrollment:

These distinctions and widespread publicity may enable critics to influence college graduates’ career plans, the judiciary, and perhaps the future of legal education. They may have already contributed to a steep three-year decline in law school applications and enrollments.

The more critical point is that breaking up structural shifts into various types can be a useful analytic tool. Distinguishing between structural shifts in the value of a law degree and structural shifts in access to the practice of law permits us to make an important observation—namely, that it is possible for the latter to prevent the former. Critics of S&M doubt that the past performance of law degree holders is a reliable predictor of future performance. We can hypothesize that, to the extent law degree holders can insulate themselves from exogenous forces that threaten the value of their services, they will increase the stability of the degree’s value and, therefore, the reliability of predictions based on their past performance.  The underlying reasoning for the hypothesis is as follows.  All other things being held constant, those who are within service industries that have the power and willingness to manipulate the supply of available service providers will likely be better at braving exogenous shocks than those who are not. Under those circumstances, when such measures are taken to protect those already possessing the credentials necessary to perform that service, the value of those credentials will tend to be relatively stable.  Whether these measures have been or will be effective enough to stabilize the value of the law degree is a question worth considering.

There are several important gatekeepers to the practice of law: law schools, the American Bar Association, state bar associations, state supreme courts, etc. These gatekeepers possess, and sometimes use, tools that have the potential to protect the economic value of the law degree. They can change the qualifications for entry, expand or contract the domain of permissible services, raise or lower rate maximums, or regulate advertising practices, among other things.  And while a considerable minority of law degree holders do not practice law (about 40% according to the SIPP data that S&M consider), there are enough practicing lawyers to give protectionist measures a fighting chance to stabilize the overall value of the degree.

Merritt deserves much credit for bringing this observation to the fore in connection with the S&M paper, although she did not expand upon it (an excusable omission in light of the fact that we are talking about a single blog post).

Having the luxury of multiple posts, I will use Part 2 to discuss a few of the protectionist measures that gatekeepers have taken over the last century.  I will focus in particular on the measure that Merritt discusses–the advent of a law school prerequisite for admission to the bar.

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I reviewed Mark Weiner’s Rule of the Clan from a libertarian perspective.

Libertarians are impressed by order that emerges in an unplanned, decentralized way.  No one knows how to make a pencil, and yet through the decentralized process of market trading, pencils are made readily available.  If making a pencil does not require a central planner, then why do we need a strong central government?

The Hobbesian answer is that without a strong central government, we would have the “war of all against all.”    The libertarian response echoes Karl Kraus.  Kraus famously said something to the effect that “psychoanalysis is the disease which it purports to cure.” Libertarians point out that the state, which purports to be the cure for the war of all against all, is the leading cause of violent death and incarceration.

Weiner’s book contains a message for libertarians that is decidedly mixed.  He argues, on the one hand, that there is a decentralized order that is an alternative to a strong central government.  On the other hand, this order is not at all libertarian.

The decentralized order that Weiner describes is the rule of the clan.  It is a cultural system in which individuals lack what we think of as liberty.  Instead, the individual is subordinate to the extended family.

Libertarians have been known to use medieval Iceland as an example proving that a strong central government is not needed to maintain order.  Weiner describes medieval Iceland as an example of the clan-based system of order, but from his depiction it is clearly not a model of a libertarian society.

Weiner uses legal historian Henry Maine’s distinction between a Society of Status and a Society of Contract.  Rule of the clan embodies a society of status.  Libertarians want to see a society of contract.

Libertarians see the “contract theory” of existing states as a fiction.  I never signed an agreement giving authority to the people and institutions of my federal, state, and local government.  Instead, those people and institutions have decided unilaterally what authority they can exercise over me.

Is it possible to extend the society of contract, giving less asymmetric power to the people and institutions that constitute the government?   Libertarians believes that the answer is “yes.”  However, Weiner claims that wherever the people and institutions of government lack strong asymmetric power, what we observe is the rule of the clan.  Libertarians are faced with the burden of showing that while he may be correct in describing the decentralized orders that we have observed, there may yet emerge a more decentralized order that does not degenerate into the rule of the clan.

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Interview with Marvin Kalb: The Road to War, Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed

I could not have timed my chat with Marvin Kalb220px-Marvin_Kalb better. On Sunday, before talking about cyber hate for the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s 20th Anniversary Tour in Chicago, Kalb and I discussed his most recent book, The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed (Brookings Institution Press 2013). The timing was auspicious not just because the book had come out days before but because at least 40% of the nation was reeling from learning about the most recent abuse of Executive power:  the NSA’s PRISM program and leaked FISA court Verizon order.

Before I recount some of the highlights of our conversation, I wanted to begin with a wonderful and incredibly apt description of Kalb written by a UPI reporter:

[Kalb] is the senior statesman of U.S. media. Tall, handsome, brilliant, unfailingly courteous, Marvin Kalb looks and acts more like a senior statesman than the chief diplomatic correspondent he was for CBS News and NBC over 30 years when these networks cared about world news. Now these media organizations still bill themselves as world news networks but, most nights, forget about the rest of the world.

Following his prize-studded reportorial career, Kalb became the first director of journalism’s school of higher learning at Harvard — the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Now, still the profession’s senior statesman, he runs the center’s Washington office and hosts “The Kalb Report.” The author of two best-selling novels and a book titled, “One Scandalous Story: Clinton, Lewinsky and 13 days That Transformed American Journalism,” Kalb’s 13th book — his best — excoriates Congress for relinquishing its constitutional obligation to declare war.

The U.S. News and World Report’s Jamie Stiehm describes Kalb’s new book as “an elegantseg3_ssa_3 synthesis of how easy, too easy, it has become for an American president, any American president, to go to war” with Congress “ceding its rightful role in declaring war and tends to go along with the man in the White House.” Kalb’s book argues that so much power should not be concentrated in the President.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

DC: Why has it been so easy for the Executive Branch to ignore the core constitutional guarantee that Congress declare war?

MK: We have a system of law undergirding Presidential authority to go to war — Congressional declaration of War and the power of the purse — yet it has been consistently ceded to the President. When I covered Vietnam in 1968, we had 500,000 troops on the ground. Who gave the President the authority to do so? I am a great believer of law, but if it is ignored with impunity, to whom do we turn?

DC: How did we get to that state of affairs–the President doing what he wants without check? Are things much different in light of recent revelations of our unsanctioned domestic intelligence apparatus?

MK: What we are witnessing this week stands as a confirmation of what we have ben seeing–unchecked Presidential power in the name of war time. In the Korea and Vietnam wars, one President after another made unchecked decisions and no one blew the whistle, most significantly Congress. Congress was successfully pressured to cede its power to the Executive Branch. For instance, only two Senators voted “no” for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. When one of those senators, Senator Morse, saw President Johnson, the President put his arm around the Senator and said “Wayne, you are a good American. We do not want to hurt the troops.” Johnson wielded his power through persuasion and it worked–Congressional resistance was vanishingly small.

DC: What do you think of this week’s revelations about PRISM and the Verizon order?

MK: In important ways, I thought that we beat Big Brother when we prevailed in the Cold War. With the indiscriminate collection and analysis of all Verizon users’ telephony metadata (including who we called, where we were, and the inevitable revelation of sensitive information given the answer to the “who” question), we have become what we most fear–executive branch conducting surveillance over ordinary citizens in increasingly intrusive ways. Read More

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Debating Human Rights History

In 2010, Samuel Moyn published “The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History“, a book that provoked its readers to critically engage with questions about when human rights emerged as an agenda on the international political scene.  Moyn’s suggestion that this was a strikingly recent development (dating to 1977) raised deeper questions about the politics underlying human rights and its successes in displacing alternate utopian visions.  Last year, Moyn published a book review of Jenny Martinez‘s “The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law” and Kathryn Sikkink‘s “The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics“, criticizing both books for insufficiently acknowledging the limitations of international human rights law as an avenue for social and political reform.

This month’s Harvard Law Review contains two new and worthwhile contributions to the debate.  Philip Alston begins with a review of Jenny Martinez’s book, noting the importance of determining the origins of today’s human rights system as well as the lack of consensus around the answer to that question.   Alston notes the ways in which Martinez’s book contradicts Moyn’s thesis, situating each author within a typography of histoslave traderiographical debates.   He critiques both, noting that they present different definitions of human rights that carry buried analytical assumptions, and suggests that a meaningful history should recognize that human rights is a polycentric enterprise.  In other words, historians of human rights must examine ideas, social movements, legal traditions, and institutions in order to understand where human rights came from and where it is headed.

Jenny Martinez responds to Alston’s review, presenting a more nuanced view of her causal arguments than her critics, and taking on Moyn in the process.   She agrees with Alston that human rights is polycentric, and suggests that Moyn’s definition of human rights leaves out important aspects of the larger picture.  Martinez defends herself against claims that a pro-human rights bias infuses her work, and argues that an accurate account of human rights prior to 1977 is crucial in understanding the role of international law today and drawing lessons for current legal institutions.

The books and articles are worth reading for the rich factual analysis alone.  But there’s more to human rights history than that.  This is one of the most provocative debates in recent years about the analytical framework through which we understand human rights.  As Alston notes, “[t]here is a struggle for the soul of the human rights movement, and it is being waged in large part through the proxy of genealogy.”

(hat tip to Jacob Katz Cogan, whose wonderful International Law Reporter alerted me to the Alston and Martinez articles; cross-posted on IntLawGrrls)