Category: Law and Humanities

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To Sarat or Not Sarat

As in Austin Sarat, Law and Humanities scholar at Amherst College.  As in one of the leading figures within the Association of Law Culture and Humanities, which has become one of my favorite destinations over the years for engaging discussion across the disciplines.  (FYI, today is the deadline to submit abstracts to the Law Culture and Humanities Conference being held at Georgetown this year).
Glancing across Sarat’s scholarship one might notice a fascination with documenting the morbidity of law.  Images of war, death, and imprisonment filter the landscape of writings; the images are used to magnify their contrast. They create discourses in binaries.  We understand legal violence distinctive from non-legal violence; death distinctive from non-death; and imprisonment distinctive from non-prisoned life.  Sarat sums this up in his Article Violence, Democracy, Responsibility, and the Problem of Punishment.

 

Moreover, by equating the conditions of legal legitimacy with that masking, much of that jurisprudence promotes righteous indifference and allows law’s violence to continue unabated. I am neither so idealistic nor so naive as to imagine that a change in legal theory would in itself end violence done, authorized or approved by legal institutions and officials. Still the energy in much of my work on punishment comes from a desire to interrogate legal theory in order to understand how law, surrounded by so much pain, is, nonetheless, able to maintain its calm, bureaucratic facade.

 

Drawing on themes that prompt considerations of justice and violence, it’s no wonder that Sarat and Robert Cover were walking the same halls in New Haven in the early 1980’s.  I don’t know if Sarat and Cover interacted much.  Really, does it matter?  Sarat himself was a well accomplished scholar in the humanities prior to enrolling at Yale (I mean how many of us as one L’s had their professor begin a civil procedure class by reading and discussing our own work?) .  Perhaps he and Cover never interacted.  I’d like to think they didn’t but that the recursiveness of space, time and ideas latched on to them independently as they traveled the halls.

Besides violence, Sarat’s scholarship prompts me to think about similar themes in my own work.   Loneliness has been a particular theme of mine.  Robert Penn Warren, Fydor Dostovsky, and Flannery O’Connor have been shaping devices of this theme.  They play themselves out in a chorus of questions about space, roles, isolation, and time.  When Warren writes about the South as a Lonely place, he prompts me to wonder whether and how time shapes people.  For those three, time is the violence of memory, sometimes maintained through static relationships of property, law, family, and culture.  Sarat likewise prompts us to consider how time shapes our understandings of justice and violence.  He writes in the same article prompted above:

For me, democracy requires a particular orientation toward time. Democratic temporality is the time of change, of reconsideration. It is open-ended and open to a sense of the endlessness of time. Acts of punishment, even if we had a way of calculating what people deserve, are always in some sense the servants, not the masters, of time. Numerous authors have highlighted the problem of time in asking whether the person being subject to punishment, 2, or 12, or 20 years after the crime is really the same person as the one who committed the crime that justified the punishment in the first place. When, many years ago, Justice Brennan described the death penalty as taking away the right to have rights, he might well have said that no punishment that seeks to be timeless, or stop the movement of time, can be reconciled with a democratic theory of punishment.

The conception of time as a marker of change is one, I think Robert Penn Warren would greatly admire.  On May 15, 1961, The New Republic published a review of Warren’s essay The Legacy of the Civil War.  In the review essay, writer Peter d’a Jones aligned Warrens views with Robert Patterson of the Citizens Counsel of Mississippi, a group formed following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  The group, put simply, was designed to use legal (and non-legal) violence to stymie desegregation.
Following the review of Warren’s essay, Warren wrote a letter to the New Republic editor:

Dear Sir,

This letter is promoted by a review of my essay the Legacy of the Civil War, which appeared in your issue of May 15.  I could wish that Mr. Peter d’a Jones had thought better of my essay or at least of my intellectual integrity, but I am not now writing in defense of either.  What I want to do here is disabuse those readers who may feel, from Mr. Jones’ review that I have much sympathy with Mr. Robert Patterson of the Citizens’ Committee of Mississippi, whom he cites with, perhaps, some effect of guilt by association.  

The quickest thing for me to do is state three things — things which it is strange for any citizen to feel constrained to state.

1 It is morally right, as well as politically and economically necessary, that all the rights and privileges of American citizenship be guaranteed to all citizens.  
2 A man’s worth should be judged by the qualities of his manhood.
3 Any official of any state who does not honestly and vigorously endeavor to punish, with full rigor, any violence against or coercion of any individual or group has violated his public trust and should be impeached.  

I suppose that a reader can easily infer from these statements my attitude in specific instances, as I had assumed one might from other writings of mine, including the Legacy of the Civil War; but I shall add that I think Dr. Martin Luther King a great man, and that the sit ins conducted according to his principles are morally unassailable, and will win.  One reason they will win is that they offer, even to the man howling from the sidewalk, an exhibition of courage, dignity, and self control.  

                        Very Respectfully Yours,

                        Robert Penn Warren

P.S.  One more thing: since Mr. Jones takes the trouble to quote from me in 1929, I wish he had taken the trouble in his researches to glance at my explicit repudiation some time back, of what I said in 1929.  In 1929, in my youth, I was wrong — and even now, I do not feel myself entirely above error.  

Warren’s reflection of change over time merges with his views of social responsibility.   For what its worth, Warren was also wandering around New Haven in the early 1980’s.  How I would enjoy sitting at a table amongst Warren, Sarat and Cover as they talked about these things.  How the walls in New Haven must have been ablaze with ideas in the early 80’s.

(P.S. Robert Patterson was also former Captain of the Mississippi State football team — ergo my promised college football reference, in case anyone needed an irrational reason to hate the number one ranked team).

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The Role Law and Literature Should Play in a Law School

Some may ask what role should liberal arts style courses play in law school where we are increasingly focused on bar exams and practice ready skills.   It may take me a while to unravel that answer with the gusto and the framing it deserves.  I think anyone that regularly teaches Law and Literature has been asked some variant of this question.  The course doesn’t have the safe luxury of “well its on the bar exam,” or even the more sardonic return of “well, but of course it underlies much of legal thought and practice.”  See, e.g., Law and Econ, Law and Social Theory, and Legal History.

Let me make a bold proclamation.  The law and literature course, perhaps more than any other, asks students to wrestle with their subjective views of the law.  It’s interesting, in a course that deals with Constitutional Law, for example, there is the finality of how the court approached the problem (whether we agree with the outcome or not).   In Law and Literature on the other hand, the course encompasses the views of the professor, the authors, and their fellow students as they encounter these views.  Sometimes worlds are created in which those concrete legal frameworks are disembodied (See, e.g., Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale).  Sometimes, the fictional worlds embrace the world as we know it, and offer stunning critique to its foundation (See, e.g., Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin). That’s not to say that other courses, (take a UCC course), is not rife with highly charged emotional queries (notwithstanding my critique, my explanation for whether the disposition of collateral equates to proceeds is a highly charged event!).  It is saying that in a time where the ABA is prompting law schools to create standards that push the law school experience towards so-called objective standards of evaluation (see revision of section 302 in the ABA standards), the role of encountering, critiquing, explaining, and understanding different subjective understandings of the law is critical.   We should not be afraid to encounter nor express our subjective views in the context of critical dialogue.

My view is that Law and Literature is a course that offers students not only the opportunity to understand themselves better but to learn to dialogue about the subjective views of law.  A few years ago, Yale Law School offered a course titled “The Book of Job and Suffering.” Unfortunately, at many law schools such a class would never be taught for fear that the subject strayed too far from what law schools are suppose to do — at least not under that title.  However such a course is precisely the kind of law and literature course we should be teaching. Isolating the critical component that suffering may play in the narrative for law students, I imagine, was a powerful experience for those students and the professor.  Powerful because they all have suffered something, I’m sure, though undoubtedly it was uneven.  Students learn to dialogue about themselves and the text in a group where each other’s respective experiences help frame and isolate the way the text moved within the group.   At one and the same time, students in a law and literature class learn about themselves, as members of a group, a class and as an individual.   This is the idea of Law and Literature that James Boyd White framed so well — the engagement of the reader with the text forcing the reader to accept or not accept the writer’s framed world. [Perhaps Boyd’s best framing of this encounter is his book This Book of Starres: Learning to Read George Herbert, in which Boyd wrestles with the text as reader primarily].

This role of teaching students about themselves is critical if not necessary to shaping who they are as counselors and advocates for their clients.  Of course they are things we should care about as shaping lawyers. But should we have to isolate them into an ABA objective or standard.   In a way, it cheapens the process to do so.

I fear that courses like Law and Literature, in which students engage in thoughtful discourse, may find themselves replaced with others that fail to live up to the promise of helping students understand themselves in a legal environment and instead only focus on the particulars of interacting in the legal environment.   There is nothing wrong with a movement in legal education that attempts to focus institutional resources to critically examine whether the law school is best preparing students for the modern legal environment.  But, that doesn’t mean that our students [or our faculty] are better off without having the dialogues and communities that law and literature help promote and shape in the law school environment.

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ROUNDUP: Law and Humanities 09.08.14

I’d like to alert those of you planning to attend the AALS Annual Meeting in January 2015 to three law and film events taking place during that time. The AALS Film Committee is sponsoring two law and film nights during the meeting. The first, on January 2, at 7:30 p.m. (the first night of the conference), will be a screening of the classic Judgment at Nuremberg, directed by Stanley Kramer, written by Abby Mann, and starring a whole host of great actors, including Spencer Tracy as the thoughtful Chief Judge Dan Haywood, Marlene Dietrich as widowed Mrs. Bertholt, lost in denial, a young William Shatner (in his pre Captain Kirk days), Richard Widmark as the passionate prosecutor Colonel Lawson, Burt Lancaster as Dr. Ernst Janning and Werner Klemperer, two of the German judges accused of war crimes, Judy Garland as Irene Hoffman, a witness nearly overcome by the story she has to tell, and Maximilian Schell as Hans Rolfe, the defense attorney for the judges, who challenges both the prosecutors and the system of justice at every turn. Rolfe poses the ultimate question: in such a high profile trial, in which the stakes include the future of a nation, can these defendants ever get justice? The film dramatizes some of the famous “Nuremberg Trials” held after World War II, in particular those in which judges rather than political and military figures were defendants.

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Radical Pragmatism

Cambridge Companion to Pragmatism 01I recently posted on SSRN a book chapter I co-authored with Professor Michael Sullivan (Emory, Philosophy).  The chapter is called Radical Pragmatism and it is in The Cambridge Companion to Pragmatism pp. 324-344 (Alan Malachowski, ed. 2013).  This is a much shortened version of an earlier essay we wrote critiquing Judge Richard Posner’s conception of pragmatism.  We have tightened the argument, and this piece makes our key points much more succinctly.  Here’s the abstract:

“[P]ragmatist theory of law is, like much pragmatist theory, essentially banal.” So wrote Thomas Grey at the dawn of pragmatism’s renaissance in legal theory. Several contemporary pragmatists, as well as a number of critics of pragmatism, view pragmatism as a thin theory, more of a method than a philosophy with substantive commitments. For example, Richard Posner, one of the leading contemporary pragmatists, asserts that “pragmatism is more a tradition, attitude, and outlook than a body of doctrine” and that it has “no inherent political valence.” Likewise, Richard Rorty contends that pragmatism “is neutral between alternative prophecies, and thus neutral between democrats and fascists.”

Under this view, pragmatism generally leads to cautious common-sense policies. It is far from radical and unsettling, for it is too lacking in substantive value commitments to be otherwise. In this book chapter, we contest this account of pragmatism and offer a thicker account. Pragmatism does indeed have a political valence. It has substantive values. And, far from being banal, it is radical at its core.

You can download the chapter on SSRN.

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ROUNDUP: Law and Humanities 06.30.14

Jessica Silbey (Suffolk Law School) and Megan Slack are publishing an important new piece , The Semiotics of Film in US Supreme Court Cases, in the forthcoming collection Law, Culture, and Visual Studies (Springer, 2014). It’s of interest to law and film scholars, entertainment lawyers, First Amendment scholars, and law and humanities folks generally. Here’s the abstract.

This chapter explores the treatment of film as a cultural object among varied legal subject matter in US Supreme Court jurisprudence. Film is significant as an object or industry well beyond its incarnation as popular media. Its role in law – even the highest level of US appellate law – is similarly varied and goes well beyond the subject of a copyright case (as a moving picture) or as an evidentiary proffer (as a video of a criminal confession). This chapter traces the discussion of film in US Supreme Court cases in order to map the wide-ranging and diverse ­relations of film to law – a semiotics of film in the high court’s jurisprudence – to decouple the notion of film with entertainment or visual truth. This chapter discerns the many ways in which the court perceives the role of film in legal disputes and social life. It also illuminates how the court imagines and reconstitutes through its decisions the evolving forms and significances of film and film spectatorship as an interactive public for film in society. As such, this project contributes to the work on the legal construction of social life, exploring how court cases constitute social reality through their legal discourse. It also speaks to film enthusiasts and critics who understand that film is much more than entertainment and is, in practice, a conduit of information and a mechanism for lived experience. Enmeshed in the fabric of society, film is political, commercial, expressive, violent, technologically sophisticated, economically valuable, uniquely persuasive, and, as these cases demonstrate, constantly evolving.

Download the full text from SSRN at the link.

law culture

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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.”

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ROUNDUP: Law and Humanities 06.11.14

The Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities (ASLCH) will be holding its 18th annual meeting at Georgetown University Law Centre March 7-8, 2015.  ASLCH will be issuing its call for papers in the next few months and abstracts will be due in the fall.  Join the ASLCH listservfollow ASLCH on Facebook, or check back here for updates. Members of the organizing committee are listed here.

If you yearn for more legal drama in your life, check out some new and returning attorneys on the small screen. TNT’s  drama Murder In the First pilot episode aired on June 9, but is available for viewing here.  Murder in the First was created by Steven Bochco, and stars Kathleen Robertson and Taye Diggs. Like Bochco’s nineties drama Murder One (ABC, 1995-1996), this show focuses on one criminal case for the entire season.  CBS is offering up Reckless, which pits a glamorous female Yankee lawyer, played by Anna Wood, against a handsome South Carolina counselor, played by Cam Gigandet. Premiere: June 29 at 9, 8 Central time. Returning for a fourth season tonight at 9 p.m., 8 Central time, are Patrick J. Adams (Mike Ross) and Gabriel Macht (Harvey Spector) in the USA character-driven show Suits.  This show started out with the premise that Spector could hide the fact that his protégé (Ross), while a whiz at law, never actually went to law school. The show has undergone something of a re-calibration: Ross is now working at an investment firm. Still, the two are in contact. We’ll see how this relationship plays out. (Here, star Patrick J. Adams attempts to explain why this series about a fake lawyer seems so popular for real lawyers). The Suits webpage provides a quiz for you to determine “what kind of a lawyer [you would] be.” It’s career advice in good fun.

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ROUNDUP: Law and Humanities 05.01.2014

 

Awards season: The American Bar Association has announced the finalists for the 2014 Silver Gavel Awards for Media and the Arts. The ABA awards the Silver Gavel to those artists in film, nonfiction, fiction, and other arts who most closely meet the association’s objectives in advancing public understanding of law and the justice system. This year, the 47 members of the screening committee reviewed 169 entries, selecting 19 finalists for the Standing Committee to review. The ABA began giving out the Gavel Awards in 1958. Among the finalists: See the complete list of finalists for 2014 here. The ABA will announce winners on May 15.

 

Curtain going up: The Elevator Repair Service will be performing Arguendo,  a play based on the landmark case Barnes v. Glen Theatre (501 U.S. 560 (1991)) at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, New Haven, CT, from June 18-22. Here’s part of the syllabus for the case:

Respondents, two Indiana establishments wishing to provide totally nude  dancing as entertainment and individual dancers employed at those  establishments, brought suit in the District Court to enjoin enforcement  of the state public indecency law  —  which requires respondent dancers to  wear pasties and a G-string  —  asserting that the law’s prohibition against  total nudity in public places violates the First Amendment. The court  held that the nude dancing involved here was not expressive conduct.   The Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that nonobscene nude dancing  performed for entertainment is protected expression, and that the statute was an improper infringement of that activity because its purpose  was to prevent the message of eroticism and sexuality conveyed by the  dancers.

The play “[uses] verbatim oral arguments and breathtaking projections by celebrated visual artist Ben Rubin [and] introduces us to the Justices—who try to get to the bottom of this First Amendment puzzle—and the attorneys on both sides who gamely try to keep up.” The play closed recently at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in DC.

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Garcia Marquez - Chronicle of a Death ForetoldI am deeply saddened by the passing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the world’s best contemporary authors. His magical realist style brims with life and zest — and his descriptions are unique and unforgettable. His most famous work is the magisterial One Hundred Years of Solitude, but my personal favorite is Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

I teach this great work in my law and literature class. It is a novella about a murder and its legal consequences that takes place in a small town. What is amazing about the book is that it is quite short — it is really just a long short story — yet unlike most works of its length, it focuses on not just the microcosm of one character but the macrocosm of an entire town, with an enormous array of characters. So much is packed into this short work, and I marvel at how each time I read it I discover interesting new details. The novella reminds me of a Breugel painting, a canvas filled with so much detail, so many interesting things going on.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold begins with one of Garcia Marquez’s signature openings, so gripping and enriched with unexpected details that it is impossible to stop reading:

On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit.

The book is written by a narrator 27 years after the murder, pieced together by various interviews, memories, and documents. Chronicling memories that have faded, stories that diverge and contradict each other, the narrator writes in part like an investigative journalist piecing together an expose and in part like a detective investigating a crime. The narrative isn’t told in a linear way but in various fragments that are pasted together like a collage.

We know who will be murdered on the first page, and we find out the culprits very early on. And yet, Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a murder mystery. What it shows, as the narrator recreates the final days of Santiago Nasar’s life, is how each and every character played a role in the murder. Some were indifferent, some were too absorbed in their own pursuits to pay much attention, some were vindictive, with hidden malice, and some just didn’t take things seriously. So many are to blame, yet most played but a small part, and others who played larger roles acted in part based on societal pressures.

But beyond the individual characters, the ultimate indictment is against the town itself and its norms. This is a collective crime. We see how norms of race, class, and gender all combine to create a bitter stew, how many characters feel trapped by traditions and beliefs that lead them to act in unsavory ways. The indictment is thorough — the individuals and the very fabric of their society all interact to produce this tragedy.

I teach this work in my law and literature class to show how puny a force the law can be, and how the law can be too myopic in its focus. The law in this story fails to address the roots of what happened; it just focuses on a few branches and ignores most of the tree.

I marvel at this work every time I read it — the beauty of the prose, the vividness of the description, the brevity of the story that has enough detail for a book ten times as long, and the ability to capture a whole town and its culture and values in so many dimensions — without becoming too abstract or didactic.

If you haven’t read this book, I strongly recommend it to you. It is gripping, challenging, fascinating, and insightful. It is a true masterpiece, and can be read in just an afternoon. Often overshadowed by Garcia Marquez’s great novels — One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of CholeraChronicle of a Death Foretold, despite its brevity, is as rich and sweeping.

Cross-posted at LinkedIn

[If] you read some fantasy, the magic is omnipresent. In Harry Potter the magic is omnipresent, a primarily magic universe. They got magic for everything there. Every time you turn around there’s a new magic thing that’s popping up. A magic hat or a magic sword or a spell to solve something. Because magic is so omnipresent, you don’t have to [resort] to mundane ways to…solve a murder mystery. “Who murdered Joe? Well we’ll just give him the truth spell and he’ll tell us who murdered Joe,” or “We’ll just cast this other spell and open the veil of time and we’ll be able to see who murdered Joe.” If those options exist then it’s very difficult to write a traditional John Grisham type novel or a detective novel or anything that depends on evidence and all that because there are all these magical ways of getting it.

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Lawyers in Westeros

An uncomfortable chair in a modern partner's office?

An uncomfortable chair in a modern partner’s office?

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

 HOFFMAN: Are there lawyers in your books that are just in the wings off stage that haven’t yet appeared?

MARTIN: That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t really considered that until I started reading those links that you sent me. There are certainly laws but are there special classes of advocates who make their living by interpreting those laws? My inclination is probably not because the laws my books are administered by lords. In some ways it’s government as much for men than law. We like to say our government in the United States is a government of laws not men. In some ways the Seven Kingdoms I think is the reverse. There is basis of a law but also a lot depends on who is interpreting it and who is sitting in the Lord’s seat, who is sitting on the Iron Throne and how they settle these disputes.

HOFFMAN: Well those are ultimate questions but I think in two places one could have imagine lawyers and one of them again will be this church trial because there were church lawyers in the ecclesiastical church system there were lawyers who specialized in canon law. And the second one was at least twice I can think of in the books there’re trials by combat. And I don’t really know what the other alternative would be but I assume would be trial by jury – the path that Tyrion did not choose both times. And I was thinking —

MARTIN: Well he does choose in the first…in the second…second of his two trials, he is being tried – it’s not by jury – it’s by lord. There’s no jury of his peers, no twelve people that are randomly picked but there are three lords sitting on his case and hearing the evidence.

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