Judicial history

Neither the Constitution nor the laws but John Marshall made the Court Supreme

As the 2000 election made very clear, we are torn between revering judges and despising them. It’s in the nature of the job.

A judge, the old saw goes, is a lawyer who knew a governor (or a President or a senator). In most states, a judge is a lawyer who knows how to attract voters. Read more >>

Can it be fair? Humane? Deter crime? These very current questions troubled Americans just as much in the day of the Salem witch trials as in the day of Timothy McVeigh

Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court spent part of May 6, 1901, writing about the death penalty, and specifically about electrocution. Read more >>

He was a Northerner. He was an industrialist. He was a Jew. And a young girl was murdered in his factory.

ON DECEMBER 23, 1983, THE LEAD EDITORIAL IN THE ATLANTA Constitution began, “Leo Frank has been lynched a second time.” The first lynching had occurred almost seventy years earlier, when Leo Frank, convicted Read more >>

“GOOD FENCES MAKE GOOD NEIGHBORS,” wrote Robert Frost. But he may have been closer to the mark with another line: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

A rich variety of fences is one of the many charms of the American landscape: the wooden rail fence of the rural Midwest and South and the picket fence of the town, crude barbed wire surrounding prairie fields and ornate iron palings protecting village lawns, the New England st Read more >>

Is trial by jury the essential underpinning of our system of justice or—as more and more critics charge—a relic so flawed it should perhaps even be abolished? An experienced trial judge examines the historical evidence in the case.

The distinguished lawyer could not restrain himself. Even in the somber pages of the American Bar Association’s Tort & Insurance Law Journal late last year, his rage blazed and fulminated. Read more >>

You’ve probably never heard of them, but these ten people changed your life. Each of them is a big reason why your world today is so different from anyone’s world in 1954

For want of nails, kingdoms are won and lost. We all know that. The shoe slips, the horse stumbles, the army dissolves in retreat. But who designed the nails? Who hammered the nails? Who invented the nail-making machinery? Read more >>

Why Litigiousness Is a National Character Trait

BACK BEFORE CLAUS VON BULOW ever heard of Jeremy Irons, a judge who found the news media’s attitude toward the case puzzling put a question to a friendly television reporter. Read more >>

Justice served nearly fifty years ago in a wrecked German city still casts its eight and shadow over much of the world

A SENSATION OF PARALLEL TIME. of one eye fixed on the present and the other focused on the past, of one ear hearing the moment and the other distant echoes, was there from the beginning of the project. Nuremberg 1945, San Miguel de Allende 1991. Read more >>

It has always been politics as usual

Supreme Court vacancies have provoked fierce, colorful—and wholly partisan—battles since the earliest years of the Republic Read more >>
In the quiet New York courtroom, the little girl began to speak. “My name is Mary Ellen McCormack. I don’t know how old I am. … I have never had but one pair of shoes, but can’t recollect when that was. Read more >>

While the Revolution was still being fought, Mum Bett declared that the new nation’s principle of liberty must extend to her too. It took eighty years and a far more terrible war to confirm the rights she demanded.

Early during the year 1781, having heard a lot of talk about the “rights of man,” a black slave woman named Mum Bett walked out of her master’s house in western Massachusetts to tell a lawyer that she wanted to sue for her freedom. Read more >>

Of the thousands of American soldiers court-martialed for desertion in World War II, Eddie Slovik was the only one put to death. One of the judges who convicted him looks back with regret.

Up until the last century in some parts of the country, a murderer’s guilt could legally be determined by what happened when he or she touched the victim’s corpse

In 1646 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Mary Martin was pregnant and unmarried. Her paramour was a married man, but it was her status as a single woman that determined the nature of her crime. Read more >>

When Elsie Parrish was fired, her fight for justice led to dramatic changes in the nation’s highest court.

When, on a spring day in 1935, Elsie Parrish walked into the office of an obscure lawyer in Wenatchee, Washington, to ask him to sue the town’s leading hotel for back pay, she had no idea she was linking her fate to that of exploited women in a Brooklyn laund Read more >>

This is not a test. It’s the real thing.

How precise is the educated American’s understanding of the history of our country? I don’t mean exact knowledge of minor dates, or small details about the terms of laws, or questions like “Who was secretary of war in 1851?” ( Answer: Charles M. Read more >>
Dear Chief: It is coming up on twenty-five years since, fresh out of law school, I reported for duty as your clerk on the Supreme Court. Read more >>

Fascinating legal cases such as Hawkins v. McGee are known to lawyers across the land—and to almost nobody else.

Packages that explode when dropped, cows that unexpectedly turn fertile, hands that sprout hair, and little boys who pull chairs out from under old ladies are the foundation of the American legal profession. Read more >>

For this crime, she was arrested, held, indicted, and put on trial. Judge Hunt presided.

Shortly before the Republicans convened in Philadelphia in 1872 to renominate Ulysses S. Grant for President, Susan Brownell Anthony visited him at the White House. Read more >>

Eight generations back, the author discovered a forebear hanging on the family tree

WHEN A PUBLICATION wants to illustrate the story of Salem witchcraft, it often runs the painting The Trial of George Jacobs for Witchcraft , which hangs in the Essex Institute, Salem’s historical archive. Read more >>

Americans don’t hesitate to say anything they please about a public performance. But the right to do so wasn’t established until the Cherry Sisters sued a critic who didn’t like their appalling vaudeville act.

The year 1896 found Oscar Hammerstein in trouble. He was in debt, and the acts he had brought to Broadway weren’t doing well. He was desperate. “I’ve tried the best,” he is reported to have said. “Now I’ll try the worst.” So he sent for the Cherry Sisters. Read more >>

The Supreme Court says the First Amendment gives newspapers the right to denounce the government, advocate revolution, attack public figures, and even be wrong. This may not be nice—but those who understand the strengths of a republic wouldn’t have it any other way.

During the summer of 1919 a group of dissident members of the Socialist party, including the radical journalist John Reed, published a manifesto in the left-wing newspaper Revolutionary Age attacking the party’s more moderate e Read more >>

—More than a century ago, the city of St. Louis enacted a well-thought-out plan to legalize vice. What went wrong? Everything .

A little over a century ago an ambitious woman named Kate Clark, who kept a house of prostitution at 112 South Eighth Street, St. Louis, decided to move her business to larger quarters at Sixth and Elm. Read more >>

A century ago a President’s murderer went on trial for the first time in our history. The issues raised then continue to trouble us.

The twentieth President of the United States was shot in a Washington, D.C., railroad station on July 2, 1881. He died seventy-nine days later from infections resulting from his wound. Read more >>

The Curious World of the Trademark

Millions of readers have been pleasured by the writings of John Steinbeck, but there was no joy in the Atlanta headquarters of the Coca-Cola Company when the Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist’s The Wayward Bus reached the executive suite. Read more >>

There are over 3,000 county courthouse across the country -- staunch hometown symbols of our faith in our ability to govern ourselves

When Constable Samuel Staples of Concord, Massachusetts, placed Henry David Thoreau under arrest for nonpayment of his state poll tax in late July of 1846, he had no idea that his act would bring about international repercussions a century later. Read more >>

Was there really a conspiracy to burn the town?

In January, 1708, a Mr. William Hallett, Jr., of Newton, Long Island, was murdered in his sleep with his pregnant wife and his five children. Two of Hallett’s slaves, an Indian man and a Negro woman, were tried for the crime and found guilty. Read more >>

She was, said Governor Winthrop, an American Jezebel

It would have been no pleasant thing for any defendant to hear John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts colony, declaim the serious charges brought against Anne Hutchinson at her trial in 1637. Read more >>
In nearly all respects the Civil War remains the bloodiest war this nation has fought. The casualty rate was higher, the destruction more extensive, the scars deeper than in any other conflict before or since. Read more >>