The Great Chief Justice

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

By every sensible standard, John Marshall deserves superbly his sobriquet of “the great Chief Justice.” He deserves it, that is, by every standard save only the mincing and squeamish view of a “proper” judicial attitude that prevails in these milk-toast times.

 
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Why We Hate To Love Judges

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. Whatever the judge’s secret, the contempt underlying that catchphrase suggests the palpable disdain that tints our view of the whole legal system. We speak with scorn of the “courthouse gang,” meaning the petty politicians who loiter in the temple of justice. We like to think of judges as above all that, yet we continue to regard the administration of justice as a mere extension of politics. Read more »

The Undying Problem Of The Death Penalty

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. Earlier that day lawyers for Luigi Storti, a twenty-seven-year-old Italian laborer without a family in America, convicted for the murder of a fellow immigrant in Boston’s North End, had argued that electrocution was punishment “cruel or unusual,” proscribed by the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, a charter nine years older than the federal Bill of Rights. Read more »

The Fate Of Leo Frank

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 murderer of a thirteen-year-old girl, had been taken from prison by a band of vigilantes and hanged from a tree in the girl’s hometown of Marietta, Georgia. The lynching was perhaps unique, for Frank was not black but a Jew. Frank also is widely considered to have been innocent of his crime.Read more »

Wallfare

“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 stone wall running through abandoned farmland grown back to forest and the chain-link barrier screening weed-infested lots in the downtown fringe. Another classic American type is defined not by form but by function.Read more »

The Jury On Trial

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. Juries, he thundered, were more and more willing to accept scanty, insufficient evidence en route to awarding unmerited damages to undeserving plaintiffs. Read more »

Agents Of Change

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? Who figured out how to market the nails in neat plastic blister packs hung from standardized wire racks in hardware stores? • The house of history, that clever balloon frame of statistics and biographies in which we shelter our sense of tradition, of progress, of values gained and lost, is nailed together with anonymity.Read more »

In Love With Lawsuits

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.

“Why do you people treat this as a big-deal court matter? It’s not precedent-setting. The lawyers are good, but they’re hardly headliners. You don’t even have a murder. Nothing, in fact, but sex and money.” Read more »

Nuremberg, Time And Memory

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. The two places might as well have been on different planets. The old colonial town clinging to Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental is something of a demiparadise, if the country remains reasonably stable. The other, in 1945, was the city as cemetery, with rubble for monuments and the stench of death in the air.Read more »

Naming A Justice

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

When Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement from the United States Supreme Court last June, politicians and pundits across the country bewailed the President’s succumbing to “politics” when selecting Marshall’s replacement.Read more »