THE YALE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN LAW
Edited by Roger K. Newman
Yale University Press, $65, 622 pages, illus.
Reviewed by Martin Rubin
Many readers are quick to dismiss reference books as dry, dull stuff — and all too often, unfortunately, they are right. But certainly not in the case of this marvelous, multifaceted pointilliste portrait of the good, the bad and the ugly faces of American jurisprudence through the centuries.
Expertly edited by Roger K. Newman, a longtime author on the law and professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, it hones in not only on the expected luminaries (John Marshall, John Jay, Oliver Wendell Holmes) but on all manner of lesser-known characters who have made their contribution in different ways to the evolution of legal theory and practice in this country.
Sometimes this book even answers questions that many might have had. How many of those who visit or even pass by the Criminal Court Building in downtown Los Angeles know anything about the woman for whom it is named, Clara Shortridge Foltz?
One of the volume’s characteristically brief but nonetheless admirably succinct and fact-filled entries informs us that she was not only the first woman admitted to the California bar after a fierce struggle in 1878, but that she conceived the notion of a public defender for those accused who could not afford one. She lived to see California enact the Foltz Defender Bill in 1921. Since most of the accused in the courthouse named for her are, for good or ill, represented by public defenders, clearly this was a particularly apt choice.
Throughout the book, Mr. Newman displays an uncanny knack for choosing just the right person to write a particular profile. Sympathy — in the best and most-inclusive sense of the term — understanding and insight are the hallmarks of nearly all the entries. Only occasionally, usually in the case of some who are still living — for example, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — does the portrait seem bland and lacking in acuity.
But some of the living do get their due: The piece on Judge Robert Bork is a nuanced and highly informative piece of writing that definitely shows the qualities of the man and his mind so different from the caricature served up by much of the mass media. And if this were not enough, readers who turn to Judge Bork’s own portrait here of his mentor and fellow Yale Law School professor Alexander Bickel will gain added insight into his own intellect and character.
Although the entries are necessarily briefer than one might want, they can manage not only considerable feats of compression, but also quite satisfying answers to complex questions that have puzzled generations of scholars. Consider the case of Justice Felix Frankfurter, a New Deal insider and political activist appointed to the Supreme Court by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and who surprisingly turned out to be an apostle of judicial restraint. Mark Silverstein, a professor at Boston University, acknowledges that “assessing Frankfurter’s impact on constitutional law is a challenging endeavor.”
Nonetheless, he rises magnificently not only to this challenge, but, looking at Justice Frankfurter’s academic as well as his political career, manages to show how and why his judicial stance evolved. Along the way, he also takes account of the impact of the justice’s character and attitudes on his court colleagues — and how this affected his ability to lead or to build consensus. Never blind either to Frankfurter’s bona fides or his flaws, Mr. Silverstein’s portrait exemplifies the virtues of true sympathy and illuminating insight one looks for in this sort of book.
The great issues of their day get their due in these pages, but so do all manner of characters and personalities. Some presidents — Abraham Lincoln, both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson — appear here because of their court appointments and judicial actions; others, like Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, are here not only for those reasons but also for less savory interactions with the law. Then there are those like Lenny Bruce, whose brushes with the law changed it — eventually. Along the way, there are lawyers and lawyers, from pillars of the establishment like Elihu Root to great advocates like Clarence Darrow to mavericks like Gerry Spence and Melvin Belli. Even lawyer writers like Louis Nizer and novelists like Scott Turow get their entries.
But there is nothing like a cause celebre or scandal to stand out, even in a book like this. The entry on O.J. Simpson includes a devastating account of the evidence indicating his guilt and pulls no punches in describing the circus-like atmosphere of the trial and in exploring the vexed question of jury nullification. The concluding paragraph by Jeffrey Abramson, a professor at the University of Texas, is probably as good a summing-up of this case in perspective as we are likely to get:
“Contemporary accounts often referred to the Simpson case as ‘the trial of the century.’ Although this now seems hyperbolic, the case in its day achieved notoriety for the way it brought together the influence of race, money, celebrity, jury consultants, and highly paid defense lawyers on the jury system.”
Despite its ponderous-sounding name, “The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law” is a delightfully engaging read. At times entertaining, at others chilling, it is consistently informative and instructive. Once you dip into it, you will find it hard to stop.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.