The Life of the Law: The People and Cases That Have Shaped Our Society, from King Alfred to Rodney King.
Reviewed by Bill Wagner
Many times in a busy lawyer's life a book fulfills a real need. Read this book.
First and foremost, every chapter is an easy-to-read, wonderful story--and we all love stories, particularly when true. More important, after reading each chapter, one feels positive about the role of a lawyer in our society. The flame of belief that one can make a difference is rekindled, adding a little welcome warmth to our profession.
The author, Alfred Knight, is a lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. A former federal prosecutor, he now specializes in media and First Amendment law.
This is not a book about heroes. It is a book about real, often unknown people and the needs that shape their lives. Oh, you will read of legends, but the author writes of aspects of their personalities about which we have forgotten or were never told.
Andrew Hamilton has been frequently hailed as a hero for his role in helping establish the concept of freedom of the press as a result of his argument in defense of John Peter Zenger in 1735. We are reminded by the author that, before that trial, Hamilton had been repeatedly successful as a prominent political leader in obtaining repressive government orders against the press.
The reasons for his appearance as Zenger's lawyer were much different than readers might imagine if they merely read the histories of today. It seems that Hamilton...but that would spoil the story. After reading the story, Hamilton still comes out heroically, if not a hero.
This is not a "law book." This is more a book about the "common law." A non-lawyer will understand and appreciate its meaning as well as a lawyer, although perhaps without as much pride.
Our country's rule of law developed out of a time when society in the British Isles attempted to bring order by application of the law of infangthief, which allowed all the people to act as police, judge, and (usually) executioner. This book observes that even the eight-month O.J. trial was historically not our longest criminal trial and that, to a great extent, its length was caused by a "common law" that was developed over the centuries.
The stories told by the author make it clear that the road from infangthief to O.J. was not smooth. The chapter on "The Privilege Against Self-Incrimination" tells of the infancy of the privilege. It was "created by a madman who habitually imagines rights that don't exist and lacks the sense to distinguish imagination from reality."
Similarly, in "The Right to Confront Accusers," readers learn that the chief prosecutor in the "famously unfair criminal prosecution of Sir Walter Raleigh" later became chief justice of England and a leader of parliament, and, as such, was the main stimulus to establishing the right of confrontation--a right he denied Raleigh to obtain Raleigh's conviction and death.
The chapter titled "The Bill of Rights" shows that the rights enumerated, for the most part, were not new when drafted and that an effort to determine the "original intent" of the drafters must fail. This is because these rights had their genesis in history, a history told in earlier chapters on "Man Against the State," "Freedom of the Press," and "Unreasonable Searches and Seizures."
The book is an excellent study of the role of courts in the development of our society. In "Death of a Scapegoat," the author demonstrates that the Star Chamber was not nearly as bad as many of the other courts of is time. But judges and politicians in later times were able to bring about change by "selective memory" of Star Chamber excesses.
In "Binding Precedent," the author gives an interesting history of how it came to be that judges "found the law" and the steps they took to ensure their "discoveries" were not challenged. In "Equality as Law, Continued," the author examines the new role of courts in "making the law" and the great good and potential problems that arise when "U.S. Supreme Court justices assume the role of philosopher-kings."
The closing chapter, which discusses trial by jury, places that important right in the context of history that will be read 100 years from now. In the epilogue, the author analyzes the O.J. Simpson trial from a historical perspective.
Knight notes that, although it was "only an ordinary murder trial," its occurrence may have profound effects on the future of the law. I could not help contrasting Sir Walter Raleigh and O.J. Simpson. The first, in losing his case, helped establish great rights for future generations; the second, in winning his case, may have cost the loss of some of those rights to untold numbers in future generations.
It is good to have books like this to remind us that we may be unknowingly contributing to the future of our society and the rule of law by the seemingly unimportant daily work we do. With a little ingenuity, our chance of making a meaningful contribution can be magnified, and we might just make the world a better place.
Bill Wagner, a former ATLA president, is a partner wiith Wagner, Vaughan & McLaughlin in Tampa, Florida.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1996|
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