Vol. 12 No. 12 (December 2002)

LIVES IN THE LAW by Austin Sarat, Lawrence Douglas, and Martha Merrill Umphrey (Editors).  The Amherst Series in Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought, Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2002.  ISBN: 0-472-11253-8.  Price: $55.00 (cloth).  243pp. 

Reviewed by Cynthia L. Cates, Political Science Department, Towson University.  E-mail: ccates@towson.edu

Earlier this year, the Duke University Program in Public Law began a series of lectures entitled “Great Lives in the Law.”  The program, featuring talks by several sitting members of the Supreme Court, is being offered to provide “insights about great figures in the law” (http://dialogue.dukenews.duke.edu/Daily01-02/413rehnquist.htm).    Of course, most of us are quite used to viewing law through the scope of greatness – the law as shaped by the Websters, Marshalls, Holmes-es, and Bradeis-es of the legal universe.  LIVES IN THE LAW, the newest in the Amherst Series on LAW, JURISPRUDENCE, AND SOCIAL THOUGHT, reverses the scope, giving us a glimpse of law through the lens of the mostly ordinary.   And in a double reversal of scope, we learn here not so much how people shape the law, but, rather, how the law shapes people, individually and in groups.  In a series of essays, the book examines the many ways in which the law forms identities -- “how the lives of individuals, social groups, and nations are fashioned by their engagement with the legal” (1).             

Though the first essay, “The Chicago Conspiracy Trial as a Jewish Morality Play,” by Pnina Lahav, focuses on clearly extraordinary figures (radical attorney William Kunstler and the two battling Hoffmans, Judge Julius and Abbie), it nonetheless is an exploration of a very common American condition, that of ethnic identification -- “the phenomenon of the hyphenated-American identity and its interaction with law” (24.).   Lahav weaves a fascinating tale, well told, of three individuals involved in the “Chicago Seven” conspiracy trial at the end of the sixties, “one a staunch Republican, wealthy, conservative; the second, a civil rights activist with a long record as a fighter for racial equality; the third, a philosopher clown, a self-appointed spokesperson for the counterculture and founder of the Yippie movement (24).”   For Judge Hoffman, law became a means toward assimilation in the broader elite culture of America; for Bill Kunstler, a means toward employing the special Jewish sense of injustice toward expanded civil rights; for Abbie Hoffman, a means toward exaggerating his outsider status. 

A very different story is told in “Law and Everyday Death,” by Sarah Barringer Gordon.  Gordon relates the enthralling story (one with which I was unfamiliar) of Hester Vaughn, tried and convicted in Philadelphia in 1868 for the bludgeoning death of her newborn baby. Vaughn was a poor English working girl.  And, a flagging suffragette movement, desperate for broader appeal, saw in her an ideal cause célèbre and emblem, a young, vulnerable victim of an oppressive system.  The chosen symbol was an unfortunate one.  And, we moderns – we of focus groups, of 24/7 public opinion polling – are left scratching our heads and wondering, “What were they thinking?”  Even in the far more open-minded twenty-first century, infanticide has got to be a P.R. hard sell.  Far from widening the appeal of the suffrage movement, Gordon makes the compelling case, that “Hester Vaughnism” created a considerable backlash, weakening and silencing the movement for some time.

Gordon’s piece illustrates how a middle class movement employed the plight of poor women in the law to shape its identity.  Frank Munger brilliantly exposes the role of law in shaping the identities of poor women themselves.   In a series of focus group interviews with unemployed women – many poignant to the point of tears – Munger has been able to elicit profound understandings of “family, childhood, childbearing, welfare, work, hope, and other matters that are central to who they are and what they do in their lives” (85).  The interviews, conducted among one group of public housing residents, deeply and extensively poor, and another, more diverse, group of unemployed women, illustrate deep and consequential differences in self and social perception. 

The most ambitious – certainly the lengthiest – of the pieces is Vicki Schultz’s “Labor’s Subjects.”  Schultz reminds us that “law’s domain includes the world of work” (123) and it is work that largely shapes our identities as men and women.  Schultz’ major concern, then, becomes the relationships among law, work, and female identity.

Inasmuch as work defines us as citizens, as members of a community, and as individuals (for certainly, we define ourselves to a great extent by the work that we do), “we are” or become “what we do” (125).  Lingering effects of the historical domestication of women, have had profound consequences.  For example, Schultz makes a very interesting observation about “the conventional legal understanding of sex harassment:” “In the conventional view, men are understood to harass women because they see women as sexual subordinates, a habit they allegedly acquired in the inegalitarian domestic sphere but which ‘spilled over’ inappropriately into the neutral, ungendered world of work. . . .  Constructed this way, women’s disadvantage is domesticated” (135). 

Finally, Annette Wieviorka, in a brief but compelling examination of “France and Trials for Crimes Against Humanity,” offers us the very broadest view of law – as a shaper not just of individual and group identity, but as an entity, in all its parts, which may characterize an entire nation.  Wieviorka effectively links the lengthy, and only recently completed, trial of Maurice Papon for crimes against humanity, to earlier such trials of French nationals dating back to Nuremberg.  

Despite being a delightful and thought-provoking read, and, overall, a generally very satisfying work, LIVES IN THE LAW is not without its flaws.  Primarily, these weaknesses emanate from the political and identity perspectives of the authors, most of which I share.   Nevertheless, bringing to their subjects such strong preconceptions may lead to questionable conclusions.    For example, Munger’s brilliantly researched and poignantly told tale of welfare and dependency among poor women concludes that dependency has become “racialized:”  “All poor women with families and without a husband must confront moral judgments.  But an African-American woman confronts a much heavier burden of stigmatization and moral presumption.  A poor white woman avoids welfare in part because it makes her identity black.  Every poor black woman is a potential welfare recipient.”  This may very well be true, but it is unsupported by the recorded conversations.  Rather, Munger infers – indeed, reads between the lines of conversation -- to arrive at this point.   What is clear, and equally as consequential, is a strong class bias.  The women who have safety nets and those who do not are likely to view themselves and each other quite differently.    Munger’s piece is part of a larger research agenda and I assume (indeed, I hope) these interviews are fodder for a book.  In an expanded format, he should have more of an opportunity to make his racialization case.

Similarly, Lahav may benefit from a lengthier examination of her subject.  Since it was Jerry Rubin (not Kunstler or the two Hoffmans) whose description of the trial was that of a “Jewish morality play” (21), I find it curious that the author does not include Rubin among her subjects, especially since, by her own admission, the three principals, “if asked . . , would have probably said, ‘Jewishness had nothing to do with it’” (24).  Indeed, major references made to Jesus during the trial might plausibly suggest that the forum acted as a “Christian morality play.”   I believe that a book-length format, with more opportunity to explore background traits of the main characters, as well as their actions and statements during the trial, could be used to make a stronger case.    

This is a very well-done book; all of the authors and the editors are to be applauded.  It could be used effectively in graduate and upper-division undergraduate law and society courses, whether offered by political science or sociology departments.  Moreover, it makes a fine read for legal theorists and practitioners, interested in the real effects of law on lives.

Copyright 2002 by the author, Cynthia L. Cates