This Perspectives Course will look at some of the most celebrated trials in
American history, and the role of lawyers in litigating or defending them. As it happens,
all the trials discussed in this seminar occurred during the ten years beginning in 1924, a
particularly rich period in the history of the celebrated trial as a site of cultural
contestation in the United States. As these cases reveal, few public events provide a
more illuminating window onto larger social and cultural norms than the trials that the
larger community finds mesmerizing. In addition, however, the specific trials chosen
reveal the dilemmas faced, for example, by lawyers encountering a jury and society
whose fundamental world-view is worlds away from his own (Stories of Scottsboro);
attempting to exploit a jury’s racialist assumptions to reach a result favorable to his
African-American client (Property Rites); and exploring then-current debates about free
will and the determinants of criminal behavior to challenge taboos deeply rooted in
American law and culture (For the Thrill of It).
The five assigned books make excellent reading (I have not had complaints from
students about the workload) and should provoke some animated discussions. For
several of the five meetings, I will ask that students also view a relevant film in
preparation for the seminar. I will distribute notes and study questions in advance to help
motivate discussion. I will also identify some recommended (non-mandatory) readings
dealing more generally with politics and culture in the United States during the 1920s, for
students who may lack background knowledge in the area.
Dates, Times, and Expected Locations:
We will meet over dinner on Tuesday evenings from 6:30 to 9:00 p.m., on
October 10 and November 7, 2017, and February 6, March 6, and April 3, 2018.
Location is tentatively scheduled to be in Westwood.