Topics in the News
The Antilynching Bill
The New Deal and Civil Rights.
The New Deal marked the beginning of a shift in the federal government's recognition of civil rights as an emerging national problem, but it was not until 1940 that this concern was actually translated into action. Even then the government's role was seen as having more to do with combating discriminatory employment and housing practices than with the promotion of equality and basic civil rights. Discrimination against persons of color remained deeply rooted in American life in the 1930s and was generally acceptable to a majority of the population. There were limits, however, to prejudice and discrimination in the law. In 1931 the Supreme Court in the case of Aldridge v. United States protected the right of a defendant in a criminal trial to question prospective jurors regarding their racial views. In 1932 the Court in Nixon v, Condon struck down a law in Texas allowing political parties to establish race-based qualifications for voters in primaries. In that manner many black voters were excluded from exercising their right to vote. Nonetheless, progress in civil rights was undramatic, was still forth-coming, and set the stage for an era of far greater consequence. The campaign for a federal antilynching law, though failing to achieve its objective, would contribute significantly to that advance.
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Bandits and Gangsters
The 1930s are regarded as an era of widespread lawlessness and violence. The great "midwestern" crime wave lasted but for a brief time during the early part of the decade and captured the imagination of the public like little else could. Between "Baby Face" Nelson, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, and "Creepy" Karpis on the one hand, and the ruthlessness of urban criminal gangs and the frequent revelations of police and political corruption on the other, the 1930s have earned a reputation for lawlessness that tends to obscure other more significant developments in the history of law and order.
These same outlaws inspired a new war on crime. In the 1920s Americans had displayed a rather surprising tolerance for criminals, particularly those involved in the bootlegger's trade. In an age when the consumption of alcohol had become a symbol of independence and sophistication, the escapades of the bootlegger, whether acting alone or in a gang, offered an exciting form of entertainment. Even when the gangs engaged in...
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Civil Unrest and the Bonus Army
Desperation Sets In.
By 1930 life for many Americans had become unbearably grim. The country's economic collapse called for emergency measures and resources beyond the capacity of local and even state governments. Millions of Americans were displaced from homes and jobs—losses of an intensely personal nature. The obvious helplessness of elected officials and the reluctance of national government to consider larger and sometimes more unconventional measures of relief did little to earn the public's confidence. Disillusioned, desperate for solutions that were not forthcoming, and filled with despair, people banded together to take whatever action seemed justified by conditions they saw as not of their own making. In Arkansas a band of nearly five hundred armed farmers demanded food from a Red Cross administrator. When told that all supplies had been exhausted, the farmers descended upon the town of England and stripped its stores of food. Relief demonstrations broke out spontaneously across the nation. In Iowa councils of defense were organized to forestall farm foreclosures. Dairymen in Sioux City declared a general farm strike and prevented shipments of produce from reaching that city. Encouraged by their success, groups of farmers elsewhere came together to carry out similar strikes. Violence frequently resulted. In Nebraska in 1933 farmers, forcing their way past police barricades,...
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Crime and Punishment
An Antiquated System.
The investigation and punishment of crime had always been considered a state or local function. When President Hoover's attorney general reminded the president's critics that the federal government carried no constitutional responsibility for fighting crime, most Americans not only understood but agreed with him. This was a time when agents of the Department of Justice's Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner of the Federal Bureau of Investigation) were authorized neither to carry weapons nor to make arrests. The use of the nation's taxing power to send some of its more notorious gangsters to prison for income tax evasion was a rare demonstration of the federal government's policing power. That power was concentrated primarily in two departments, postal and treasury, and was closely associated with the federal government's responsibility to resist attempts to misuse the mail, to circumvent Prohibition, and to avoid payment of the excise tax. Despite the country's increasing unease with conditions brought on by the Depression, with unemployment and with evidence of increasing disrespect for the law, crime had not been a significant issue in the election of 1932. In effect, while the New Deal had promised to bring reform to practically every aspect of national life, its view of crime, deterrence, and the duties of the federal government were no different from that of the...
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Developments in the Legal Profession
The Crowded Profession.
Overproduction and reduced consumer demand were concerns not just for the nation's manufacturers and businessmen but for the legal profession as well. Among law practitioners everywhere, overcrowding was a much-discussed topic. Such worries actually translated into far more specific concerns: declining incomes from increased competition and the need to restrict the flow of new lawyers flooding the field. Between 1932 and 1937, nine thousand aspiring lawyers graduated each year from law schools throughout the nation. Many found the traditional road to career success blocked by the absence of available jobs with the more-established law firms. Upheaval in the country's economy had resulted in the reduction or closing of an astonishing number of corporate legal departments. The New Deal and the Roosevelt administration had offered new employment opportunities but principally to those who had more recently completed their legal training and others who were better connected. There were other reasons for diminished workloads: as a result of decreased business activity and depressed earnings, some 70 percent of the work that would normally have been referred to a lawyer was instead being withheld or postponed.
The idea of limiting access to the practice of law, however uncomfortable the thought might...
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Labor and the Law
Labor on the Defensive.
The coming of the Depression hurt the unions as much as it did any other organization. Like everyone else, the unions were unprepared at first to deal with the drastic changes these new conditions brought to the workplace. Membership declined as layoffs increased and shops closed. Without an effective plan or vision, organized labor's response to the desperation many workers felt was erratic and often ineffectual. Disputes between management and the workers, however, continued and even worsened as the availability of a cheap pool of labor grew. President Roosevelt's approach to the problems of labor in the early days of the New Deal was that of a conciliator. He believed that through cooperation the interests of both would be inevitably served, and toward that end he attempted to gain the workers' confidence by acknowledging that they were entitled to a voice in industry. No other piece of legislation more reflected this attitude than did Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which gave laborers the right to organize and to bargain collectively through unions of their own choosing. There were some in Congress and many more in the unions who believed the president was placing too much faith in the employers' goodwill. They felt that his paternalistic views of the workers' needs and his belief that it was the government's responsibility to...
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The Lindbergh Kidnapping
The Public Hero.
America has rarely given its heroes the stature it accorded Charles Lindbergh following the completion of his flight across the Atlantic. The image of a fearless pilot, master of one of the world's newest and most promising technologies, acting alone to risk all in his attempt to set a world record was simply irresistible. The "Lone Eagle" was exalted above all other modern-day heroes as a living example of the nation's greatest values. No greater symbol of all that was uniquely great about America could have been created by or for a public so sorely in need of a hero. Whether he enjoyed it or not, the adulation he inspired would achieve an intensity well beyond anything previously experienced by his contemporaries. Not until recent times would a trial be more widely followed, incite more passion, or do more to unite a people in their desire for retribution, than did the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, the nondescript man who stood accused of kidnapping and killing the hero's son.
On 1 March 1932 the country was stunned by the news that the twenty-month-old child of Charles and Anne Lindbergh had been abducted from his home in New Jersey. A search for the child was begun immediately and soon encompassed a five-state area. Kings and presidents sent their condolences, and people prayed for the safe return of the...
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The New Federalism and Erie Railroad V. Tompkins
Common Law and Diversity Jurisdiction.
The Constitution distinguishes between the powers of the states and those of the federal government. The states are empowered to make all laws affecting matters of concern to their citizens. The laws enacted by the federal government, on the other hand, are limited to those areas designated by the Constitution. Under our constitutional form of government, the making of laws is a function of the legislature. The courts are expected to interpret and enforce the laws passed. To accomplish this task, however, the courts found it necessary to develop rules, which they standardized, in the interest of maintaining uniformity. These rules, sometimes referred to as common law, differ from state to state. Laws passed by the states or the federal government are called statutory law. The Court's rules had gradually taken on the force of law, some even being adopted by the legislatures of the different states and passed as statutes. In 1789 Congress had passed the Judiciary Act, which required federal courts to use state law when hearing diversity jurisdiction cases, that is, cases involving citizens of different states, but questions soon arose as to what Congress meant by "law." Did it include common law, or was it limited to the statutory law enacted by the different state legislatures only? In 1842, in the case of Swift v. Tysony Supreme Court...
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President Roosevelt's Court-Packing Plan
The President Looks for a Solution.
By the end of 1936 some of the most important legislation passed in connection with the New Deal had been invalidated by the Supreme Court. Both the National Recovery Act and the administrative machinery created by the Agriculture Adjustment Act had been rendered useless, the problems they were intended to correct as yet unresolved. Other New Deal landmark legislation, including the National Labor Relations Act, had yet to be subjected to the Court's scrutiny. Convinced the Supreme Court was not likely to alter its fundamentally conservative interpretation of the Constitution nor be moved by the economic crisis the nation faced, President Roosevelt introduced a plan he believed would protect the portion of his New Deal program still intact. That plan was presented in the guise of court reform. It would ultimately bring more harm than good to the president's legislative program and stir up a debate that would harden the president's opponents and reduce the strength of his popular support until the outbreak of World War II.
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Prohibition and the Twenty-First Amendment
The Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act.
In the years before World War I, the temperance movement had succeeded in convincing the legislatures of twenty-six states to enact laws banning the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. The culmination of a long campaign directed initially against saloons and more recently against the production of alcoholic beverages, the movement's success was dramatically affected by the nation's mobilization for war. The need to conserve grain, the importance of maintaining some semblance of discipline and devotion to a patriotic cause, and the will to win all required a demonstration of the nation's sober determination to protect its interests. Toward the end of 1917, both houses of Congress had approved a resolution to amend the Constitution to prohibit the manufacture, transportation, or sale of alcoholic beverages. By January 1919 three quarters of the states had ratified this proposal, and it became effective on 16 January 1920. The prohibitory language of the Eighteenth Amendment became the law of the land. Meanwhile, the Volstead Act was passed despite President Woodrow Wilson's veto in October 1919 to provide for the enforcement of the amendment.
Efforts to Enforce Prohibition.
Support for the amendment remained strong in the years immediately following its ratification. As late as 1928,...
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The Scottsboro Boys
On 25 March 1931 a white youth, one of several who had picked a fight with a group of young black men aboard a Memphis-bound freight train, filed a complaint with local authorities in the town of Stevenson, Alabama. The police in neighboring Scottsboro were contacted and asked to stop the train, but it had already passed through. The Jackson County sheriff called a deputy near the next stop, Paint Rock, and had him deputize every available man to stop the train, arrest every black man on it, and return them to Scottsboro. Nine black youths, all transients and ranging in age from thirteen to twenty, were taken at gunpoint from the freight car in which they were found and arrested. Also discovered aboard were two white female mill workers, Victoria Price, age nineteen, and Ruby Bates, age seventeen. Fearful that they, too, would be arrested, they reported how they had been repeatedly raped by the black men in custody and forced to remain where they had been discovered. The nine, Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charles Weems, Andrew Wright, Roy Wright, and Eugene Williams, were jailed, charged with rape, and held for trial in Scottsboro.
The First Trial.
The trials of the nine defendants began twelve days later in an atmosphere so charged with racial hatred that their safety...
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The Seabury Investigation and Municipal Corruption
From Small Acorns …
Aside from the evidence provided by occasional appearances of anticrime crusaders or the statements by legislative committees of investigation, Americans in the 1930s lacked the means to ferret out collusive arrangements among their elected representatives, organized criminals, and corrupt police. They did not have available to them the legal framework with which these forms of criminal conspiracy could be more vigorously prosecuted, nor the enforcement machinery for detecting and investigating this type of criminal activity. Throughout the nation's history, however, it had been proven time and again that even the most corrupt politicians could not withstand the pressure of an aroused and interested public. While attempts to reform government and to right wrongs involving the public trust often achieved no more than limited goals, they did serve the far more important function of reaffirming community values and protecting the public. Such was the case in New York with the Seabury Commission.
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Barker, Arizona Clark "Kate" Or "Ma" 1871-1935
"Ma" and Her "Boys."
As a historical figure, "Ma" Barker is something of a puzzle. Never arrested for committing a crime, she was nevertheless suspected of being the leader of a gang J. Edgar Hoover considered one of the most vicious with whom the FBI ever had to contend. The public, feeding on newsprint that detailed the escapades of her "boys" and their friends, perceived her as a mother whose love for her children was so extreme as to have twisted both her conscience and her judgment. To the members of the gang, or so those who survived would later relate, she was no more than a dowdy and simple-minded, middle-aged woman whose use to them was limited to her willingness to hide them from the law and doing what she could to raise bail money or otherwise to secure their release on parole. What, then, was the truth?
In an era famous for its bandits, shoot-outs, and chases, Arizona Clark Barker was a rarity, a female bandit leader. She had been born and raised in Springfield, Missouri, where as a child she had once seen the legendary Jesse James. In 1892, already displaying the dowdiness and plumpness that were to become her hall-mark, she married farm laborer George Barker, who, like her, seemed to be resigned to a life of poverty. What is known about her married life is that it was hard, unhappy, and taken up with the raising...
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Black, Hugo 1886-1971
ASSOCIATE JUSTICE OF THE SUPREME COURT
The New Deal's Champion.
President Roosevelt's choice of Hugo Black to become an associate justice on the Supreme Court did not surprise those who were familiar with Black's political record as a senator from the state of Alabama. The very same month the president had revealed his preference for Black, he had been forced to accept the senate's defeat of his plan to increase the size of the Court. The opportunity presented by Justice Willis Van Devanter's retirement came as a particularly welcome relief to those in the president's party who opposed his "court-packing" plan. The opportunity to place a confirmed New Dealer on the high-court bench offered the hope that future consideration would be more favorable to New Deal legislation. As a supporter of the act creating the Tennessee Valley Authority and a highly visible senatorial advocate of President Roosevelt's Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, Black had been regarded as a man with a firm and personal commitment to the goals of the New Deal and as its most devoted legislative champion. What many had not anticipated was the extent to which his nomination would be so bitterly opposed by people representing such a cross section of political sentiment and affiliations. His nomination was one of the most closely followed in history, at least until more recent times, and no...
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Cohen, Benjamin V. 1894-1983
LAWYER, NEW DEAL INSIDER
The New Dealer.
Few administrations have ever spawned as much legislation as did that of President Roosevelt, and fewer yet could claim to have had as many of its proposals enacted because of the drafting skills of a single person. Benjamin V. Cohen's fame as the New Deal's most brilliant and tireless legal craftsman and adviser spread well beyond the inner circles of the Roosevelt administration. Originally induced by his mentor, then-Harvard professor Felix Frankfurter, to employ his considerable skills in the service of the New Deal, he found himself prevailed upon to stay, lending his legal talents and analytical mind to many, such as Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and Sen. William Borah of Idaho, who found them indispensable. Identified variously as a "brain truster," an enigma, one-half (with his roommate Thomas Corcoran) of the "Gold Dust Twins," the extent of his knowledge regarding the workings of government and his insight of the legislative process were universally respected.
Born in Muncie, Indiana, Cohen attended the University of Chicago before enrolling in the Harvard Law School, from which he was graduated at the age of twenty-two. Initially employed as a clerk for Circuit Court judge Julian Mack, then for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, he...
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Hoover, J. Edgar 1895-1972
The FBI established itself in the 1930s as the nation's premier police force and in doing so changed forever the public's view of professional law enforcement. It did more than that, of course. Through its vaunted centralized crime records section, its crime lab, its training academy, and other services, the bureau became an important resource for police departments across the country, setting standards and providing a model sorely needed in some areas of the nation. That all of this was due in great part to a single man was as much a reflection of the times as it was a measure of Hoover's control over an agency that played the principal role in establishing the federal government's moral leadership in suppressing crime. Hoover was as much criticized for his obsession with the bureau's image and his insatiable appetite for publicity as he was for his claim of invincibility. These traits certainly did not endear him to all, and particularly not to those local police who were often as involved in the bureau's spectacular manhunts as were the special agents themselves. But the special agents served an important function, a fact not lost...
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Hughes, Charles Evans 1862-1948
CHIEF JUSTICE OF THE SUPREME COURT, 1930-1941
Charles Evans Hughes assumed the responsibilities of the Supreme Court chief justice at the onset of this nation's worst economic crisis. Little did anyone suspect at the time of his appointment that his varied and extensive experience would become so critical a factor in steering the institution of the Supreme Court through one of its most challenging periods. If anything, the public perception of the chief justice was one that evoked an image of an austere, remote, and humorless man who had once pursued the presidency on a platform remembered for its probusiness and antilabor positions. His name remains linked with the public perception of the early New Deal Court as having been blindly conservative and much out of step with the nation's Depression-era needs and priorities. However conservative Hughes's economic views may have been, he, above all others, was responsible for successfully guiding the Court through one of its most difficult crises. Less well understood is his role as a protector of civil liberties.
Lawyer and Politician.
Reared as an only child in a family that...
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Mooney, Thomas J. 1882-1942
LABOR RADICAL AND PRISONER
In the early afternoon of 22 July 1916 a powerful bomb exploded among a group of onlookers who had gathered to watch a Preparedness Day parade in San Francisco. Ten people were killed and many more injured by the detonation that echoed through the streets of the downtown district. The bombing was thought to be the work of unknown anarchists opposed to the nation's preparation for war in the face of an armed conflict that had engulfed the nations of Europe.
There were no witnesses to the planting of the bomb and virtually no hard evidence that could be used in the identification of the bomber, but the public's outraged insistence on some form of retribution placed considerable pressure upon the authorities. Suspicion soon focused upon five radical labor unionists, among them Warren Billings, a laborite who had been previously convicted of a conspiracy in which a bomb was to have been used, and his good friend Thomas Mooney, an iron molder and labor organizer. Arrests soon followed.
From the very beginning of Mooney's trial, there were indications of a frame-up. Testifying against Mooney were two witnesses whose truthfulness and motives for testifying became highly questionable. Evidence of...
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People in the News
In 1936 the screen actress Mary Astor became involved in a highly sensationalized divorce proceeding filed against her by her husband, Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, after he had discovered in the actress's diary proof of her affair with playwright and critic George S. Kaufman; excerpts were published in the tabloids, embarrassing several of her fellow actors in Hollywood about whose private lives she had written in often crude and intimate detail.
In 1935 film actress Constance Bennett was taken to court by an artist whom she had commissioned to paint her portrait and had refused to pay his fee of thirty-five hundred dollars because she was dissatisfied. At trial Bennett complained that the portrait exaggerated the size of her thighs and that the painter had not done enough to make her image appear more flattering. The argument was not enough to win the sympathy of the jury but did convince the starstruck judge to direct the jury to find in the actress's favor.
In 1935 a bawdy play based on Erskine Caldwell's novel Tobacco Road (first published in 1932) opened in Chicago and was promptly closed by Mayor Edward Kelly, who revoked the license of the theater; the producers obtained a temporary injunction against the city but lost their case at trial after the mayor and several witnesses testified that the play was obscene by local community standards, a...
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Arthur "Doc" Barker, bank and armored-car robber and founding member of the Barker-Karpis gang, killed while attempting to escape the federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island, 14 June 1939.
Benjamin N. Cardozo, 68, United States Supreme Court associate justice (1932-1938) and acclaimed legal scholar whose belief that law should be molded to fulfill the needs of a society deeply influenced that Court in the later days of the New Deal era, 9 July 1938.
Clarence Darrow, 80, who, as the "attorney for the damned," was one of the nation's most famous criminal lawyers, defending, among others, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, Eugene V. Debs, J. T. Scopes (the "Monkey Trial"), and the McNamara brothers who were accused of bombing the Los Angeles Times building, 21 March 1938.
Izzy Einstein, 57, Prohibition agent and master of disguises who was personally responsible during his career for the arrest of some forty-nine hundred persons for violation of the Volstead Act, 28 February 1938.
Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd, killed in a gun battle with FBI agents on the outskirts of East Liverpool, Ohio, 22 October 1934.
William A. Glasgow, 64, chief counsel for the United Mine Workers of America and adviser to its president, John L, Lewis; became known as the union's...
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Dean Alfange, The Supreme Court and the National Will (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1937);
Ernest Sutherland Bales, The Story of the Supreme Court (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1938);
Harry Best, Crime and Criminal Law in the United States, Considered Primarily in Their Present-Day Social Aspects (New York: Macmillan, 1930);
Bibliography of Crime and Criminal Justice, 1932-1937 (New York: Wilson, 1939);
Louis D. Brandeis, Mr. Justice Brandeis: Essays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932);
James H. Chadbourn, Lynching and the Law (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1933);
Homer S, Cummings, Selected Papers of Homer Cummings, Attorney General of the United States, 1933-1939 (New York: Scribners, 1939);
Mary Dennet, Who's Obscene (New York: Vanguard, 1930);
Morris Leopold Ernst: The Ultimate Power (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1937);
Felix Frankfurter, Law and Politics: Occasional Papers, 1913-1938 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1939);
Frankfurter, Mr. Justice Holmes and the Supreme Court (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938);
Charles Furman, Mr....
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Important Events in Law and Justice, 1930–1939
- On February 3, President Herbert Hoover nominates Charles Evans Hughes to become the new chief justice for the U.S. Supreme Court. Hughes is nominated to replace William Howard Taft, who has left the bench due to failing health. Hughes, a former associate justice, had resigned his position in 1916 to run for the presidency.
- On February 10, massive crackdowns for Volstead Act violations take place in Chicago.
- On February 13, following a fierce debate in the Senate, the appointment of Charles Evans Hughes as chief justice is confirmed.
- On March 8, William Howard Taft, twenty-seventh president of the United States and retired chief justice of the Supreme Court, dies.
- On March 13, the trial of Edward Doheny begins in Washington, D.C. Doheny is accused of bribing former Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall to obtain leases for the Elk Hills naval oil reserve.
- On April 21, a conflagration breaks out in the Ohio state penitentiary in Columbus. The penitentiary was designed to hold a maximum of 1,500 prisoners, but holds 4,300 on the day of the fire. Of the prisoners, 318 die when efforts to contain the fire fail.
- On May 20, the Senate approves the nomination of Owen J. Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court. Two weeks earlier, by a single vote, it had rejected...
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