Courtroom Drama: New Books Detail Famed Criminal Cases and “Bad” Decisions

The basic curriculum of law school tends to stay out of the courtroom, with analysis of appellate opinions largely supplanting study of the day to day activities of trial courts. But what happens even at the trial level can have profound impacts on society, with famous criminal cases capturing the public imagination. Judges can also influence society for the worse, as countless examples throughout history prove. These two volumes lift the veil on legal processes and demonstrate law’s long lasting impact.

Advanced Introduction to Landmark Criminal Cases, George P. Fletcher, 2021

Trials give rise to hot debates about law and the philosophy of crime and punishment that are present in all eras, no matter how disparate cases may be. This slim volume breaks down the facts and legal controversies of famous cases including historical proceedings such as the Scopes monkey trial and the Nuremberg trial of high-ranking Nazi Adolph Eichmann, as well as heavily televised affairs including the trials of O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson, and Amanda Knox.

The book presents cases bite sized chunks rather like a case brief. It lays out the key facts, such as the circumstances that led to Bernhard Goetz firing a gun into a crowded subway car. The controversies include the legal standards in effect at the time of the case may be an issue, and there may be lingering legal issues to ponder for the future, such as whether universal criminal jurisdiction for international criminals is desirable.

Each case is bound to provoke discussions, and even passionate disagreement that can be the basis for future legal arguments.

Law’s Infamy: Understanding the Canon of Bad Law, Austin Sarat et al. eds., 2021

From high level opinions such as the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision to trial court verdicts such as the trial over the murder of teenager Emmett Till, legal results often receive overwhelming disapproval from the public, even if it takes generations to get there. Here, thinkers ponder the value of labeling courts or outcomes infamous, worthy of condemnation and repudiation. In some cases, bad evidence, biased decisionmakers, or politicized lawyers produce bad outcomes, while in other cases, bad reasoning is the culprit.

Much like with people branded infamous, laws considered to be infamous can become outsiders, not to be respected but only feared and studied for the lessons that can be salvaged. Applying the label of infamy can also ground a court or decision with an air of legitimacy for having broken with an infamous precedent. That was the purpose for post World War II Germany and Italy positioning themselves as the “antithesis of a tainted past,” as discussed in chapter 1. The Supreme Court in the United States, instead of declaring a whole era to be evil or contemptible, only identifies a handful of decisions as anticanonical and worthy of repudiation. Chapter 2 indicates that this anticanon might be broader than SCOTUS will admit.

Sometimes the process of assigning infamy requires overturning an odious case. Sometimes public sentiment reaches a consensus condemning legal results long before courts repudiate them, if they ever do. And the process of establishing infamy may not be simple, or even a linear progression. As in the case of solitary confinement, public perceptions can waver over time without reaching an immediate consensus. But it may be necessary to establish that a practice is infamous before change can be achieved.