Today in Legal History: First Librarian of Congress Appointed

On January 29, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson appointed John J. Beckley as the first Librarian of Congress. Beckley was a political supporter of Jefferson and campaigned on his behalf. Beckley served as both the Clerk of the House of Representatives and as the Librarian of Congress. His salary as Librarian could not exceed two dollars a day.

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Today in Legal History: Brandeis Nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court

On January 28, 1916, President Wilson nominated “the people’s attorney,”  Louis D. Brandeis, to the Supreme Court. Brandeis was a legal giant, widely recognized for his weighty influence on the law, his championing of liberal ideals, including the right to privacy, and his creation of the “Brandeis” brief in which factual data was incorporated into legal argument. Brandeis believed in utilizing the law to shape politics, society and economics, and championed many progressive causes. He also became a leader in the Zionist movement and confidante of Franklin Roosevelt.

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Today In Legal History: Roe v. Wade Decided

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court issued one of the most famous and controversial legal decisions of our era.  Justice Harry Blackmun authored the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion.  At the time, news of the decision was pushed off the front page of many newspapers when former President Lyndon B. Johnson died on the same day.  President Nixon had appointed Blackmun only three years before, thinking he would be a “quiet, safe choice.”  The Roe v. Wade decision, however, threw Blackmun into the limelight, where he was alternately adored or hated.

In his recent biography of Blackmun, Tinsley E. Yarbrough focuses on Blackmun’s concerns for “outsiders,” an attitude fueled in part by his own self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, having grown up with a regularly unemployed father and anxious mother, in the humbler area of St. Paul, MN.  Reflecting on his initial days at the Court, Blackmun later confessed desperately wondering if he was qualified to grace the position.

More information is available at:

  • Tinsley E. Yarbrough, Harry A. Blackmun: The Outsider Justice, Law Library 4th floor @ KF8745.B555Y37 2008.
  • Jack M. Balkin, What Roe v. Wade Should Have Said: The Nation’s Top Legal Experts Rewrite America’s Most Controversial Decision, Law Library 4th floor @ KF228.R59W47 2005.
  • Marian Faux, Roe v. Wade: The Untold Story of the Landmark Supreme Court Decision that Made Abortion Legal, Law Library 4th floor @ KF228.R59F38 1988.

Today in Legal History: Poll Tax Abolished

On January 23, 1964, South Dakota ratified the 24th Amendment, abolishing the use of the poll tax as a requirement to vote in federal elections.  The 24th Amendment was the work of Senator Spessard L. Holland of Florida, who took up the cause in 1949.  Poll taxes were a discriminatory means of preventing newly enfranchised African Americans from voting by requiring voters to pay a fee to cast a ballot.  The fees were set high enough to keep poor African Americans from voting, but not high enough to be a hardship on middle class and affluent whites.

Today in Legal History: US v. E.C. Knight Decided

January 21, 1895. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act was passed by Congress in 1890 to stop large monopolies from controlling commerce.  The justification for the Sherman Act was the Commerce Clause.  In US v. E.C. Knight, 156 U.S. 1 (1895) the ability of the Sherman Act was heavily curtailed.  The Supreme Court made a distinction between commerce and manufacturing.  If the manufacturing was done within a single state, the Commerce Clause did not apply.  Until the Clayton Act in 1916, sugar and other processing monopolies like the one in US v. E.C. Knight could not be controlled by federal powers.

Today in Legal History: Hawaiian Monarchy Overthrown by American Colonists

On January 17, 1893, a group of American sugar planters, led by Sanford Ballard Dole, deposed the reigning Hawaiian monarch, Queen Liliuokalani.  The coup was staged with the knowledge of then U.S. minister to Hawaii, John Stevens.  On February 1, 1893 minister Stevens recognized the new government (led by Sanford Dole) and proclaimed Hawaii a U.S. protectorate.  President Cleveland tried to restore Queen Liliuokalani and opposed annexation throughout the remainder of his presidency.  Hawaii was annexed in 1898 during President McKinley’s term of office.  Hawaii became a formal territory in 1901 and the 50th state in 1959.

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Today in Legal History: Martin Luther King Jr. Born

Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1929.  Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather who were both preachers, Dr. King obtained his theological degree from Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania and his doctorate at Boston University. (more…)

Today in Legal History: President John F. Kennedy Assassinated

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 12.30.06 PMShortly after noon on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, Texas. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the shooting. (more…)

Today in Legal History: Oregon Becomes the First State to Legalize Physician Assisted Suicide

On November 8, 1994, Oregon voters approved an initiative allowing terminally ill patients to plan their own death under the direction and supervision of a physician.  There were several attempts to repeal the law or block implementation including an attempt by US Attorney General John Ashcroft to use federal law (the Controlled Substances Act) to suspend the licenses of doctors who prescribed drugs to assist suicide.  All of the attempts to repeal the law failed, including a court case which went all the way to the US Supreme Court.  In Gonzalez v. Oregon 546 U.S. 243 (2006) the Court ruled 6-3 in favor of upholding Oregon’s law.

Washington was the second state to pass a physician assisted suicide act.  Washington’s Death with Dignity Act was closely modeled on Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act and was passed by voter initiative on November 4, 2008

6254349889_33cd79679d_nMore information is available at:

  • John B. Mitchell Understanding Assisted Suicide: Nine Issues to Consider Location: LAW-4th Floor  R726.M565 (2007)
  • Brian T. Yet Physician-Assisted Suicide and the Controlled Substances Act: Gonzales v. Oregon. Congressional Research Service Report
  • Kenneth R. Thomas “Right to Die” Constitutional and Statutory Analysis.
  • John Keown Euthanasia, Ethics, and Public Policy: An Argument Against Legalisation  Location: LAW-4th Floor  R726.K465 2002   (examines Dutch euthanasia laws)

Today in Legal History: Susan B. Anthony Votes (Illegally) in Federal Election


Upon threat of a lawsuit, Susan B. Anthony and 14 other women succeeded in registering to vote in Rochester N.Y. on November 1st 1872. A few days later, on November 5, Susan B. Anthony successfully cast her vote in a federal election. By November 18th she was arrested and later tried for “knowingly, wrongfully and unlawfully” voting. She was found guilty and after a widely publicized trial, was sentenced to pay a fine of $100 which she vowed to never pay and never did. Ultimately, the arrest and trial elevated her status and that of the women’s suffrage movement. Though it occurred earlier in some states, national women’s suffrage was not established until 1920.

“On November 5, 1872, women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony illegally cast her vote in a New York Congressional district election. Read the indictment subsequently brought against her and the transcript of her address to the jury, plus trial analysis from Professor Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. Anthony was fined $100 after a directed verdict.” From Jurist

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