Today in Legal History: United Nations Established by Charter


In the aftermath of World War I, the League of Nations was established to prevent further war.  President Woodrow Wilson was an enthusiastic proponent.  Although the League established several agencies and successfully negotiated agreements, it was considered a failure upon the outbreak of World War II.  Many of its problems were structural; the League had no military force or enforcement authority and the United States was not a member.

As World War II continued, countries were forced into closer cooperation.  When the war ended, many believed the League needed to be replaced.  Its successor was the United Nations.  The UN inherited several of the structures established by the League of Nations with the addition of enforcement authority.  The United Nations was named by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

More information available at:

  • Encyclopedia of the United Nations and International Agreements, by Jan Edmund Osmanczyk; edited by Anthony Mango, 4 volumes, Reference Desk – KZ4968.O86 2002
  • The Law and Practice of the United Nations, by Benedetto Conforti, 4th Floor – KZ4986.C6613 2005
  • The United Nations: Law and Practice, edited by Franz Cede and Lilly Sucharipa-Behrmann, 3rd Floor – JZ4984.5.U5415 2001



Today in Legal History: Congress Probes Communism in Hollywood, October 20, 1947

“Are you now, or have you ever been, a Communist?”  Joe McCarthy’s crusade to stamp out communism reached Hollywood when film industry members were called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to testify about communism in the movies.  Ten writers and directors (later known as the Hollywood Ten) refused to testify on the ground that the hearings were illegal and violated their first amendment rights.  Although several of the Hollywood Ten were able to continue working under pseudonyms, or through friends who would take credit, their ability to work was severely curtailed.

More information is available at:
• The Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, The Legal Struggle to Abolish the House Committee on Un-American Activities: the Papers of Jeremiah Gutman, 4th Floor – KF4997.I48 M44
• Carl Beck, Contempt of Congress: a Study of the Prosecutions Initiated by the Committee on Un-American Activities, 1945-1957, 4th Floor – KF9405.B4 1974


Today in Legal History: Formal Transfer of Alaska Territory to the United States

Although considered a bad move at the time, the United States bought the Alaska territory for $7,200,000 from the Russians at the behest of William Seward, Secretary of State.  Opposition in the House of Representatives postponed appropriation of purchase funds for over a year.  The new territory enlarged the geographical size of the United States by 20 percent.  All doubts about the purchase of “Seward’s folly” or “Seward’s icebox” subsided with the discovery of gold in 1896.  In 1959, Alaska became the 49th state.

Visit the Alaska Reading Room on the 4th floor of the Seattle University Law Library for a permanent exhibit about Alaska’s move to statehood.  The materials in the exhibit include unique photos and letters donated by Mary and George Sundborg, parents of the President of Seattle University, Father Stephen Sundborg, S.J.  Mr. Sundborg was a leading advocate in the Alaska statehood movement.

More information is available at:


Today in Legal History: Outer Space Treaty Enters into Force

The Outer Space Treaty entered into force on October 10, 1967.  As countries began exploring space, the international community felt it wise to set some ground rules.  The Outer Space Treaty, sponsored by the United Nations, provided that space is a commons, open to all; banned nuclear weapons in orbit; and prohibited military bases on the moon (scientific outposts are permitted).  The United States is a signatory to this treaty.  The Outer Space Treaty parallels the Law of the Sea in many important aspects, such as how property issues are settled.  The governing body is called UNOOSA.

More information is available at:


Today in Legal History: Thurgood Marshall becomes First Black Supreme Court Justice

Thoroughgood “Thurgood” Marshall started work as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court on October 2nd, 1967. Marshall had been nominated by Lyndon Johnson after a distinguished career in civil rights, including arguing the landmark Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 for the NAACP. As a child, Marshall had attended a segregated school that sentenced children to read the Constitution as punishment. By the time Marshall left that school, he had the Constitution memorized. After his retirement in 1991, Marshall was replaced by Clarence Thomas. Marshall died in 1993.

For more information, check out:
• Martin Calabro, Great Courtroom Lawyers (4th Floor, KF372.C35 1996)
• Mark V. Tushnet, Making Constitutional Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1961-1991 (4th Floor, KF8745.M34T87 1997)
• Juan Williams, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary (4th Floor, KF8745.M34W55 1998)


Today in Legal History: Women Get the Vote in Wyoming

On September 30, 1889, the Wyoming legislature approved its state constitution with a provision giving women the right to vote (Wyoming was admitted to the union in 1890). Before becoming a state, Wyoming had been the first territory to give women the right to vote in 1869, followed by the Utah Territory in 1870 and the Washington Territory in 1883 (Washington’s Supreme Court later found that legislation unconstitutional). Washington’s Territorial Legislature had actually introduced the first women’s suffrage bill in 1848, but that bill was narrowly defeated.

While most of the activism for women’s suffrage was on the east coast, the western states were far more responsive to passing laws to enfranchise women. By 1914, most of the western states had given women voting rights while Kansas was the only state east of the Rockies to do so. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, giving all female American citizens the right to vote.

To find out more see:
• Suzanne M. Marilley, Woman Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States, 1820-1920 (Harvard U. Press 1996) LAW-Culp Collection (3rd Floor-Range 3A) JK1896.M37 1996
• Ellen Carol DuBois, Woman Suffrage and Women’s Rights (NYU Press 1998) LAW-Culp Collection (3rd Floor-Range 3A) HQ1236.5.U6D83 1998
• Anne Firor Scott, One Half the People: The Fight for Woman Suffrage (U. Illinois Press 1982) LAW-Culp Collection (3rd Floor-Range 3A) JK1896.S36 1982
• Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States (Harvard U. Press 1996) LAW-3rd Floor HQ1410.F6 1996


Today in Legal History: President James A. Garfield Dies, Leading to Famous Insanity Defense Trial

President James A. Garfield died on September 19, 1881, after serving less than half a year in office. President Garfield died at a New Jersey seaside location, where he was recovering from two bullet wounds he suffered on July 2, 1881. Garfield’s assassin was Charles Guiteau, an attorney, theologian, and rebuffed office seeker. Guiteau insisted that he was God’s messenger. He also argued that medical malpractice was the actual cause of death because the doctors’ treatments had caused the blood poisoning that eventually killed Garfield. Guiteau’s attorney (who was also his brother-in-law) argued the insanity defense. In the end, the Guiteau jury, deliberating for just over an hour, didn’t buy Guiteau’s defenses and he was hanged on June 30, 1882. Garfield’s spine, which shows the hole created by the bullet, is kept as a historical artifact by the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. Guiteau’s autopsy did show evidence of syphilitic paresis as well as chronic degeneration, leading some doctors to change their opinion of his mental state.

More information is available at:


Today in Legal History: First Labor Day Celebrated

The first Labor Day was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City.  Two years, later, the holiday was changed to the first Monday in September.  While it is unclear who first suggested Labor Day (some sources say it was a carpenter, others a machinist), it is clear that the holiday was supported by labor organizations.

Cities were the first to officially recognize this “workingman’s” holiday and the states soon followed.  Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day a legal observance in 1887.   By 1894, Congress followed suit.

The original proposals for the holiday called for a huge parade and a festival for working men and their families. “It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pays tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.” – Department of Labor Website


Today in Legal History: 19th Amendment Ratified

On August 18, 1920, the 19th amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote. The effort to achieve this milestone involved decades of struggle and protest. Women suffrage supporters in the mid-19th century lectured, wrote, marched, lobbied, and protested to change the Constitution. In 1878, the amendment was first introduced to Congress, and it would take the tireless efforts of women suffrage supporters several more decades to see the amendment ratified.

More information is available at:


Today in Legal History: FDR Signs Social Security Act

From WikipediaOn August 15, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law. Responding to the widespread suffering caused by the Great Depression, President Roosevelt asked Congress for “social security” legislation on January 17, 1935. The Act would provide old-age benefits that would be financed by a payroll tax on employers and employees. The system later expanded to provide benefits for the disabled, dependents, and the unemployed. Prior to the Social Security Act, elderly people often faced the prospect of poverty upon retirement.

More information is available at: