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Today in Legal History: Former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew Disbarred

From WikipediaOn May 2, 1974, the Maryland Court of Appeals disbarred Former Vice President Spiro Agnew. A Baltimore grand jury had linked Agnew to political corruption—bribery, extortion, and tax evasion.  Agnew avoided indictments on bribery and extortion by pleading no contest to tax evasion. Agnew resigned from office in 1973, and while the government did not prosecute him on charges of bribery and extortion, he was nonetheless disbarred as a result of his no-contest plea.

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Today in Legal History: Bay of Pigs Invasion

On April 17, 1961, a CIA-backed group of Cuban refugees tried to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. As soon as the party landed, they were met with resistance from Castro’s forces, and promised US air support never materialized. Of the 1,200 exiles trying to recapture their homeland, 100 died and the rest were captured.

Not only did the plan fail, it made the situation in Cuba even less desirable to the US government. Castro was able to put pressure on his Soviet allies for more support, and denounced the US to the world. Far from displacing Castro, the actions of the CIA cemented Castro’s control on Cuba, and made new president John F. Kennedy look weak and indecisive.

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Today in Legal History: Constitution Goes into Effect

The Constitutional Convention was the result of intense negotiation and compromise, although it is said that George Washington, who was president of the assembly, spent much of that time fishing. One of the central controversies was the form of government for the new country. Some delegates favored the adoption of a monarchy, but Madison, an ardent advocate for a strong central government, strongly opposed. The battle over ratification was acrimonious. Many anti-Federalists believed the new Constitution favored wealthy landowners and there were misgivings that the majority of the people did not, in fact, support the new Constitution. As a result of these battles, the Bill of Rights was created, with Madison as its greatest advocate. Somehow, in spite of the bitter divisiveness and disagreement, the framers managed to create the world’s shortest constitution and one that stood the test of time. The U.S. Constitution is the oldest, single- source derived constitution still in effect.

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Today in Legal History: Dr. Seuss Day

Theodor Seuss Geisel, pseudonym Dr. Seuss, was born on March 2, 1904. The famed children’s book author started out writing political cartoons, and during WWII he even made movies for the US Army. His early political work is little known, and given its controversial content it may be better that Dr. Seuss remain simply the beloved author of The Cat in the Hat and Horton Hears a Who.

March 2nd is Dr. Seuss Day and all across the country it is celebrated by Read Across America. Dr. Seuss’s children’s books, with imaginative characters and rhythmic rhyming verses, have been used to help children learn to read and stay interested in reading throughout childhood. Providing children an interest in and the skills to master reading can help all the young lawyers-to-be prepare for the intense reading load they will have in law school and beyond.

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Today in Legal History: Salem Witch Trials

On February 29, 1692, the first arrests were made in the Salem Witch Trials. The Salem court of Oyer and Terminer (hear and determine) accepted evidence that no modern court would: spectral evidence and witch marks. Spectral evidence involved reports of what would sound like hallucinations to modern jurors. The witnesses would describe their visions of the accused cavorting in their spectral forms. Witch marks were evidence that animal familiars had been suckling on their master. These marks often looked like moles, bruises, and birthmarks.

There were other ways in which the Salem trials would not meet constitutional muster. The accused were not allowed an advocate or witnesses on their own behalf. Though they were allowed to present evidence, speak on their own behalf, and question their accusers, without counsel, the accused were ill prepared to defend themselves effectively. No appeals were available.

Although witchcraft was not actually a crime at the time of the first trial, criminalizing witchcraft was made retroactive. Accused awaiting trial had to pay their own prison expenses, including the shackles; if they could not, prisoners were kept in small rooms the size of coffins.

The first trial was delayed because one judge felt the witch marks and spectral evidence were inadequate proof. Nathaniel Saltenstall resigned the bench in protest.

Six months later, the hysteria ended after the main accusers denounced the new governor’s wife as a witch. The governor shut down the proceedings as a result. Those who had lost their property did not regain it. Nineteen had been hanged.

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Today in Legal History: First African-American Member of Congress Sworn In

On February 25, 1870, Hiram Rhodes Revels, R-Miss, became the first African-American member of the Senate.  Revels was a college-educated minister who had helped with the formation of black troops for the Civil War, started a school, and had been a chaplain in the Union Army.

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Today in Legal History: Florida Purchased by the United States

Of all the great deals that have been made by U.S. Presidents, John Adams did pretty well for himself. On February 22, 1819, in return for the U.S. assuming some $5 million in claims of U.S. citizens against Spain, Spain ceded all control of the Florida territory to the U.S. under the Adams-Onis Treaty. In exchange, the U.S. ceded claims for Texas and California. Florida was not the only gain for the U.S.; Spain also gave up all its claims north of Texas to the United States (including the Oregon Territory, which included Washington State). And, of course, the United States took back both Texas and California in the Mexican-American War.

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Today in Legal History: Credit Mobilier Scandal

On February 18, 1873, the House of Representatives voted to find Oakes Ames (R-Mass.) guilty of bribery. Though the House contemplated ejecting him from office, Ames was instead censured. Too many other representatives had stock in Ames’ company, Credit Mobilier.

Oakes Ames had bought into a company called Credit Mobilier to finance the building of the railroads. Abraham Lincoln had encouraged him to do so; it was of national importance to get stable transport to the West. Ames continued to serve in Congress and recruited many of his colleagues to invest. It was a great investment as returns were running at 90% in 1867.

Credit Mobilier was in charge of building the Union Pacific Railroad, but did so at an incredibly inflated rate. When Credit Mobilier wasn’t charging twice as much as it cost to build, the company would “build” the same section of railroad more than once. It is estimated that Credit Mobilier made over $23 million while the railroad was left barely solvent. It was the Enron of its time.

Congress tried to get some of the money back by passing legislation (17 Stat. 509) to file suit. Eventually, the case made it to the Supreme Court. In U.S. v. Union Pac. R. Co., 98 U.S. 569 (1878), the Supreme Court decided that the above mentioned legislation was unconstitutional and that the government could not collect on the bonds made for the railroads until they matured. According to the Supreme Court, the railroads had been built, so Credit Mobilier was under no obligation beyond the contract.

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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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