Today in Legal History: Webster’s Dictionary of American Language is Printed

Webster’s Dictionary of American Language was printed on April 14, 1818. Compiled and written by Noah Webster, a lawyer, this dictionary was the first to focus on American terminology (including over 10,000 American terms) and helped standardize American spelling.

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Today in Legal History: First Presidential Veto

George Washington was the first president to use his veto power.  On April 5, 1792, he vetoed a bill regarding apportioning representatives in the House which would have increased the number of seats for northern states.
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Today in Legal History: April Fool’s Day

Nobody is sure how April Fool’s Day got started, but the most common theory is the changing of the calendar from the Julian to the Gregorian in France in 1564. The Julian calendar, based on lunar cycles, celebrated the New Year in April. The Gregorian calendar, based on the sun, celebrated the New Year on January 1st. Not everyone was pleased about the new calendar, and some refused to recognize it. These individuals became known as April Fools when they insisted on celebrating the New Year in April.

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Today in Legal History: Woman Lawyer’s Bill Passed in California

Through the efforts of Clara Shortridge Foltz and Laura deForce Gordon, the words “white male” were replaced with “person” in the state requirements to take the bar exam.  This had the effect of not only allowing women to take the bar, but minorities as well.  Ms. Foltz, the single parent of five children, went on that fall to become the first woman lawyer in California and won court battles to attend Hastings law school.  (At the time, it was not atypical to pass the bar prior to attending school).  Later in her career, Ms. Foltz drafted a bill that would create a public defender system, which was adopted by 30 states. The Woman Lawyer’s Bill was passed in California on March 28, 1878.

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Today in Legal History: Roosevelt Signs Lend-Lease Program

The Lend-Lease program was Franklin Roosevelt’s way to circumvent US laws requiring that all sales to foreign governments be made in cash.  Roosevelt strongly believed that the Allied powers needed help.  This program was met with skepticism; some of the provisions of the bill permitted the President to shut down strikes.  However, Great Britain was grateful, as Churchill had warned Roosevelt he couldn’t come up with cash much longer.  The program was designed for Great Britain, but some 40 nations ultimately benefited.

The Lend-Lease program deferred costs of materials needed until the future.  Great Britain, for example, was given 50 years to pay off loans made by the US.  Many of the “loaned” materials were effectively gifts.  Some of the repayment could be met by leasing land to the US for military bases.

Lend-Lease included planes, trucks, food, tanks, and ships which were essential to countries that had to ration their resources and materials due to the war.  The shipments from the US allowed countries to meet important needs.  Hitler credited Lend-Lease with keeping the Allied powers going when he declared war on the US.

Lend-Lease would become the Marshall Plan after the end of the war.  The UK paid off its last installment of Lend-Lease on December 31, 2006.

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Today in Legal History: Confederate Constitution Adopted

The Confederate Constitution, adopted on March 11, 1861, provides an interesting insight into the political opinions of the South during the antebellum period. While much of the Confederate version is clearly taken straight from the US Constitution, there are differences. The President is limited to a single six year term, for example. The Bill of Rights was written into the main text. Judicial review was not addressed. Treason was addressed in more detail than in the US Constitution. Obviously, one of the major differences was the explicit protection of slavery; however, foreign slave trade was still prohibited.

The Confederate Constitution was ratified by South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.

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Today in Legal History: Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Decided

2 Live Crew was a rap group who recorded a song called “Pretty Woman”. This song was based heavily on a prior work recorded and co-written by Roy Orbison. Orbison’s record label sued for copyright infringement. The Orbison version was a wistful ballad about a lovely woman walking. By contrast, the 2 Live Crew version was crude. However, copyright law does not take taste into account. The Supreme Court said that 2 Live Crew’s version of the song was legally a parody, though devoid of quality, and consequently was a fair use of the source material. Campbell v. Acuff-Rose was Decided on March 7, 1994.

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Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, 510 U.S. 569 (1994)


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.

More information can be found here:

  • The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation: Analysis of Cases Decided by the Supreme Court of the United States to June 28, 2002, Prepared by the Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress (Law Library Reference Desk @ KF4527.U54 2004)
  • The Founders’ Constitution, edited by Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner (Law Library Reserve @ KF4502.F68 1987)
  • The Charters of Freedom
  •  Desk-Top Guide to the Constitution: Chronology, Facts & Documents by Irving J. Sloan LAW-Reserve KF4502.D47 1987
  • A Child of Fortune: A Correspondent’s Report on the Ratification of the U.S. Constitution and Battle for a Bill of Rights by Jeffrey St. John (Jameson Books 1990) LAW-4th Floor KF4541.Z9S7 1990


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: 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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