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A Review of The Oxford Companion to American Law


Friday, Jun. 7, 2002

Kermit L. Hall, ed. The Oxford Companion to American Law. (Oxford University Press, 2002)

The Companion provides a clearly-organized tour through the significant personalities, events, institutions, and doctrines of American law. The entries are, on the whole, well-written and thorough, and authored by both noted scholars in the field and new voices. There is an excellent index of topics and cases for easy cross-reference.

You will not find in the Companion long technical entries on every subject of law. While there are relatively short entries devoted to the essential common and criminal law concepts, other volumes can supply that information. Rather, editor Kermit Hall (a historian and currently President of Utah State University) has designed a volume to "stress the concept of governance, the ways and means by which lawmakers go about using law to exert the power of government."

Indeed, the "Governance" entry, by Samuel Krislov, nicely lays out the complexities of the modern American legal structure. The emphasis, therefore, is upon process as much as substance, and interrelationships as on doctrine.

Presenting Law As Interwoven With Other Disciplines, and Part of Society

All of the Companion's entries, which come in different forms, reflect the editors' view that the law does not stand apart either from other disciplines or the larger society. Accordingly, many of the most important subjects are treated in long "interpretive" essays; these subjects include civil rights and civil liberties, and employment and family law. The long essay format gives the authors space to examine the impact of changes in society on the law, and vice versa.

There are also a series of extremely helpful "thematic" entries connecting law with other subjects. The entries on "Law and Society," "Law and Literature," "Political Science and the Law," and "Law and Economics," among others, provide substantial introductions to these topics.

Other entries take a longer, thematic view of major historical developments. The entry on the common law, by John V. Orth, encompasses the period from the Twelfth Century to the present. There are notable shorter treatments of canon law, commercial law, civil law, Native American law, and natural law theory.

Meanwhile, a separate group of entries deals with popular perceptions of the law and lawyers in American culture, and includes discussions of the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson trials. Entries on corporate law practice and law firms are also included.

Going Beyond Courts and Legislatures, and Giving Bios of Key Personalities

Also of value are the thumbnail biographies of some of the more important private lawyers of our time, such as Paul Cravath and John W. Davis, founders of the New York law firms of Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Davis, Polk & Wardwell, respectively.

As with all collections of this type, there are as many excluded subjects as included ones. Perhaps most puzzlingly, why is Clarence Darrow included, but not William Jennings Bryan, his great opponent in the Scopes evolution trial? And why are Edward Bennett Williams and William J. Donovan, both giants of the Twentieth Century bar, left out?

Covering Most of the Major U.S. Supreme Court Cases, But Few State Cases

Most of the major cases of the United States Supreme Court are discussed in the Companion: Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, Dred Scott v. Sanford, Marshall v. Madison, McCullough v. Maryland, up to and including Bush v. Gore all receive attention.

The overwhelming majority of cases discussed are federal; the state cases cited a relatively few. This gap is compensated for, however, by entries for "state's rights" and "federalism" (an especially good contribution by Richard Briffault of Columbia Law School). Further, there is a separate entry devoted to state supreme courts as an institution, which describes their importance in the federal system and their differences from the United States Supreme Court.

The problems with the Companion are minor ones. Given a project of this scope, it is not surprising that the editing conventions are not completely uniform. Some of the case names in the index lack full citations. More importantly, from time to time the particular bias of the contributor creeps into the otherwise factual descriptions. This can be distracting, especially to a student or someone else unfamiliar with the particular subject. All in all, though, the Companion really does attain the much-claimed status of a reference work no lawyer should be without - and also transcends that status to offer far more.

Gerald J. Russello is a lawyer with Covington & Burling in New York.

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