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Focusing on the People of the Law

The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law
Edited by Roger K. Newman Yale University Press, 2009

“Law is what made this country,” says Roger K. Newman, editor of The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law. “It’s the glue that keeps us together…Law is manners and culture and statutes—but it’s also people.”

People—seven hundred of them—are the focus of Newman’s latest book, which he describes as a book of “legal Americana…a cultural history without being overly academic.” With a cross section of humanity—from the rarified theory of Wesley Hohfeld to Isaac C. Parker, “the hanging judge of Arkansas”—The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law focuses on the personal and professional histories of some of the country’s most famous (and infamous) lawmakers.

The idea for The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law was first born at a conference eight years ago when YLS Associate Law Librarian and Lecturer in Legal Research Fred Shapiro suggested the loose concept for a biographical reference book of law to Newman. A self-described “biographical nut” who has spent much of his writing career focused on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Newman (who teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism) ran with the idea. Six years and 600 pages later, The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law has hit the bookshelves.

The book begins with Shirley Abrahamson, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, and ends with public interest pioneer Ronald Zumbrun. In between are hundreds of biographies of people who have had a significant impact in the world of law.

Coming up with a list of those to profile was a project unto itself. “The first four hundred entries, anyone who teaches at a law school could have come up with,” Newman says. But beyond that, Newman had to make some tough decisions in order to end up with a book that includes regional, chronological, age, gender, and ethnicity balance.

Another challenge came with deciding who should write the entries. Newman’s first list of potential contributors was 3,000 names long. In an effort to be apolitical, the book includes contributors from both the ACLU and the Conservative Legal Foundation. Newman tried, whenever possible, to have contemporaries of the subjects write the entries. The entry for Nicholas deB. Katzenbach ’47, for example, was written by Jack Rosenthal of The New York Times, who was a prep school classmate of Katzenbach’s.

The book is teeming with Yale history. “It’s a massive web of connections,” Newman says. The seeming emphasis on Yale-related profiles and contributors likely has to do, Newman suggests, with the small size of the school and the fact that much of the faculty—particularly in the middle of the 20th century—became so legendary.

Twenty-eight YLS faculty members, including giants like Alexander Bickel and Boris Bittker ’41, are profiled. Among Newman’s favorite profiles are those of Professor Fred Rodell ’30 (who is described as an incurable “enfant terrible”) and Professor Guido Calabresi ’58 (whose entry ends: “… he has externalized his reliance on and commitment to family by embracing an entire community at Yale. A positive externality, one might say.”).

“The unfolding of great lives can provide enjoyment as well as enlightenment,” Newman writes in the book’s introduction. “Readers will, I hope, discover that they share similar human emotions and, alas, frailties with the people profiled within; that those whom we often imagine as larger than life were at heart much like the rest of us, ordinary human beings (although of extraordinary talent) who sought fulfillment and happiness in their own ways.”

The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law is part of the Yale Law Library Series in Legal History and Reference, which is a collaboration of the Yale Law Library and Yale University Press.