Cover image for Minding the law
Minding the law
Amsterdam, Anthony G.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
453 pages ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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Item Holds
KF425 .A48 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In this remarkable collaboration, one of the nation's leading civil rights lawyers joins forces with one of the world's foremost cultural psychologists to put American constitutional law into an American cultural context. By close readings of key Supreme Court opinions, they show how storytelling tactics and deeply rooted mythic structures shape the Court's decisions abour race, family law and the death penalty.

Author Notes

Jerome Seymour Bruner was born in Manhattan, New York on October 1, 1915. Born blind because of cataracts, he had an experimental operation to restore his vision at the age of 2. He received a degree in psychology from Duke University in 1937 and received a doctorate from Harvard University.

His theories about perception, child development, and learning informed education policy and helped launch the cognitive revolution. He wrote or co-wrote several books including A Study of Thinking written with Jacqueline J. Goodnow and George A. Austin and The Process of Education. He helped design Head Start, the federal program introduced in 1965 to improve preschool development. He died on June 5, 2016 at the age of 100.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

The nature of the rule of law is a central concern of these three rather different works. Perhaps the most unusual is the pairing of law professor Amsterdam and cultural psychologist Bruner, both of New York University, in a study that grows out of the "lawyering theory" seminar they have team-taught for 10 years. Their goal is to "make the familiar strange again," specifically, to examine the routine legal processes of categorization, storytelling, and persuasion, as well as the culture within which these processes take place. After discussing each subject (categories, narrative, rhetorics, and the dialectic of culture), they explore its operation in one or two significant Supreme Court decisions, "unearth[ing] concealed presuppositions, categorical pitfalls, narrative predilections, rhetorical constructions, cultural biases." Such interpretive dilemmas, they suggest, are inevitable, but may be less troublesome to the extent that the effects of categories, narrative, rhetorics, and culture are acknowledged, rather than ignored. Princeton University politics and international affairs professor Bass covered the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for The Economist; he has also written for leading U.S. publications. In Stay the Hand of Vengeance, he considers the history of war crimes tribunals from the Napoleonic Wars to Kosovo, placing these efforts in the context of the debate between realists and idealists in international relations, and urging that war crimes tribunals are more than simply "victors' justice." Bass notes that liberal states are most likely to call for legalistic due process for war criminals; his focus here is on the politics of war crimes tribunals, rather than the details of the international law developed to govern such bodies. Why do even liberal states demand war crimes tribunals in some situations and not in others? What political factors explain why some war criminals are vigorously pursued and prosecuted, while others are largely ignored? These are the kinds of questions Bass' history seeks to answer. This fourth entry in the multimedia May It Please the Court series takes on issues of children and schools adjudicated by the U.S. Supreme Court. (Previous entries covered key post-1955 decisions [1993], abortion [1995], and the First Amendment [1997].) Irons--a University of California, San Diego political science professor and director of the Earl Warren Bill of Rights Project, which produces the series--narrates the tapes of oral arguments and questioning and edits written material: transcriptions of the arguments and excerpts from the Court's decisions and key dissents. Subjects here include school prayer, religious clubs, mandatory maternity leave for teachers, busing, censorship of student newspapers and in school libraries, evolution vs. creationism, "vulgar" speech, and student rights issues (corporal punishment, due process hearings, antiwar protest, property searches and drug testing, and "illegal alien" students). Students as well as older library patrons concerned about these issues will find this material fascinating and enlightening. --Mary Carroll

Choice Review

Amsterdam and Bruner are eminently qualified to prepare this analysis of the verbal imagery that has characterized the development of American law. The former is a chaired professor at New York University School of Law, and the latter is an eminent psychologist and the author of numerous books in his area of specialty. Using a textual analysis of major US Supreme Court decisions, the authors demonstrate how storytelling by the attorneys and the justices mirror the culture's deeply rooted values regarding subjects such as race, family law, and the death penalty. The book examines how jurists determine whether certain cases fall within a particular legal category ("categorizing"), how they tell stories to support or undercut a particular position ("narrative"), and how they shape their words to be convincing without appearing to be self-serving ("rhetorics"). The book may be compared with American Legal History, ed. by Kermit L. Hall et al. (CH, Nov'91), and to Psychology and the Legal System, ed. by Lawrence S. Wrightsman et al. (4th ed., 1998). The book is meticulously footnoted and is written in a lively, interesting, and compelling style. Recommended for upper-division undergraduates and above. R. A. Carp; University of Houston

Table of Contents

1 Invitation to a Journeyp. 1
2 On Categoriesp. 19
3 Categorizing at the Supreme Court Missouri v. Jenkins and Michael H. v. Gerald D.p. 54
4 On Narrativep. 110
5 Narratives at Court Prigg v. Pennsylvania and Freeman v. Pittsp. 143
6 On Rhetoricsp. 165
7 The Rhetorics of Death McCleskey v. Kempp. 194
8 On the Dialectic of Culturep. 217
9 Race, the Court, and America's Dialectic From Plessy through Brown to Pitts and Jenkinsp. 246
10 Reflections on a Voyagep. 282
Appendix Analysis of Nouns and Verbs in the Prigg, Pitts, and Brown Opinionsp. 293
Notesp. 309
Table of Casesp. 427
Indexp. 432