The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law, by Michael H. Roffer, explores 250 of the most fundamental, far-reaching, and often controversial cases, laws, and trials that have profoundly changed our world—for good or bad. It covers such diverse topics as the Code of Hammurabi, the Ten Commandments, the Trial of Socrates, the Bill of Rights, women’s suffrage, the insanity defense, and more. Roffer takes us around the globe to ancient Rome and medieval England before transporting us forward to contemporary accounts that tackle everything from civil rights, surrogacy, and assisted suicide to the 2000 U.S. presidential election, Google Books, and the fight for marriage equality.
Michael Roffer is the Associate Librarian for Reader Services and Professor of Legal Research at New York Law School. We interviewed him to learn more about this new book.
I think many people see the law as something that is constantly changing, with new regulations being changed or created at a very fast pace. Why do you think it is important to look at how law has evolved throughout history?
It’s certainly true that the law is marked by constant change, but a lot of that change can and should be viewed not merely as change but as growth. In the introduction to The Law Book, I refer specifically to law’s two competing principals, stability and change: law provides stability in a changing world and a world in flux changes the law to maintain stability. Slavery was permitted and then outlawed; the death penalty was barred and then reinstated; books were banned and then constitutionally protected. Although dramatic changes like these may sometimes seem inconsistent, they actually embody legal scholar Roscoe Pound’s aphorism that “the law must be stable, and yet it cannot stand still.” And so the law does not stand still; it is always adapting and evolving. By reviewing its evolution and understanding the past we’re able to adapt and develop laws most suitable for the context in which society finds itself at any given moment. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously wrote that “the life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” Learning from our prior experiences affords us the opportunity to effect positive changes in accordance with cultural, political and moral norms.
When putting together your 250 milestones in the history of law, what was the kind of criteria that you factored when making this list?
In writing The Law Book, one of my greatest challenges was narrowing the field of potential milestones to be included. Ultimately, my goal was to select those that had effected an important and fundamental change or gave rise to a new structure or path on the legal landscape. I tried to address issues that have visible connections and relevance to people’s lives and experiences with the hope of engaging readers’ intellectual and historical curiosity and perhaps inspiring further exploration, discussion and research. As the introduction to The Law Book notes, “the law surrounds us . . . , touch[ing] every aspect of our lives and even our death.” This overarching message coincidentally parallels the “Why Law Matters” theme adopted by the American Association of Law Schools’ new President, Kellye Testy, in an interview she provided prior to the association’s annual meeting in January. Testy, who is also Dean of the University of Washington Law School, explained that she wanted to help people understand the various dimensions of law rather than thinking about it very narrowly. It’s not just about dispute resolution, she said; it’s “the very fabric of our society.” My selection of milestones reflected a similar purpose. You may also notice that the milestones I wrote about take many forms—cases, statutes, books, people, trials, decisions, articles, and even events. I did not want to focus only on formally established doctrine or principles but rather on some of the law’s more catalyzing influences.
One final point: These are not necessarily the 250 milestones of legal history. I certainly recognize that reasonable minds can—will—disagree on the importance of specific legal developments and their place in legal history.
Your book includes more than a dozen milestones from the Middle Ages – what do you think was the most significant?
That’s a difficult question to answer, partly because the entries cut across several cultures—Roman; Chinese; Muslim; Anglo-Saxon; French; English; and Spanish. If I had to identify one, I would probably select the 1481 entry on Littleton’s Tenures, the first true legal textbook. Its significance doesn’t lie in any particular legal doctrine that it put forth or in the impact its substantive content had but rather in what it meant for the actual development of law from that point forward. Coming soon after the debut of the printing press and thereby benefitting from the large-scale dissemination it made possible, Littleton’s work laid the foundation for the study and application of law on a much grander scale. Significantly, Littleton brought to what would become a burgeoning world of law publishing narrative and exposition rather than mere compilation of primary materials. Littleton actually established the model that future scholars emulated as they created their own treatises, providing comprehensive and authoritative exposition of legal doctrine. In some respects, it operated as a type of meta-text by supplying organization and meaning, paving the way for law to propagate. Thus, it ultimately impacted the entirety of law and how it would come to be learned, understood, and practiced.
Finally, do you think this book represents what might be called a positive look at the development of civilization? Has all these developments contributed to a better society, or do you take a more neutral view to how law has impacted us?
My view, and I hope the book expresses this, is definitely a positive one with respect to the law’s influence on the development of civilization. I think one has to recognize that any given law or legally determined outcome almost always involves trade-offs. But at the end of the day, I think most thoughtful individuals would acknowledge that, generally speaking, society’s laws help to yield a better society. History has illustrated the self-correcting nature of legal systems—laws that cease to reflect the mores or ethos of a given society or culture ultimately don’t survive. The process through which the change comes about, of course, is neither swift nor easy, but it does come about over time. But I also think it’s the case that even those laws that experience correction had their genesis as a reflection of the societal aspiration to policies or outcomes that the relevant (or majority) groups believed to be necessary or appropriate for the protection of the particular subject. Despite significant continuing debate over the rightness or wrongness of many current laws or legal doctrines, I’m inclined to view the law’s trajectory over the centuries as reflecting by and large an expansion of individual rights and a retrenchment of injustice and inequality, even if imperfect.