Justice Shaw: The Law And the Commonwealth

THE LAW OF THE COMMONWEALTH AND CHIEF JUSTICE SHAW, by Leonard W. Levy, Harvard University Press, 383 pp., $6.50.

Despite its title, this is by no means a judicial biography. True, its central character is Lemuel Shaw (Class of 1800), Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court from 1830 to 1860, but readers interested in Shaw's life had best turn to other sources. This book concentrates on his vigorous decisions, which shaped and restated the law, not only of the Commonwealth, but of the nation as well.

Having set himself this limitation, Mr. Levy (a non-lawyer) proceeds smoothly with his task of bringing Shaw the public attention he has heretofore enjoyed only among members of the profession.

He has split the book, appropriately enough, into sections covering each of the great fields of law in which Shaw rendered fundamental opinions: the Unitarian controversy, the blasphemy uproar, the law of slavery, segregation, railroad law, labor law, criminal law, state regulation, and constitutional law. Within each section, then, he devotes considerable care and ingenuity to a thorough explication of the cases, as well as a treatment of the historical setting against which the litigation must be viewed.

This approach, combining as it does generalization and detail, broadens the book's appeal, and its value, too. The chapter on the conviction of Abner Kneeland for blasphemy (one of Shaw's worst decisions), for example, will attract anyone interested in the history of civil liberties; and even the more technical opinions in the various railroad cases can be appreciated as evidence of the way in which strong judges fostered industrial expansion in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Mr. Levy has deduced Shaw's outlook from his opinions, in a fair and critical way. Where necessary, he acknowledges the non-judicial prejudices that helped Shaw establish a doctrine (except in the liquor-licensing cases, where he curiously fails to consider whether Shaw's readiness to uphold the State's "police power" might have proceeded from the Chief Justice's own prohibitionist leaning).

Unfortunately, Mr. Levy concludes with a repetitive chapter of "Thus-we-have-seen" material, using the same images, the same quotations, and (sometimes) the same sentences. Standing alone, it would make an excellent law review article. Tacked in its present position, however, it needlessly mars an already complete and well-executed scholarly work.