From Local Courts to National Tribunals : The Federal District Courts of Florida, 1821-1990

From Local Courts to National Tribunals : The Federal District Courts of Florida, 1821-1990

by Kermit L. Hall, Eric W. Rise

Editorial Reviews

Albert R. Matheny
This history of the Florida federal judiciary was commissioned by the Eleventh Circuit Historical Society. It would have been easy for the authors to tiptoe around the more controversial episodes of the federal district courts' history in Florida, but, for the most part, Kermit Hall and Eric Rise describe the judi- ciary, warts and all, and criticize, albeit gently, their sometimes embarrassingly parochial jurisprudence. Further, the book could have lapsed into bland description, given that this is a base-line project, assembling for the first time information on a subject ignored as a whole in legal history. Instead, the authors energize their descriptive efforts with references throughout to current law and society research as well as classic studies in legal history. They have successfully avoided both the pandering tone of a corporate biography and the generic flavor of a reference work. In fact, they have given us an accessible foundation document on Florida's federal courts that is not only informative and enter- taining, but also a vital resource for future historical research on these tribunals. Under the circumstances, producing such a text must have been a little like navigating the treacherous shoals they describe in their coverage of the colorful early maritime salvage litigation so common in Key West during the nineteenth century. The primary contributions of this study are, first, its systematic chronology of legal developments in federal legal procedure, and contract, property, and criminal law in the frontier South and, second, its detailed and lively documentation of the politics surrounding federal judicial selection from Florida's territorial days to the present. Without any real self-conscious effort at theorizing, Hall and Rise provide an excellent case study of the interaction among law, society, and economy in an area slowly, and sometimes grudgingly, coming under the influence of a national legal agenda. The book's structure is simple and straightforward. Between an introduction and conclusion which locate the study within the broader sweep of legal history and its scholarship, each chapter covers from fifteen to twenty-five years of Florida history corresponding with the standard eras of American experience (e.g., the antebellum period, Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, the New Deal, etc.). Within each chapter, the authors pay attention to the emerging structure of federal jurisdiction in Florida, the politics of staffing the courts, and the legal developments in each of the areas of law mentioned above. The chapters are short, methodical, and very down-toearth in tone. The emphasis on the law, the personalities, and the politics of the times is nicely balanced and their command of the subject is always evident but understated. Following the concluding chapter are extensive appendices providing a time-line of the district courts' institutional development through 1990, a biographical sketch of each judge, a list of all federal court and U.S. Department of Justice personnel appointed in Florida, and, finally, detailed caseload frequencies for each federal district in the state by year with a the national caseload mean supplied for comparison. The latter is particularly useful for recognizing changing patterns in litigation over time and reveals the startling growth which Florida, and particularly the southern part of the state, have experienced recently. Of particular interest are the case vignettes from each period which vivify the challenges of adjudication in a rapidly developing but overwhelmingly parochial southern state. For example, the authors' brief coverage of early peonage cases in Florida reveals both the shocking conditions under which de facto slavery was extended well into the twentieth century and the enormous courage of the federal officials who exposed and prosecuted its operators. There is also a nice account of the government's ludicrous attempts to prosecute anti-war activists in the Page 125 follows: notable "Gainesville Eight" trial of 1973. Finally, the dramatic struggles to desegregate St. Augustine in the early 1960s are given sensitive if brief treatment. Of course, a book of this type and length (147 pages of actual text) cannot do justice to a subject so large as 170 years of legal history in one of the nation's most dynamic states. I found myself wishing for more analysis in each chapter and more commentary in the footnotes. Sometimes the parade of seemingly insignificant names became a little numbing, but in a commissioned history, inclusiveness is a priority. Finally, there were instances in which the authors' might have pursued a critical line further. For example, in documenting the bold efforts of a black school principal in 1941 to make the pay for black school teachers equal to that of their white counterparts, the authors seemed to have pulled their punches a bit. The principal, Vernon McDaniel, convinced Judge Augustine Long of the Northern District to support his class action alleging that the salary inequities were racially discriminatory under the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment. But salaries remained unequal as other judges in Florida, including federal judges, avoided the impact of Long's ruling by upholding pay scale rating systems which favored white teachers. We are not told who those federal judges were or specifically why they resisted Long's ruling. Certainly, it is just as interesting for history's sake to know which federal judges in the state perpetuated racism as it is to know about those who challenged it. A more critical study would surely include such information. This is a small complaint, particularly because the book is more often successful at avoiding such pitfalls of commissioned work. Frankly, Hall and Rise have gone well beyond the genre in providing us with a readable and worthwhile account of American legal development in an under-appreciated area of the country. Any student interested in researching Florida's legal past must begin with this text, and that constitutes a positive recommendation. This book is a deserving addition to the growing list of solid scholarship on Southern legal history.

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Carlson Publishing, Inc.
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