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Legal History

A guide to some important dates in legal history.


2 - Thurgood Marshall becomes First Black Supreme Court Justice

ThoroughgoodThurgood Marshall “Thurgood” Marshall started work as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court on October 2nd, 1967. Marshall had been nominated by Lyndon Johnson after a distinguished career in civil rights, including arguing the landmark Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 for the NAACP. As a child, Marshall had attended a segregated school that sentenced children to read the Constitution as punishment. By the time Marshall left that school, he had the Constitution memorized. After his retirement in 1991, Marshall was replaced by Clarence Thomas. Marshall died in 1993.

3 - O.J. Simpson Acquitted

One of the most sensational celebrity trials of the twentieth century was the televised trial of O.J. Simpson in 1994. Simpson was charged with the brutal murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. Simpson had a history of domestic violence and no alibi for the night of the murders. There was considerable evidence against him, including a trail of blood from the crime scene to Simpson’s house. TV viewers watched as Simpson’s lawyers tore the prosecution’s evidence apart and argued that Simpson was framed by racist police officers. On October 3, 1995, nearly 140 million Americans tuned in as the verdict was delivered. The jury deliberated for only four hours, and found Simpson not guilty of both murders.

In 1997 the victims’ families successfully sued Simpson, and he was found liable for several claims related to the murders. The victims’ families were awarded $33.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

7 - Carbon Paper Patented in London

Carbon paper was patented in London on Oct. 7, 1806. While it may be difficult to visualize in this age of electronic copies and photocopy machines, at one time if you wanted a copy of something, you hand printed it yourself.  With the creation of carbon paper, used in conjunction with a typewriter, multiple copies could be made at one time.  Although carbon paper (and its progeny, carbonless paper) has lost much of its market due to photocopiers and the ease of printing multiple copies, it is still used for manual credit card receipts, tickets, and duplicate checks.  It is also memorialized in “cc” for emails (cc is short for carbon copy).

10 - Outer Space Treaty Enters into Force

The Outer Space Treaty entered into force on October 10, 1967.  As countries began exploring space, the international community felt it wise to set some ground rules.  The Outer Space Treaty, sponsored by the United Nations, provided that space is a commons, open to all; banned nuclear weapons in orbit; and prohibited military bases on the moon (scientific outposts are permitted).  The United States is a signatory to this treaty.  The Outer Space Treaty parallels the Law of the Sea in many important aspects, such as how property issues are settled.  The governing body is called UNOOSA.

18 - Formal Transfer of Alaska Territory to the United States

Although considered a bad move at the time, the United States bought the Alaska territory for $7,200,000 from the Russians at the behest of William Seward, Secretary of State.  Opposition in the House of Representatives postponed appropriation of purchase funds for over a year.  The new territory enlarged the geographical size of the United States by 20 percent.  All doubts about the purchase of “Seward’s folly” or “Seward’s icebox” subsided with the discovery of gold in 1896.  In 1959, Alaska became the 49th state.

Visit the Alaska Reading Room on the 4th floor of the Seattle University Law Library for a permanent exhibit about Alaska’s move to statehood.  The materials in the exhibit include unique photos and letters donated by Mary and George Sundborg, parents of the President of Seattle University, Father Stephen Sundborg, S.J.  Mr. Sundborg was a leading advocate in the Alaska statehood movement.

20 - Congress Probes Communism in Hollywood

“Are you now, or have you ever been, a Communist?”  Joe McCarthy’s crusade to stamp out communism reached Hollywood when film industry members were called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to testify about communism in the movies.  Ten writers and directors (later known as the Hollywood Ten) refused to testify on the ground that the hearings were illegal and violated their first amendment rights.  Although several of the Hollywood Ten were able to continue working under pseudonyms, or through friends who would take credit, their ability to work was severely curtailed.

24 - United Nations Established by Charter

In the aftermath of World War I, the League of Nations was established to prevent further war.  President Woodrow Wilson was an enthusiastic proponent.  Although the League established several agencies and successfully negotiated agreements, it was considered a failure upon the outbreak of World War II.  Many of its problems were structural; the League had no military force or enforcement authority and the United States was not a member.

As World War II continued, countries were forced into closer cooperation.  When the war ended, many believed the League needed to be replaced.  Its successor was the United Nations.  The UN inherited several of the structures established by the League of Nations with the addition of enforcement authority.  The United Nations was named by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

28 - Volstead Act Passed

The Volstead Act, more popularly known as prohibition, was passed on October 28, 1919.  It was named after Andrew Volstead, the congressman who sponsored the legislation. While at first bans on alcohol were attempted on a state level, it soon became a national movement.

It only took 13 months for the states to ratify the 18th Amendment. To some degree, prohibition worked; illegal alcohol became unaffordable for the common factory worker. On the other hand, prohibition also struck a chord of rebellion with otherwise law abiding citizens who chose to defy prohibition. Prohibition also made men like Al Capone rich and strengthened organized crime. On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified, repealing the 18th Amendment.