Law in Contemporary Society

Discussion of Robinson's Metamorphosis

I'm not sure how to move this to a new parent topic, but I thought it might be useful to begin discussing the reading about Robinson and to take off where the students left off last year.

-- LaurenRosenberg - 17 Feb 2009

I thought to post some thoughts on the parallels between the Robinson's Metamorphosis piece and the Metamorphosis that may help start a discussion. Clearly the theme of alienation is a central issue - expressed not only through the descriptions of the inside of the prisons but also the location on an island apart from the rest of the world. The insect's reclusion in his room - and perhaps even his diminishing size - I believe also play into the idea of relieving others from the burden and acknowledgment of his existence. The reference to a young public defender who hasn't yet learned to be patient evokes the eroding patience of the insect's caretaker - but I am not sure exactly what to do with that. Another issue that stuck out was the discussion of the identity of the 'criminals' - what is a murderer or a rapist like. As though part of the alienation process of incarceration, also involves the dehumanization of those it sends off.

So what of the lawyers then? I recall reading Metamorphosis in high school as part of our discussion of the alienating and dehumanizing effects industrialization had on the work force - are certain practices prone to such separation? Is that what happens if they sell their licenses? Can lawyers be detached from the justice system itself? From the realities of what the law is? Surely if lawyers changed into prisoners they would have a better idea of what the law is - would they then know it as Holmes' 'bad man'? (Please correct me if this is completely off and point the discussion in the right direction!)

-- CarinaWallance - 27 Feb 2008

  • I fixed the wiki problems, provided header, and moved this topic to RobinsonsMetamorphosisTalk. I hope people won't get carried away by worrying about Kafka too much. I don't think this has very much to do with him, except indirectly.

-- EbenMoglen - 27 Feb 2008

"The criminal law represents civilization's pathology"

It seems that the piece is summarized in this line where Robinson is quoting some outside source. The phrase "Criminal law", not crime or law generally, show the peculiar nature of criminal law in showing the disease of 'civilization'. Although the phrase in isolation could mean the laws deemed crime are an effort to quarantine the diseases (psychological, emotional ets.) of society, within the framework of the piece, Robinson is suggesting that the way the criminal law works is a representation of the diseases. The very mechanism that we attempt to use to 'conceal' or 'deal' with our own pathology is where it is most apparent, not as a result of the people we deem criminals, but through those charged with administering it.

His disdain is for the lawyers and judges involved in the process including, it seems, for himself not those who are subject to it.

Maybe the the best way to improve society is not through the 'deterrence', 'retribution', etc. that criminal law espouses but instead through a thorough analysis of the deficiencies of the criminal system not in regards to how it treats criminals, but with an eye toward what that means about we treat citizens both inside and outside of it.

-- BetreGizaw - 28 Feb 2008

I'm not sure, but it seems like the source of the quote might be a 1940 Yale Law Journal article by Morris Cohen (, who, interestingly enough, is the father of our very own Felix Cohen. A google search for the quote, as written, yielded no results (except for one quoting this part of Lawyerland), but the Cohen article has the similar quote, "The criminal law represents the pathology of civilization." This is the first line of a paragraph that ends a 24 page article, "Moral Aspects of the Criminal Law," 49 YLJ 987 (1940). The paragraph goes on:

"But just as the study of animal pathology has illumined normal physiology, and has been helpful in physical hygiene, or just as the study of insanity has thrown light on mental processes and has been at times somewhat helpful in mental hygiene, so the study of criminality may illumine normal human motives and be helpful in bringing about just humane social relations. The necessary conditions for this study, however, is the most rigorous, intellectual integrity, the concentration on seeing the facts as they are, regardless of natural sentimental predilections. We must learn to live in an imperfect world, though we dare not relax the effort to make it better."

Robinson is certainly interested in investigating the phenomenon of the criminal law as a pathology in order to "try[] to figure civilization out." But I'm not sure he's approaching it from the standpoint of Morris Cohen, an academic. I will admit not having read the whole article. But judging from his thesis, Morris Cohen is not railing against the system, but critiquing it from the inside, with a functionalist focus on what the law "should *do*":

"By a consideration of some of the ethical problems of the criminal law, I wish to illustrate the truth that the procedure from principles to facts and from facts to principles, without assuming either to be absolute or unquestionable, does not at all lead to complete moral nihilism, but rather clarifies the process of building a systematic view of what the law should do, even though it tolerates a certain amount of probabilism and pluralism in taking into account the wide variations of social conditions and sentiments."

-- MichaelBerkovits - 28 Feb 2008

"A real lawyer knows how to take care of a legal problem" Like many of Robinson's quotes, this seems to have a double meaning--I believe that Robinson is likely referencing how to take care of a problem with the legal system (which he seems to believe there are many), rather than simply a legal issue. In the example of the Fujianese/ Serbian client, Robinson identifies a legal problem--that his client is being indicted for every crime under the sun because he happens to break into an Assistant US Attorney's apartment and the D.A. who is handling the case happens to run in the same social circles with the judge. Robinson recognizes that the "legal problem" of being charged much more harshly because of who he chose to offend so he "takes care of it" (successfully) by threatening to cause an uproar regarding the conflict of interest between the judge and the D.A. and the D.A.'s witness.

Is this the interpretation that others had when reading the article? If so, how can we train ourselves to take care of legal problems? Robinson clearly has a good read on people and understands their motivations (often a concern over their image or reputation). Are these types of skills that we can learn?

-- LaurenRosenberg - 17 Feb 2009

I do agree that Robinson is not just talking about solving a legal issue when he talks about “taking care of a legal problem.” He seems to be talking about working with the legal system, and maybe even manipulating the system. Just adding on Lauren, I thought it was interesting to see that Robinson presents the same questions we asked repeatedly in class. Does the judge make an arbitrary decision that he just covers up with logic later? Here, the judge’s decision seems pretty arbitrary. When Robinson says he can “take care of a legal problem,” maybe he is saying that it is a lawyer’s job to merely predict how the judge would decide? Also, is Robinson merely predicting the judge's decision or actually influencing the judge's decision? His skill to read people and him discreetly threatening the judge do seem to influence the judge’s decision. But, you can also think that he is just predicting that the judge will rule that way at a given circumstance (even though the circumstance is changed a little by Robinson)… Answering Lauren’s question, I personally think that it is possible to improve certain skills like reading people by practice and experience…

-- EstherKwak - 17 Feb 2009



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r11 - 07 Jan 2010 - 23:00:02 - IanSullivan
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