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FW: Rust on Freyer and Dixon, _Democracy and Judicial Independenc e_ [Fed. courts in Alabama]

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  • A.J. Wright
    In cleaning out some really OLD email, I came across this bk rev that may be of interest to some subscribers...aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu ... From: H-Net
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 6, 2002
      In cleaning out some really OLD email, I came across this bk rev that may be
      of interest to some subscribers...aj wright // ajwright@...

      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-Net Review Project [mailto:books@...]
      Sent: Wednesday, February 12, 1997 8:11 AM
      To: A.J. Wright
      Subject: Rust on Freyer and Dixon, _Democracy and Judicial Independence_

      ----------------------------Original message----------------------------
      Published by H-Law@... (September, 1996)

      Tony Freyer and Timothy Dixon, _Democracy and Judicial Independence:
      A History of the Federal Courts of Alabama, 1820-1994_. Brooklyn,
      N.Y.: Carlson Publishing,Inc., 1995. xiii + 384 pp.
      Bibliographical references and index. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN

      Reviewed for H-Law by Barbara Rust, National Archives, Southwest
      Region, Ft. Worth, Texas <barbara.rust@...>

      Following Alabama's entrance into the Union in 1819, Congress
      created one federal judicial district for the state and provided for
      the United States District Court to exercise both district and
      circuit court powers. The court met alternately at Mobile and
      Cahawba until Cahawba was abandoned as a court site six years later.
      By 1824 the federal court's workload had increased to the point that
      two districts, Southern and Northern, were established. The
      Northern District met at Huntsville while the Southern eventually
      settled at Mobile. A third federal judicial district, the Middle
      District with court sessions at Tucaloosa, was added in 1839. The
      headquarters for the Middle District were later moved to Montgomery,
      where they remain today.

      Early Alabama federal courts wrestled with several important issues.
      The courts had to define the relationships between the national and
      state governments, particularly in sectional controversies over
      slavery. Other concerns involved determining legal sources to be
      used in federal courts. During the antebellum period, federal law
      was not as voluminous as it would become after the Civil War or,
      certainly, as in the twentieth century. Were early federal courts
      to use state laws, the limited amount of federal law, legal
      precedents, constitutional interpretations, general democratic
      principles, or all of the above?

      The period between the end of the Civil War and the eve of World War
      II brought changes for the Alabama federal courts, as it did for the
      federal judiciary throughout the nation. Although civil rights for
      freedmen would eventually be eroded by the Compromise of 1877 and
      southern states' Black Codes, state sovereignty also took a beating
      from the expansion of national law as a source for federal courts.
      Economic and demographic realignments within Alabama, combined with
      diversity of citizenship lawsuits and the creation in 1891 of a
      federal court of appeals leading to a more structured federal
      judiciary, accelerated changes within the Alabama federal judiciary.
      At the turn of the century, the progressive mood of Congress greatly
      expanded federal law by regulating railroads, enacting food and drug
      requirements, establishing farm credit programs, regulating large
      corporations through antitrust measures, and controlling currency
      through the Federal Reserve system.

      Alabama federal courts continued to change following the end of
      World War II. While cases involving diversity of citizenship and
      removals from state courts declined, the numbers of cases involving
      federal laws or appeals of administrative decisions by federal
      agencies increased. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting
      Rights Act further added to the cases brought before the federal
      bench. Procedural changes began to centralize and standardize many
      federal court processes. The Justice Department's administrative
      role over federal courts was transferred to the Administrative
      Office of the Courts, created by the Administrative Office Act of
      1939, and to the Judicial Conference, composed of representatives
      from U.S. Courts of Appeal, court clerks, and federal judges. The
      Federal Judicial Center, which provides assistance to the federal
      bench, was established in 1967. External institutional factors
      diminished the roles played by local attorneys in their relations
      with the Alabama federal bench. Some federal judges, however,
      resisted the standardization being imposed on the Alabama courts by
      national organizations.

      In discussing the changes that occurred within the Alabama federal
      judiciary over 170 years, Tony Freyer, who wrote the narrative,
      makes some insightful and interesting points. The analyses of
      factors influencing selection decisions for new federal judges
      within the state is particularly strong. External economic issues
      at both the national and state level helped to determine who would
      be appointed a new federal judge. Political party affiliation, over
      time, would prove to be less important than whether the judicial
      nominee belonged to the state's social and economic elite.
      Sectionalism, particularly during the antebellum period, was another
      factor in not only who would be chosen to sit on the federal court,
      but in how the judge would decide in slave cases brought before the
      courts. Following the Civil War, national law grew as a result of
      federal bankruptcy laws and expanded federal criminal jurisdiction,
      and Alabama's federal judges began to focus more on federal
      precedents and statutes for guidance. Nominees for the federal bench
      reflected the changes occurring within the federal judiciary as it
      moved from the more localized legal culture found within Alabama to
      a more national view.

      The book, however, suffers from inadequate analysis of changes
      occurring in the three Alabama federal districts and the resulting
      case loads of the district courts. As economic conditions during
      the antebellum period shifted between the northern and southern
      portions of the state, did the case load and types of cases in the
      northern and southern federal districts reflect the differences?
      Freyer states that "In Alabama as in the other [southern] states, it
      was the circuit rather than the district court dockets that were
      congested ...," but he offers no comparisons or examples. Early in
      the book, he indicates that the number of law and equity (chancery)
      orders had increased from a total of 23 in 1828 to 1,557 law orders
      and 27 chancery orders in 1846 with an average of 117 motions being
      filed annually. While motions and orders indicate levels of court
      activity, they are not as reliable measures of increased case loads
      as determining the numbers of new cases being filed each year. To
      conduct this level of analysis in nineteenth-century court records,
      a researcher would achieve better results by sampling the case
      documents with their filing dates stamped on endorsement backs of
      petitions, orders, and so forth than by using rather incomplete
      docket books. Unlike some southern federal courts, antebellum case
      files from the three Alabama districts do exist and can be sampled
      to determine whether the case load in 1828 had increased
      dramatically by 1846 and any variances in cases heard by the three
      Alabama federal districts. As a result of the increasing
      standardization found in federal courts during the twentieth
      century, a court's dockets provide excellent summaries about cases,
      because they indicate when the initial petition, complaint, or
      indictment was filed and when subsequent documents were filed.
      Twentieth-century dockets also indicate if a case was appealed to
      one of the United States Courts of Appeals.

      It would also have been interesting to see what issues were confronting
      the Alabama federal bench during the early days of statehood in comparison
      to other periods of Alabama?s history. While the _Federal Reporter_
      report all United States Courts of Appeals cases, the courts of appeals
      were not created until 1891. Prior to their creation, appeals from
      federal district courts went to circuit courts, which also had extensive
      original jurisdiction, particularly in equity (chancery) matters. Only a
      small percentage of district and circuit court cases were ever reported to
      the _Federal Supplement_ and _Federal Reporter_, respectively.

      Freyer mentions attempts by Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., to enforce
      the _Brown v. Board of Education_ ruling, but cites only the
      Montgomery boycott decision. Were there other decisions by Johnson
      in desegregation matters? Was Johnson consistent in his rulings?
      While the Montgomery boycott was, perhaps, the most newsworthy, gems
      that reflect a judge's attitude can be found among cases that never
      get reported. In a court case from the Western District of Arkansas
      during the _Brown_ period, a federal judge reminded the NAACP that
      he did not require the services of "outsiders" to determine
      constitutionality. The Supreme Court's decision in _Brown_ was
      issued during the Arkansas case and provided guidance to the U.S.
      district court judge, who ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The
      case became insignificant as to constitutional issues, but provided
      insights into the mind of a federal judge sitting on a school
      desegration case. There is no substitute for viewing a federal
      court's case files, dockets, and record books for obtaining a
      clearer view of how a court ruled and what it faced on an annual
      basis. Thousands of feet of records from the three Alabama federal
      districts, fortunately, are extant and can provide researchers with
      raw data to conduct analyses of federal cases and anecdotal, but not
      reported, information about the judges who sit on the Alabama bench.

      Copyright (c) 1996 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may
      be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given
      to the author and the list. For other permission, please
      contact <H-Net@...>.
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