Category Archives: Legal History

NYC Landmarks Law at 50

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Landmarks Law of New York City, which was enacted on April 19, 1965 when Mayor Robert F. Wagner signed it beginning an era of historic preservation. Since then, almost 1,400 individual landmarks, 115 interior landmarks, 10 scenic landmarks, 109 historic districts, and 10 historic district extensions located throughout all five boroughs have been designated. The Landmarks Law established the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the mayoral agency responsible for identifying, designating, preserving, and regulating New York City’s architecturally, historically, and culturally significant buildings and sites. The Landmarks Law is found in Chapter 74 of the New York City Charter.

On Wednesday, October 21 at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court on Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn, a panel of land use experts in a session called Preserving our Architectural History: The Business Case for Landmarks Preservation will discuss the economic impact of historic preservation in New York City. Another event marking the anniversary of the Landmarks Law is scheduled on  Monday, October 26, 2015 at the New York City Bar Association. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design will host History in the Making: The New York City Landmarks Law at 50, a full-day conference at the Bar Association offices at 42 West 44th Street, New York, NY.

landmarkOn the subject of historic sites, the Brooklyn Law School Library has in its collection Landmarks Preservation and the Property Tax: Assessing Landmark Buildings for Real for Real Taxation Purposes by David Lisotkin (Call #KF6535 .L58 2012). The book examines the growing importance of historic preservation. Communities across the country have established designation programs whereby individual buildings or districts of historical-architectural significance are accorded landmark status. It focuses on New York City in considering the effects of historic status on property value and in evaluating assessment practices. Its findings are transferrable to other communities because the base conditions are similar. Many other cities have designation programs modeled on New York City’s. In addition, New York’s property-tax system and administrative processes resemble those found in communities across the nation. To enhance the transferability of this study’s findings, Listokin refers to the national experience and literature, typically on a side-by-side basis with the New York City counterpart.

Episode 095 – Conversation with Prof. Lawrence Fleischer

Episode 095 – Conversation with Prof. Lawrence Fleischer.mp3

In this podcast, Brooklyn Law School Adjunct Professor Lawrence Fleischer talks about his Criminal Law, Procedure, Evidence and Film Lore Workshop, which he has been teaching for the past five years, initially with the late Professor Robert Pitler and now by himself. In the first part of the interview, Prof. Fleischer relates how the workshop uses movies to teach criminal trial evidence by requiring students to view legal films and give presentations to address current criminal law related matters. Prof. Fleischer, who serves of counsel to the New York law firm of Gotlin & Jaffe, received his B.A. in History Summa Cum Laude from City College of the City University of New York, a Juris Doctorate from American University School of Law, and an LL. M degree from New York University Law School. In addition to teaching at BLS, he teaches at City College of New York and has taught in the CCNY Political Science department, NYU’s School of Continuing Education, Hunter College’s Graduate History department, Brooklyn College’s Graduate department of Political Science, and Seton Hall’s School of Law. In the second part of the conversation, Prof. Fleischer discusses his use in his course of the case of Maria Barbella a/k/a Maria Barberi, the first woman sentenced to die in the electric chair in the US and of the Italian-American countess who came to her aid. The story is told in The Trials of Maria Barbella: The True Story of a 19th Century Crime of Passion by Idanna Pucci (Call #HV6053 .P83 1996) discussed in this site’s most recent blog available at this link.

Ending the Death Penalty

On June 29, 2015, the final day of its 2014 term, the US Supreme Court ruled in Glossip v. Gross. The Court, in a 5-4 opinion by Justice Alito, ruled that death-row inmates had failed to establish a likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the use of midazolam, a sedative in Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol, violates the Eighth Amendment because it fails to render a person insensate to pain. Today, Glossip is scheduled to die by the controversial method that the Court greenlighted this summer unless there is a stay of execution. The case is likely not the final word on the death penalty. Justice Scalia this week Scalia told students at a Memphis college that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional citing Justice Breyer’s dissent that it is time to consider whether the Eighth Amendment bars capital punishment in all cases.

Breyer is not the first Supreme Court justice to invite constitutional debate about the death penalty. Several justices in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 US 153 (1976) bringing back the death penalty later came to reject it. Justice Powell told his biographer that the death penalty should be abolished. Justice Blackmun, wrote in 1994 that he would no longer “tinker with the machinery of death.” In 2008, Justice Stevens wrote that his review of hundreds of cases had persuaded him that the penalty is both profoundly unworkable and unconstitutional. Justice Breyer in his dissent in Glossip argued that the death penalty is unreliable and arbitrary in application citing the long delays that undermine its purpose, convinced that we have executed the innocent. In Rudolph v. Alabama, 375 U.S. 889, (1963), Justice Goldberg’s dissent also suggested that capital punishment might violate the Eighth Amendment. That dissent prompted statewide moratoriums and encouraged cases to be brought to the Court challenging the constitutionality of capital statutes. A decade later, the Court struck them all down in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972). Perhaps, in the wake of Glossip, we are about to travel down that path once again.

BarbellaOn the subject of capital punishment, Brooklyn Law School Library has The Trials of Maria Barbella: The True Story of a 19th Century Crime of Passion by Idanna Pucci (Call #HV6053 .P83 1996). This book illustrates the debate over the death penalty in the late 19th Century in the story of the trial of Maria Barbella for the murder of Domenico Cataldo in New York City on April 26, 1895. Maria and her family immigrated to New York in 1892. She met and became friendly with Cataldo, also from the same region of Italy. One day Cataldo took her to a boarding house, drugged her with the drink he bought her, and took advantage of her. With strong morals about intimacy and marriage, Maria said that they would have to get married. He promised they would marry in several months, even though he was already married to a woman in Italy, with whom he had children. Later Cataldo told Maria that he was going back to Italy and would not marry her. When Maria and her mother confronted him and insisted he marry Maria he said the only way he would do that was if they paid him $200. As the mother stormed away, Maria asked, one last time, whether she would be his wife. When he replied that “Only a pig would marry you“, she drew out her razor and killed him by cutting his throat.

Thus began the saga of Maria Barbella, who shortly became the first woman sentenced to die in the electric chair. She was arrested and put in the New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention (otherwise known as “The Tombs”) for more than two months. Her trial began on July 11. Maria was unable to speak or understand English. She admitted everything: how she slit his throat and how he ran after her, unable to reach her and dropped dead. The jury showed sympathy for her case; but trial Judge John W. Goff asked the jury not to have mercy on Maria. He said, “Your verdict must be an example of justice. A jury must not concern itself with mercy. The law does not distinguish between the sexes. The fragility of the female sex is sometimes involved to excuse savage crimes. We cannot publicly proclaim a woman not guilty of killing a man solely because this man has proposed marriage and then changed his mind!” The jury declared her guilty. On July 18, 1895, Judge Goff sentenced her to “execution by electricity” and sent her to Sing Sing Prison, the first female convict held there in 18 years and the first one on death row.

The case stirred up controversy in the Italian community which felt that the verdict was unjust with no Italians on the jury. Many complained to the Governor about how the trial was handled. On April 21, 1896, the Court of Appeals of New York in People v Barberi, 149 N.Y. 256 (also available on Westlaw Next at this link) ruled that the judgment of conviction should be reversed and a new trial granted. In the second trial at the criminal branch of the New York Supreme Court, she was said to be epileptic and mentally ill because of everything that had happened. She was found not guilty.

“Happy Birthday To You” in Public Domain

A US District Court judge in Los Angeles has issued a 41 page ruling that will hopefully end copyright claims to “Happy Birthday to You” perhaps the most recognized song in the English language. Chief U.S. District Judge George King ruled that the publishers Warner/Chappell Music’s claim to own the copyright to “Happy Birthday” is “implausible and unreasonable.” After an announcement of a documentary about the Happy Birthday song. Warner/Chappell demanded a $1,500 licensing fee, which the company making the film agreed to pay. When Warner/Chappell sent a second letter, warning it could claim a $150,000 statutory penalty for copyright infringement, Good Morning to You Productions, the company making the documentary, filed suit in the US District Court for the Central District of California against Warner/Chappell which has collected millions of dollars in licensing fees for “Happy Birthday to You” although the song has been in the public domain for decades.

Happy BirthdayThe opinion provides a history of the tune from before 1893, when sisters Mildred and Patty Hill wrote words and music for 73 songs, composed or arranged by Mildred, with words by Patty. They sold or assigned their rights to Clayton F. Summy on Feb. 1, 1893, for 10 percent of retail sales. The songs included “Good Morning to All.” It had the same tune but different words from Happy Birthday. Summy published a songbook that year under the title “Song Stories for the Kindergarten,” and filed a copyright application on Oct. 16, 1893, in which he claimed to own the copyright, but not to be the author. His copyright expired in the 1920s and he did not immediately renew it. A reconstituted company, the Hill Foundation, applied for a new copyright on it in 1934, and a number of lawsuits followed. By then, a number of other companies claimed to own the copyright, including the Board of Sunday Schools of the Methodist Episcopal Church (1912), and the Gospel Trumpet Co. (1928). The opinion states:

The Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody, and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics. Defendants’ speculation that the pleadings in the Hill-Summy lawsuit somehow show that the Second Agreement involved a transfer of rights in the lyrics is implausible and unreasonable.

The summary judgment record shows that there are triable issues of fact as to whether Patty wrote the Happy Birthday lyrics in the late Nineteenth Century and whether Mildred may have shared an interest in them as a co-author. Even assuming this is so, neither Patty nor Mildred nor Jessica ever did anything with their common law rights in the lyrics. For decades, with the possible exception of the publication of The Everyday Song Book in 1922, the Hill sisters did not authorize any publication of the lyrics. They did not try to obtain federal copyright protection. They did not take legal action to prevent the use of the lyrics by others, even as Happy Birthday became very popular and commercially valuable. In 1934, four decades after Patty supposedly wrote the song, they finally asserted their rights to the Happy Birthday/Good Morning melody – but still made no claim to the lyrics.

Defendants ask us to find that the Hill sisters eventually gave Summy Co. the rights in the lyrics to exploit and protect, but this assertion has no support in the record. The Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody, and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics. Defendants’ speculation that the pleadings in the Hill-Summy lawsuit somehow show that the Second Agreement involved a transfer of rights in the lyrics is implausible and unreasonable. Defendants’ suggestion that the Third Agreement effected such a transfer is circular and fares no better. As far as the record is concerned, even if the Hill sisters still held common law rights by the time of the Second or Third Agreement, they did not give those rights to Summy Co.

In light of the foregoing, Defendants’ Motion is DENIED and Plaintiffs’ Motion is GRANTED as set forth above. Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, Defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics.

CopyrightsThe Brooklyn Law School Library has a wealth of material on the subject of copyright often called a “limited monopoly.” When copyrights grow old and die, the works they protect fall into the public domain. Subject to certain exceptions, public domain works may be freely copied or used in the creation of derivative works without permission, or authorization, of the former copyright owners. One book in the BLS Library collection on copyright and the public domain is  Without Copyrights: Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain by Robert Spoo (Call #KF2994 .S656 2013). The book tells the story of  Samuel Roth who made a name–and a profit–for himself by publishing selections from foreign writings–especially the risqué parts–without permission. When he reprinted segments of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, the author took him to court. The story shows that clashes between authors, publishers, and literary “pirates” influenced both American copyright law and literature itself. From its inception in 1790, American copyright law offered no or less-than-perfect protection for works published abroad–to the fury of Charles Dickens, among others, who sometimes received no money from vast sales in the United States. American publishers avoided ruinous competition with each other through “courtesy of the trade,” a code of etiquette that gave informal, exclusive rights to the first house to announce plans to issue an uncopyrighted foreign work. The climate of trade courtesy, lawful piracy, and the burdensome rules of American copyright law profoundly affected transatlantic writers in the twentieth century. Drawing on previously unknown legal archives, Robert Spoo recounts efforts by James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Bennett Cerf–the founder of Random House–and others to crush piracy, reform U.S. copyright law, and define the public domain.

Constitution Day 2015

This year, on Constitution Day, Brooklyn Law School will host a special symposium discussing the impact of the Magna Carta on the development of the Constitution. The U.S Constitution, in turn, has become perhaps the most influential legal document. Since its adoption on September 17, 1787, more than one hundred countries have used it as a model for their own constitutions. It is one of the world’s oldest surviving constitutions. The Constitution’s basic tenets have remained virtually unchanged since its inception. People quarrel over its interpretation, but they never question the wisdom of its underlying principles.

The Constitutional Convention proposed a new Constitution establishing a much stronger national government. Although this controversial new constitution provided a great deal of resistance, it was eventually ratified by the necessary number of states, replacing the Articles of Confederation as the framework of the United States government. Some fascinating facts about the U.S. Constitution

  • The U.S. Constitution has 4,400 words. It is the oldest and shortest written Constitution of any major government in the world.
  • James Madison, “the father of the Constitution,” was the first to arrive in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention. He arrived in February, three months before the convention began, bearing the blueprint for the new Constitution.
  • Patrick Henry was elected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, but declined, because he “smelt a rat.”
  • Because of his poor health, Benjamin Franklin needed help to sign the Constitution. As he did so, tears streamed down his face.
  • The oldest person to sign the Constitution was Benjamin Franklin (81). The youngest was Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey (26).

For mConstitutionore on the U.S. Constitution, see the BLS Library copy of The U.S. Constitution A to Z, 2nd Edition by Robert L. Maddex (Call # KF4548 .M33 2008). The book clearly and concisely explains every key aspect of the U.S. Constitution. This classic, easy-to-use reference is thoroughly updated with new entries covering the events of recent years including court cases with impact on Constitutional rights. Each of the more than 250 entries, arranged in encyclopedic A-to-Z format, provides accessible insight into the key questions readers have about the U.S. Constitution.

Magna Carta: 1215-2015

Brooklyn Law School will host a traveling exhibit commemorating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta September 14th to 28th. The exhibit will be open to the public on the first floor of Brooklyn Law School, 250 Joralemon Street from September 14th to 19th. Public viewing hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. The exhibit will then move to Brooklyn Borough Hall, where it will be open to the public from September 21st to 28th. Sponsored by the ABA Standing Committee on the Law Library of Congress, the exhibit, Magna Carta: Enduring Legacy 1215-2015, features 16 banners, 13 of which reflect spectacular images of Magna Carta and precious manuscripts, books and other documents from the Library of Congress’s rare book collections. The exhibit features a video by the Library of Congress, showing the Law Librarian and the exhibit curator handling the materials and explaining their significance.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the Law School will hold a special day-long symposium From Runnymede to Philadelphia to Cyberspace: The Enduring Legacy of Magna Carta on September 17. The symposium is a global gathering of renowned legal scholars, authors, artists, historians, public officials, librarians, and archivists from around the world who will explore the continuing impact of this seminal document on U.S. law, civil rights and liberties, art, the role of libraries and archives in the Digital Age, and law and order in Cyberspace. BLS Library Director and Associate Professor Janet Sinder will serve as moderator of a morning panel called Secrets of the Archives: Why We Preserve Documents in the Digital Age. Professor Sinder is one of a several BLS faculty members taking part in the event. For the full program of events, click here.

In advance of the exhibit, BLS Library Associate Librarian Linda Holmes has put together a presentation in the book display case on the first floor of the library with items from the library collection. The titles in the display are:


        • Magna Carta: The Foundation of Freedom 1215-2015 by Nicholas Vincent and others (Call # KD3946 .V56 2015). Contents are: Magna Carta in Context: a general survey from 1215 to the present day; Law Before Magna Carta: the Anglo-Saxon law codes and their successors before 1215; Plantagenet Tyranny and Lawmaking; The Tyranny of King John; Magna Carta: Defeat into Victory; Magna Carta in the Later Middle Ages; Magna Carta against the King; Magna Carta and the American Age of Reason; Magna Carta in the 19th Century; From World War to World Heritage: Magna Carta in the 20th Century; and 21st-Century Magna Carta


  • Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy edited by Claire Breay and Julian Harrison (Call # KD3946 .M345 2015). Contents are: Kingship and crisis; Runnymede and the granting of Magna Carta; Revival and survival; English liberties; Colonies and revolutions; Radicalism and reform; Empire and after; Magna Carta in the modern age; the text of Magna Carta 1215.


rule of law

  • Magna Carta and the Rule of Law edited by Daniel Barstow Magraw and others (Call # KD3946 .M33 2014). The book is a comprehensive and insightful new book from the American Bar Association that takes a fresh look at Magna Carta and its impacts on various issues and the rule of law in light of contemporary legal concerns. It includes an examination of the following aspects of Magna Carta; historical background, importance to constitutionalism and the rule of law, impact on the United States Constitution, executive power, role as a foundation for women’s rights and individual rights (such as habeas corpus), relevance to international law, and much more.



  • Magna Carta Uncovered by Anthony Arlidge and Igor Judge (Call # KD3946 .A75 2014). The authors (Aldridge, a Queen’s Counsel for more than 30 years who in 1990 argued a case on the meaning of clause 40 of Magna Carta, and Judge, a retired Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales) of this 238 page history provide a detailed explanation of the Magna Carta and its place in English (and subsequently American) law.


Women’s Equality Day and the XIX Amendment

Amendment XIX of the United States Constitution, which reads “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” was proposed to the legislatures of the several States by the Sixty-sixth Congress, on June 4, 1919. It was declared, in a proclamation of the Secretary of State, dated August 26, 1920, to have been ratified by the legislatures of 36 of the 48 States. The front page story in the New York Times noted the lack of fanfare for the historic event as none of the leaders of the woman suffrage movement were present when the proclamation was signed, and no photographers or film cameras recorded the event. Secretary Colby, wanting to avoid any public scene at the signing stemming from the rivalry between suffragists Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt, told reporters that “effectuating suffrage through proclamation of its ratification by the necessary thirty-six States was more important than feeding the movie cameras.”

It was the State of Tennessee’s vote that provided the three-fourths of the states needed to ratify the amendment when Harry T. Burn, a 24-year-old legislator, switched his vote on the Tennessee state house floor at the urging of his mother. But the State of New York played a prominent role in the women’s suffrage movement: it was in Seneca Fall, NY where the first Women’s Rights Convention was held July 19 to 20, 1848. On November 6, 1917, the men of New York approved a constitutional amendment allowing women the right to vote, after a defeat of such a measure two years earlier in 1915, and three years before the final ratification of the 19th Amendment.

In 1971, New York Representative Bella Abzug supported a Joint Resolution in the U.S. Congress designating August 26 as “Women’s Equality Day” stating that “the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of that day in 1920, on which the women of America were first given the right to vote.” On August 24, the President issued this year’s Proclamation.

StantonFor historical reading on the subject of women’s suffrage, see the Brooklyn Law School Library e-book called The Trial of Susan B. Anthony: An Illegal Vote, a Courtroom Conviction and a Step toward Women’s Suffrage by Martin Naparsteck. It tells how, following a public argument with her friend Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony altered her strategy of seeking a broad range of rights for women and blacks and focused exclusively on winning the vote for women. Defying state and federal law, she voted in the presidential election of 1872, and was arrested and tried in a case presided over by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ward Hunt, who directed the jury to deliver a guilty verdict. Fined $100, Anthony defiantly told the judge she would never pay–and never did. This is the story of the landmark trial that attracted worldwide attention and made Anthony into the iconic leader of the women’s rights movement.

Eighty Year Anniversary of the Social Security Act

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the signing into law of the Social Security Act by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his Statement Upon Signing the Social Security Bill on August 14, 1935, FDR said: “Today, a hope of many years standing is in large part fulfilled…We have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age.”

The act survived a series of constitutional challenges to become a linchpin of retirement planning. Three Social Security cases made their way to the Supreme Court during its October 1936 term. One case, Helvering vs. Davis, 301 U.S. 619 (1937), challenged the old-age insurance program. The two others, Steward Machine Company vs. Davis, 301 U.S. 548 (1937) and Carmichael vs. Southern Coal & Coke Co., 301 U.S. 495 (1937), challenged the unemployment compensation program of the Social Security Act. The Court issued rulings on all three on the same day, May 24, 1937.

In 1965, thirty years after passage of the Social Security Act, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Social Security Act Amendments, popularly known as Medicare, a national health insurance program for the elderly. Companion legislation created Medicaid, providing health care for people on welfare. Later, Medicaid was broadened into a more comprehensive program financing health care for low-income persons. Today, Social Security retirement benefits currently average $1,335 per month. The average disabled worker and aged widow or widower receives slightly less. For 65 percent of elderly beneficiaries, these benefits provide the majority of their cash income. For 36 percent of them, the benefits provide 90 percent or more of their income. For 24 percent of them, it is the sole source of income. This leaves little room for cuts for beneficiaries.

The Brooklyn Law School Library has a wide range of practice materials related to the Social Security Act including The Social Security Act Sourcebook by ABA Publishing (Call # KF3644.581935 .A2 2013) in the Main Collection and the 6th edition of Social Security Claims and Procedures by Harvey L. McCormick (Call # KF3649 .M272 2009) on Reserve at the Circulation Desk.

Understanding SSAAdditionally, the BLS Library has in its collection Understanding the Social Security Act: The Foundation of Social Welfare for America in the Twenty-First Century by Andrew Dobelstein (Call # KF3649 .D63 2009). With so many social welfare policy experts failing to grasp the sheer size and intricacy of the Social Security Act, this book takes readers step by step to provide the kind of comprehensive view of the U.S. social welfare system that is essential for any would-be reformers to master. Since being signed into law in 1935, the Social Security Act has institutionalized the country’s social welfare undertakings into a massive package administered by a sprawling federal agency and state-level organizations that must implement its programs. This is the first complete guide to every entitlement authorized by the Social Security Act, drawing on the author’s 38 years of research, teaching, and community service to explain in accessible, straightforward writing the origins, development, and ins and outs of their practical administration. By showing how the United States’ unique social welfare philosophy is reflected by the Social Security Act, this book provides a foundation for examining how its social welfare programs are bonded into a major social welfare enterprise. Students and scholars of policy and government, as well as public servants, whose work involves the real-life implications of the Social Security Act, will find this sweeping yet detailed overview an indispensable aid.

Fifty Year Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 guaranteeing voting rights for black citizens. It was a huge step toward protecting the right to vote for all Americans. President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act began to address America’s long history of denying black Americans the right to vote. For 100 years, the 15th Amendment, which guarantees the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous conditional of servitude” was made useless by tactics like secret ballots, poll taxes, literacy tests and other practices that made it impossible for most blacks to vote. When these laws were in place, black voting plummeted throughout the south. According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, in Mississippi alone the percentage of black voting-age men who were registered to vote fell from 90% during the Reconstruction period after the 15th Amendment’s passage to about 6% in 1892. By 1940, only about 3% of eligible blacks in the south were registered to vote.

After decades of state and local officials acting to disenfranchise African Americans through the use of both legal and illegal tactics, there was little action from Congress. But the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, along with the reaction to the violence inflicted on voting-rights protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965, prompted federal legislators to respond. Together with other laws, the Voting Rights Act outlawed literacy tests and gave the U.S. Department of Justice authority to challenge the use of poll taxes in state and local elections. Passage of the 24th Amendment in 1964 already barred the use of poll taxes in national elections. Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act essentially restated the 15th Amendment, prohibiting any voting rules or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race or color. Amendments to the law in 1975 extended its protections to members of a language minority group, such as speakers of Spanish or Native American languages. Additional amendments in 1982 permitted citizens challenging voting regulations under Section 2 to prove only that, in the “totality of the circumstance of the local electoral process,” the rules abridge voting rights.

The original Voting Rights Act provided for special intervention in jurisdictions where racial discrimination is believed to be greatest. Under Section 5, those parts of the country identified by a formula established in Section 4 must obtain “pre-clearance” from the DOJ or the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia before making any changes to its voting laws. However, the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 2 (2013), struck down the Section 4 formula, leaving Section 5 intact but requiring legislators to redraw its coverage before further enforcement. Since then, several amendments have been proposed but Congress has not yet acted.

Now, fifty years later, the nation still faces restrictions on voting rights. Voting rights cases are taking place in North Carolina, and in Ohio and Wisconsin, where two other voting lawsuits ended only recently. And one day before the Voting Rights Act turned 50 years old, U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Veasey v. Abbott that the Texas voter ID law had a “discriminatory effect” that violates the federal law that prohibits racial discrimination. In the months and years ahead, the fate of the Voting Rights Act will be decided in Congress and in the courts. But its legacy as the singular triumph of the civil rights movement will remain strong.

Latinos and VRAThe Brooklyn Law School Library has many titles in its collection on the subject of the Voting Rights Act. The latest is Latinos and the Voting Rights Act: The Search for Racial Purpose by Henry Flores (Call # KFT1620.85.A6 F56 2015). It explores the role race and racism played in the Texas redistricting process and the creation and passage of the state’s Voter Identification Law in 2011. In addition to reviewing the redistricting history of the state, the book provides an analysis of court decisions concerning the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, the Voting Rights Act, and a thorough discussion of the Shelby County decision. Flores brings together scholarly research and the analysis of significant Supreme Court decisions focusing on race to discuss Texas’ election policy process. This is the first book that speaks specifically to the effects of electoral politics and Latinos. Flores concludes that the tense race relations between Anglos and Latinos in Texas affected both the redistricting process and the creation of the Voter ID Bill.

Independence Day Reading

Officially, the Continental Congress declared its freedom from Great Britain 239 years ago today on July 2, 1776, when it passed Lee’s Resolutions (“that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved”). Traditionally and pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 6103, Independence Day is observed on July 4, also known as “the Fourth of July” the date when Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence. If July 4 is a Saturday, as it is in 2015, the holiday is observed on Friday, July 3. If July 4 is a Sunday, it is observed on Monday, July 5.

In the enjoyment all of the Fourth of July sales, picnics, parades, fireworks, and ball games, it is easy to forget the real significance of the holiday. Reading the Brooklyn Law School Library ‘s copy of the 199 page e-book The Conscience of the Constitution: The Declaration of Independence and the Right to Liberty, published by the Cato Institute and written by Thomas Sandefur, provides a good reminder of that meaning. The book is part of a recent wave of conservative/libertarian scholarship that asks questions regarding original intent, the purpose of the Constitution, and how best to defend liberty. It challenges the status quo of constitutional law and argues a vital truth: our Constitution was written not to empower democracy, but to secure liberty. In fact, the word “democracy” does not occur in either the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Yet the overemphasis on democracy by today’s legal community – rather than the primacy of liberty, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence – has helped expand the scope of government power at the expense of individual rights. The author argues that now, more than ever, the Declaration of Independence should be the framework for interpreting our fundamental law.