Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Mitchell on Felix Cohen and the Founding of American Legal Pluralism

This is a great year for legal history books. I will try to catch up on new books in the next week or so. If you are an author or publisher, feel free to let me know about yours!

ARCHITECT OF JUSTICE: Felix S. Cohen and the Founding of American Legal Pluralism by Dalia Tsuk Mitchell, George Washington University, has just been published by Cornell University Press. Here's the press description and blurbs:
A major figure in American legal history during the first half of the twentieth century, Felix Solomon Cohen (1907–1953) is best known for his realist view of the law and his efforts to grant Native Americans more control over their own cultural, political, and economic affairs. A second-generation Jewish American, Cohen was born in Manhattan, where he attended the College of the City of New York before receiving a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University and a law degree from Columbia University. Between 1933 and 1948 he served in the Solicitor's Office of the Department of the Interior, where he made lasting contributions to federal Indian law, drafting the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946, and, as head of the Indian Law Survey, authoring The Handbook of Federal Indian Law (1941), which promoted the protection of tribal rights and continues to serve as the basis for developments in federal Indian law.
In Architect of Justice, Dalia Tsuk Mitchell provides the first intellectual biography of Cohen, whose career and legal philosophy she depicts as being inextricably bound to debates about the place of political, social, and cultural groups within American democracy. Cohen was, she finds, deeply influenced by his own experiences as a Jewish American and discussions within the Jewish community about assimilation and cultural pluralism as well the persecution of European Jews before and during World War II.
Dalia Tsuk Mitchell uses Cohen's scholarship and legal work to construct a history of legal pluralism—a tradition in American legal and political thought that has immense relevance to contemporary debates and that has never been examined before. She traces the many ways in which legal pluralism informed New Deal policymaking and demonstrates the importance of Cohen's work on behalf of Native Americans in this context, thus bringing federal Indian law from the margins of American legal history to its center. By following the development of legal pluralism in Cohen's writings, Architect of Justice demonstrates a largely unrecognized continuity in American legal thought between the Progressive Era and ongoing debates about multiculturalism and minority rights today. A landmark work in American legal history, this biography also makes clear the major contribution Felix S. Cohen made to America's legal and political landscape through his scholarship and his service to the American government.

Reviews:
“Outside a small circle of lawyers and legal scholars, Felix Cohen is virtually unknown. This ought to change and will after Dalia Tsuk Mitchell's masterful book. Cohen was a major figure among legal and political scholars in the first half of the twentieth century. Mitchell does a superb job of recovering his legacy, which has direct implications for some of the most urgent questions in political and legal theory today. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in legal and political theory.”—Gregory S. Alexander, A. Robert Noll Professor of Law, Cornell Law School, Cornell University
“A brilliant student of philosophy, a skeptic about the utility of legal rules, and a Socialist who nonetheless was a firm believer in the American democratic faith, Felix S. Cohen came into the federal government in the early New Deal for short-term service in the Department of the Interior. He ended up spending fifteen years in the service of justice for American Indian tribes in this most unlikely of settings-the federal department oriented toward controlling tribes rather than allowing them self-determination. Architect of Justice, the first comprehensive study of Cohen, is a major achievement along several dimensions. It is a thoughtful intellectual history of one of law's most intelligent and intriguing thinkers-a pillar of the legal realism movement whose scholarship is still important today. It is also a case study in how a brilliant man trained in legal theory attempted to put his ideas into action to promote justice for American Indians, Jews seeking to escape Nazi horror, and other subordinated people. And it is also an incredibly rich analysis of how Cohen took the amorphous treaties, statutes, historical (mis)understandings, and the like that involved federal relations with Indian tribes and literally constructed a new, coherent field of law, federal Indian law. Students of law, federal-tribal relations, New Deal history, and American political theory will find much to learn in these pages.”—Philip P. Frickey, Alexander F. and May T. Morrison Professor of Law, Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California at Berkeley
“Dalia Tsuk Mitchell's brilliant intellectual biography shows how Felix S. Cohen's commitment to pluralism linked his seminal contributions to legal realism and federal Indian law. Cohen's philosophical, ethical, political, and legal theories enabled him to systematize and reimagine federal Indian law in a manner that respected tribal sovereignty and culture. This biography is not only a gripping story but also reveals surprising truths about the vast legal, political, and philosophical changes experienced during the middle years of the twentieth century.”—Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard Law School, Harvard University
“Architect of Justice is a masterful intellectual biography full of discoveries and keen analysis illuminating many of the most intractable problems of today. The book will be a must-read for many people, and a delight for many more.”—Aviam Soifer, Dean and Professor, William S. Richardson School of Law, University of Hawai'i
"Felix S. Cohen's life and work were dedicated to theorizing how group rights - especially those of Native Americans - should be protected. Cohen's achievements included not only his work on behalf of Indian tribes but also his arguments for justice in all corners of society and for all peoples. Dalia Tsuk Mitchell's ability to bring this extraordinary commitment to justice to life is an enormous contribution to our understanding of progressive thought in the middle decades of the twentieth century."—Sarah Barringer Gordon, Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania

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