Monday, October 31, 2016

ASLH Panel Report: Katherine Preyer Prize Panel

[We’re grateful to Professor Sarah Barringer Gordon, University of Pennsylvania, for the report of the Katherine Preyer Prize Panel which occurred on October 29, 2016, at the annual meeting of the American Society for Legal History in Toronto.]

The annual Katherine Preyer panel at the ASLH is designed to recognize and promote excellent scholarship by early career scholars in legal history, honoring the generosity and acumen of the late Kitty Preyer.  Each year, a committee reads submitted papers, and generally chooses two exemplary works.  The two authors, whose travel to and registration for the annual meeting are covered by the Preyer fund, present their work.  Two senior commentators in their respective fields comment.

This year, Catherine Evans (Harvard University) presented "Crime, Punishment, and the Indigenous Subject in Colonial Canada."  Her paper is a study of an extraordinary criminal case, which involved murder charges against three Cree men, who ranged in age from 85 to 18.  All were accused of the ritual killing of an elderly Cree woman, who was suspected of (and apparently believed herself to be) a wendigo, a cannibalistic spirit that occupied human hosts and brought ruin on native communities.  Colonial and imperial reactions to the murder, Evans argues, revealed the limits of settler sovereignty, in part because judges were required to cover vast swaths of territory.  Equally important, one judge in the case argued that none of the defendants, who admitted the killing but claimed it was justified in Cree culture, had the necessary mens rea to sustain a murder conviction.  The relationship between settler law and assumptions about civilization, native "savagery," and criminal law illustrate the limited success of Canadian legal norms and Native resistance to the cultural imperialism of the British Empire.

Giuliana Perrone (UCSB) presented "Slaves into Citizens: Legitimizing of Black Domestic Relationships in Reconstruction-Era State Courts," a study based on hundreds of state appellate court opinions in former slave states (both border and Confederate jurisdictions).  These cases were brought by former slaves or their families to legitimate or challenge claims to marriage.  In each case, family members or putative spouses argued about how and whether a marriage had been formed, and if so whether it should be treated in law as on-going.  Because such issues were decided on a state-by-state basis, Perrone argues, inconsistency traveled deep into the law of marriage.  At the same time, questions of what counted as "legal marriage" emerged with force after the Civil War.  Especially because former slaves lacked a "legal past," Perrone maintains, they became both emblematic of new standards for all marriages, but also victims of discriminatory and arbitrary rulings.