Do I *really* have to wear a powdered wig, your honor?
October 22, 2008 7:44 PM   Subscribe

(Law)BookListFilter: I would like recommendations for books accessible to a relatively well-informed (but not legally educated) American reader interested in learning about how legal systems function around the globe. Note that I am not interested in reading about "international law," but rather about different types of legal traditions & procedures, and how law is integrated into and affects its particular society.

This was sparked by a rather dour conversation with a friend concerning the "inequities of the adversarial justice system" in the United States, whereupon I realized that my (legal) imagination was so stunted that I really couldn't imagine the law working any other way. I guess the years upon years of adherence to the rigid [but ceaselessly pragmatic] dogma of the Holy Church of our Father Jack McCoy hasn't helped my fixedness much, either. (Too bad there aren't more international versions of Law & Order to fill my head with more legal misconceptions.)

Why don't criminal charges in Japan ever seem to actually go to trial? Why does the Napoleonic Code still matter? Why can you get executed for carrying too much marijuana in Singapore? (Yes, I know about this page, but I'd like for a coherent organization of thoughts to guide me along the path to understanding. I guess, though, comprehensive articles related to comparative law might also be interesting to read.) Help me learn about the world, Hivemind!
posted by Keter to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
In the US, the laws of every state but one can be traced back to British common law. The law of Louisiana is based off of the Napoleonic Code. I do not know too much about all of this, but as far as I remember, under British common law, the courts try very hard to adhere to the precedent set by courts before them, and look through past judgements for arguments that pertain to the situation at hand. The Napoleonic Code places less emphasis on jurisprudence, and more emphasis on trying to faithfully interpret the laws as intended by the legislature that had passed them
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 8:14 PM on October 22, 2008

The field you are looking for is known as "comparative law". It is less commonly studied in the US than elsewhere in the world, but there are still a good number of comparative law journals that come out of the top US schools. If you are not an academic, this might be a better place to get started.
posted by modernnomad at 8:23 PM on October 22, 2008

Best answer: A History of American Law is an exhaustive but approachable account of how the American legal system evolved. Because of the complex way in which American law developed, it includes discussions of the influence of Continental European law on California, Louisiana, and elsewhere.

A Short History of Western Legal Theory is much broader. It covers the development of, well, Western legal theory from the Greeks through the modern day.

The Spirit of Japanese Law is good but narrow, covering only the century following the adoption of the Meiji constitution (i.e., ~1890-1990). Authority without Power: Law and the Japanese Paradox, by the same author, focuses on contemporary Japan. (the author, John Haley, was a professor of mine in law school, though not for these subjects).
If you want to know specifically about the Japanese criminal law system, then The Japanese Way of Justice: Prosecuting Crime in Japan is the book for you.
For a more layman-oriented book on law in Japan, consider Law in Everyday Japan: Sex, Sumo, Suicide, and Statutes.

Some of these are a bit expensive, but your local library may be able to help you out.
posted by jedicus at 8:51 PM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Why don't criminal charges in Japan ever seem to actually go to trial?

Criminal charges go to trial in the U.S. about 1 charge in 10. People plead out because they are going to lose. Most cases settle on the civil side too. I settle far more than I try.

Why does the Napoleonic Code still matter?

Because it forms the basis of almost all non-english speaking legal codes.

"inequities of the adversarial justice system"

I think adversarial justice is the way to go. You don't have to have a jury if you don't want it. But having the burden on the state and having the right to have ordinary citizens sit in judgment upon you is something I wouldn't give up for anything.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:00 PM on October 22, 2008

There's a (long) chapter in John McPhee's A Roomful of Hovings called "Fifty-two People on a Continent" that profiles the MIT Fellows in Africa program in the mid-1960s, including Carroll W. Brewster, who helped review and codify African law, and F.A.O. Schwarz Jr. (great-grandson of the toy magnate), who prepared 13 amendments to Nigerian law, 12 of which passed unchanged.

Googling to see if I could find more, I came across "Increasing the Value of Government Lawyers in a Developing Country" at; a search for

"mit fellows" africa

might be worthwhile. I don't see any popular books on the subject, which is a shame; McPhee really sparked my interest. (But then, he does that.)
posted by kristi at 11:01 PM on October 22, 2008

Sounds to me like you want to read some legal anthropology.

Legal anthropology was one of the two things that kept me sane in the insane world that was law school. It's a fascinating field.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 11:48 PM on October 22, 2008

Common law is fascinating to me, especially the ways it has morphed since its burgeoning development in the dark ages, the ways its original location-related architectural history has parleyed into the actual terminology we use to refer to our courts today, and in the way particular cases have come to reflect and/or represent turning points in the broader social contract.

One of my favourite's is Justin Flemming's very entertaining history on the evolution of common law: Barbarism to Verdict, 1994, Sydney, Angus & Robertson.

Other suggested reading could include material on the various approaches to the innocent/guilty presumption, and how the respective court structures deal with each. For this I'd read a book comparing the French and US/UK legal systems. Not that I have.
posted by Kerasia at 3:04 AM on October 23, 2008

Comparative law is interesting, but if you just want to understand how other legal structures are set up, you want "foreign law." Start with NYU Law School's GlobaLex and click on "Foreign Law" to expand out with a link to overviews/legal research guides for dozens of countries.
posted by Partial Law at 4:59 AM on October 23, 2008

You might consider Eye for an Eye or Bloodtaking and Peacemaking by William Ian Miller.

I haven't read them yet, but on the recommendation of a friend doing research related to Miller's work, I bought _Eye for an Eye_ for my brother who just finished law school.

I had the good fortune to see William Ian Miller speak last year, and if his books are half as entertaining as his presentations, they will be well worth the money.
posted by chndrcks at 7:05 AM on October 23, 2008

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