Law 561A/B - The Darrow Decade: Lawyers and Great Trials in America During the “Long 1920s”

Clyde S. Spillenger

Clyde S. Spillenger

Professor of Law
A.B. Princeton, 1982
J.D. History, Yale, 1987
M. Phil. History, Yale, 1988
UCLA Law faculty since 1993
Course Description:

This Perspectives Course will look at some of the most celebrated trials in American history, and the role of lawyers in litigating or defending them. As it happens, all the trials discussed in this seminar occurred during the ten years beginning in 1924, a particularly rich period in the history of the celebrated trial as a site of cultural contestation in the United States. As these cases reveal, few public events provide a more illuminating window onto larger social and cultural norms than the trials that the larger community finds mesmerizing. In addition, however, the specific trials chosen reveal the dilemmas faced, for example, by lawyers encountering a jury and society whose fundamental world-view is worlds away from his own (Stories of Scottsboro); attempting to exploit a jury’s racialist assumptions to reach a result favorable to his African-American client (Property Rites); and exploring then-current debates about free will and the determinants of criminal behavior to challenge taboos deeply rooted in American law and culture (For the Thrill of It).

The five assigned books make excellent reading (I have not had complaints from students about the workload) and should provoke some animated discussions. For several of the five meetings, I will ask that students also view a relevant film in preparation for the seminar. I will distribute notes and study questions in advance to help motivate discussion. I will also identify some recommended (non-mandatory) readings dealing more generally with politics and culture in the United States during the 1920s, for students who may lack background knowledge in the area.
Dates, Times, and Expected Locations:
We will meet over dinner on Tuesday evenings from 6:30 to 9:00 p.m., on September 6, October 4, and November 1, 2016, and February 7 and March 7, 2017. Location is tentatively scheduled at a residence in Westwood or possibly on campus.
Reading List:
The books to be assigned are the following:
Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (1997)
Simon Baatz, For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz Age Chicago (2008)
Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age (2004)
Elizabeth M. Smith-Pryor, Property Rites: The Rhinelander Trial, Passing, and the Protection of Whiteness (2009)
James Goodman, Stories of Scottsboro (1994)

Inherit the Wind (in connection with Larson’s Summer for the Gods) Rope; Compulsion; Swoon (in connection with Baatz’s For the Thrill of It)
Scottsboro: An American Tragedy (documentary) (in connection with Goodman’s Stories of Scottsboro)

Course Information:
​Faculty Term Course Section ​Schedule ​Units Requisite Satisfies SAW
Clyde Spillenger 16F 561A SEM 10 Unscheduled 0.5 No No
  Course meets from 6:30 - 9:00 on 9/6, 10/4, 11/1, 2/7, 3/7. Third year students have priority to enroll during first pass.
Clyde Spillenger 17S 561B SEM 10 Unscheduled 0.5 No No
  Second part of a yearlong course. The Records office will process enrollment for this course.