Winter 2013: Private Lives, Public Law
The Great Trials lecture series considers a collection of history-making trials across time and examines the social and political contexts in which they took place as well as their cultural consequences. The series takes the position that ‘law’ happens as much outside the courtroom as it does within it, and that each of these pivotal events stands as testament to the ways in which constructions of authority, law, and justice have informed cultural consciousness across centuries.
Where: Westmount Public Library, 4574 Sherbrooke St. W.
When: All lectures will begin at 5pm
Registration fees: $60 for the series of 5 lectures, or $15 for individual lectures.
Registration at the door the day of each lecture may be possible, but places will be limited and we cannot guarantee that seats will be available. Cheques only, payable to McGill University. We will be unable to accept cash at the door.
The lectures in this series have been approved by the Barreau du Québec as
Continuing Legal Education (CLE) Credit.
Click on any title below to see the details
Thursday, 10 January: Trial of Error
Prof. Gil Troy (History),
"Trial of Error": The Impeachment with no Conviction of Bill Clinton
This lecture will explore the extraordinary mess Bill Clinton stumbled into when he carried on an affair with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. The title reflects the American people's ultimate verdict - they thought the President was being unfairly tried for an error of judgment not a crime; while the subtitle captures the ugly partisanship - with little consistency or conviction - that shaped most politicians' reaction to the scandal.
Thursday, 24 January: Spies and Lies
Prof. Andrea Tone (History and Social Studies of Medicine),
Spies and Lies: Cold War Psychiatry, the CIA, and the Case Against Ewen Cameron
This talk revisits the political, legal, and medical controvery surrounding Ewen Cameron and the CIA-funded research/therapy he did on psychiatric patients at the Allan Memorial Hospital in the 1950s. Drawing on newly available records, legal materials, and original oral histories, it seeks to augment our understanding of the controversy itself while shedding light on how what once was called "therapy" was reframed as an actionable and American assault on vulnerable Canadian patients. In addition, the talk will discuss the importance and challenges of navigating Quebec's new privacy laws, an issue that has implications for all scholars of Quebec.
Thursday, 7 February: Through Lizzie Borden’s Mirror
Prof. Shauna Van Praagh (Law),
Through Lizzie Borden’s Mirror: Reflections on Women and Law
“Lizzie Borden took an axe,
Gave her mother forty whacks,
When the job was nicely done,
She gave her father forty-one!”
In late 19th century Massachusetts, Lizzie Borden was tried and acquitted for the murder of her parents. Over one hundred years later, we are invited to reflect on, and through, her story as we consider the shaping force of social norms and expectations. Real and fictional narratives - including the play “Blood Relations” by Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock - intertwine in this discussion of the constraints and potential of law revealed by the experiences and perspectives of women. Lizzie Borden, actor and victim all in one, shows us
that we are both subject to, and creators of, law in our lives.
Thursday, 28 February: The Trial of Wall Street
Prof. Peter Gibian (English),
The Trial of Wall Street
Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” takes place not in a courtroom but in the office of a Wall Street law firm. This experimental tale doesn’t narrate a literal trial, then, but its overall effect is to put the Wall Street law office itself—an epitome of dominant mid-nineteenth-century American notions of law, economics, politics, and cultural authority—on trial. When Bartleby “occupies” the Wall Street law office, breaking down the literal and figurative walls that define the divisions in this stratified society, andbreaking up the work routine of legal practice byrefusing to copy the documents that reinforce the status quo of property relations, his small, vaguely Thoreauvian gestures of passive resistance threaten to undermine the foundations of the world of his boss, the lawyer who narrates this story. What begins as a minor dispute about conventional assumptions in contemporary law reverberates outward, leading the cautious, conformist, uncurious lawyer-narrator into a life crisis—a searing self-examination in which he begins to question the bases of his vision of spiritual, ethical, and legal judgment and
his own implication in the dynamics of the larger Wall Street world.
Thursday, 14 March: Almost Persons
Prof. Wendy Adams (Law),
Almost Persons: Life on Trial
Law’s most aspirational claim is the guarantee that every person is equal before law. The extent to which this claim remains forever out of reach is reflected in the very concept we consider essential for its success, that of legal personhood. We use legal personhood to decide whose life will count in law, thus acknowledging some claims will fail, else the category would not be required. Personhood does not instantiate a self-evident demarcation between persons and things. We have a history of using this concept to institutionalize relations of hierarchy and dominance. We no longer affirm property in humans as slaves, as we did in Dred Scott v. Sandford, but we should remember the conviction with which this case was decided. As we attend to more recent claims denying personhood for non-human animals, we are just as certain that law is on the right side of history. Our beliefs are sustained by the normative construction of human-animal relations in popular culture, where we demonstrate a persistent tendency to represent animals as willing allies in the achievement of human objectives. If we are to realize law’s aspirations for equality, we may need to question our ability to use personhood as a foundation for legal relations.
Previous series on podcasts:
Prof. Mark Antaki (Law), The Trial of Louis XVI
Prof. Desmond Manderson (Law), The Trial of Billy Budd
Prof. Eugenio Bolongaro (Italian Studies), The Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti
Prof. Carrie Rentschler (Art History and Communication Studies), The Trial of Winston Moseley
Prof. Paul Yachnin (English), The Trial of Shylock
Prof. Brian Lewis (History), The Trial of Oscar Wilde
Prof. Payam Akhavan (Law), The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic