Establishing Justice in Middle America: A History of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

By Dodson, Scott | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Establishing Justice in Middle America: A History of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit


Dodson, Scott, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


Establishing Justice in Middle America: A History of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. By Jeffrey Brandon Morris. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Pp. xx, 464. Foreword by William H. Webster, preface, acknowledgments, appendices, afterword, notes, index. $39.95.)

In Establishing Justice in Middle America, Jeffrey Morris, a law professor at Touro Law Center, continues his pioneering work documenting the important and understudied histories of the U.S. Courts of Appeals. As with his books on the Second and D.C. Circuits, Morris's view of the Eighth Circuit is panoramic yet detailed. He provides both national and regional perspectives on the court, chronicling its administration, judges, and jurisprudence.

Morris proceeds chronologically. He begins with the story of the territory covered by the Eighth Circuit (which, for most of its tenure, spanned the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Arkansas). Even from the beginning, these states encompassed defining features of the nation's development in terms of agriculture (as the nation's breadbasket), commerce (containing the nation's central western expanse and defining north-south rivers), and civil rights (with respect to the area's original Native American inhabitants).

Prior to the creation of the U.S. Courts of Appeals in 1891, the work of the court system overseeing the area was dominated by farming and railroad matters. Its first judges included the illustrious Samuel F. Miller, a Supreme Court justice who "rode circuit," and David Brewer, who later was elevated to the Supreme Court. From the creation of the Eighth Circuit in 1891 to its division in 1929 into the Eighth and Tenth Circuits, the court supported antitrust prosecutions, restrained state regulation of railroads, and encouraged the federal assimilation of Native Americans. From 1919 to 1959, the court heard federal criminal cases and dealt with national and regional tragedies, such as the Great Depression, World War II, and the Mississippi River floods. It was supportive of New Deal legislation.

During the Warren Court era, the Eighth Circuit focused on civil liberties, dealing with prominent desegregation cases, capital cases, cases recognizing the constitutional right of association, and litigation involving the Arkansas prison system. Harry Blackmun was a judge during this time, before being elevated to the Supreme Court. The 1970s saw an emphasis on individual rights and modest liberalism, the Eighth Circuit being a strong supporter of Roe v. Wade and continued commitment to desegregation.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Eighth Circuit became moderately conservative and began to retreat from some of the positions staked out in the Warren Court era. In addition, the court heard several important cases stemming from the Whitewater investigation of President Bill Clinton and Paula Jones' lawsuit against him.

There is much in Morris's history to satisfy students of Arkansas history. The Little Rock high school desegregation cases, including Cooper v. Aaron (1958), play a prominent role in Eighth Circuit history, as do capital cases arising from Arkansas and Arkansas prison reform. Morris notes the influence of Judge Richard Arnold, calling him "a superb jurist," and Judge Pat Mehaffy, the first native-born Arkansan on the court, though he unfortunately pays little attention to Richard Arnold's brother, Judge Morris Sheppard Arnold, appointed to the court in 1992 (p. 197).

Morris's research runs deep, particularly with respect to the judges. He visited six of the circuit's seven states and interviewed fifteen circuit judges, including Richard Arnold, as well as several district judges. In the process, Morris has created a fact-filled history of the court and its personalities. That history is important, for although the U.S. Courts of Appeals have the final say in 98 percent of the cases they hear-only 2 percent are heard by the U.

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