Librarians and the Supreme Court: A Computer-Aided Look at High Court Cases Involving Librarians

By Snyder, Fritz | American Libraries, March 1986 | Go to article overview

Librarians and the Supreme Court: A Computer-Aided Look at High Court Cases Involving Librarians


Snyder, Fritz, American Libraries


Law librarians love LEXIS and WESTLAW-- the two competing computer-assisted legal research services. The concept of each is identical: full-text searching of primary legal materials, particularly case or decisional law. Both the LEXIS and WESTLAW databases contain all U.S. Supreme Court cases from 1925 to the present--the equivalent of nearly 200 volumes, each averaging about 900 pages.

Curious to see how many high court cases involved librarians, I accessed the Supreme Court database on WESTLAW, typed in the word librarian (thus asking it to identify all cases containing the word librarian, singular or plural), and retrieved 36 cases. Librarians, it seems, have been involved in a number of important cases-and in a rather grisly one as well.

The earliest such case was Yu Cong Eng v. Trinidad, 271 U.S. 500 (1926), which involved a librarian witness, but not librarians. The case originated in the Philippines, which at that time was under the tutelage of the United States, and concerned whether the Chinese Bookkeeping Act, which made it a crime to keep account books in Chinese, could be enforced against the Chinese. The problem centered around the possible avoidance of taxes by the Chinese because of the difficulty in determining what their sales tax contribution should be. Dr. Pardo, a Philippine librarian and historian, testified in the case that efforts during Spanish rule to enforce a sales tax law against the Chinese had failed and became a dead letter.

The first copyright case which mentions a librarian was Jewell-LaSalle Realty Co. v. Buck, 283 U.S. 202 (1931), a suit over the copyright infringement law. The bill the

law grew out of was the result of a series of conferences called by the Librarian of Congress.

A grisly murder Fisher v. United States, 328 U.S. 463 (1946), was a grisly murder case and a reflection of the times as well. Fisher, a black man, was charged with choking and strangling the librarian of the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Washington, D.C. The issue was whether he should have been charged with first- or second-degree murder. The trial court ( a D.C. federal district court) had found him guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death.

Fisher was the janitor in the library, and Catherine Cooper, the librarian, had complained to the verger of the Cathedral that Fisher was not cleaning the floor. Fisher confronted her. He said she insulted him after which he slapped her. Then she started screaming so he hit her over the head with "a convenient piece of firewood." When the stick broke, he choked her to silence, dragged her to the lavatory, and left the body to clean up some spots of blood on the floor outside. When "she started hollering again," Fisher took out his knife and stuck it in her throat. She was silent.

The coroner later said that the knife wound was not deep. "It just went through the skin." Justice Felix Frankfurter in his dissenting opinion noted that Cooper had used a racial epithet, that Fisher wanted only to stop her screaming, not to kill her, and that thus there was no premeditation. Fisher cleaned up the blood because "he

did not want to leave the library dirty" (Fisher's words). By a 5-3 vote, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's charge of first-degree murder, and Fisher was executed.

Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950), was a suit by Heman Sweatt, also a black man, against the Texas Board of Regents and the University of Texas to compel his admission to the University of Texas School of Law. The Supreme Court found that the educational opportunities offered white and black law students by Texas were not substantially equal and that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required his admission to the University of Texas law school. The court noted that the School of Law of the State University for Negroes had no full-time librarian and that few of the 10,000 volumes ordered for the library had arrived. …

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