Academic Project Proposal
My dissertation, Forms of Justice: The Rise of the Legal Procedural in the Era of Due Process, 1930-1980, charts the emergence of the legal procedural genre—a genre of literature that represents the proceedings of the criminal justice system, especially the jury trial—during the mid-twentieth century in the United States. It places this genre in the historical context of the “due process revolution,” a series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1950s and 1960s that gave the federal government responsibility for protecting citizens from state abuse of their rights while accused. These decisions guaranteed court-appointed counsel, protection against illegal search and seizure, and specific arrest procedures. Through these decades’ interventions, a piecemeal system of justice was transformed into uniform, highly specific legal procedures that ostensibly protected the constitutional right to a fair trial. Forms of Justice argues that legal procedurals, which dramatized criminal justice procedures for a wide audience, played an essential role in this history. I contend that legal procedurals emerged as a crucial site for citizens to learn about their rapidly changing constitutional rights, but also stymied new reform efforts by insisting on the permanence of American criminal justice procedures.
Though familiar to many audiences, the legal procedural has not been previously theorized as a cohesive genre extending across literature, film, and television. My project fills this gap by using literary, legal, and historical methodologies to triangulate the genre’s formal characteristics and historical influences. Methodologically, my research draws on and responds to scholarship in a range of fields across English literature, history, and legal studies. My sources include literary theory, text-specific analyses, film studies, legal theory, Supreme Court cases, and cultural histories, as well as a wide range of archival materials. This diverse body of secondary texts helps me triangulate the legal procedural’s formal characteristics and historical constraints. As an interdisciplinary scholar, I react against a tradition of studying literature as merely reflective of law, instead engaging with a new strain of scholars who posit law and literature as mutually influential. I also draw upon my master’s degree in History to craft cohesive historical narratives based on primary sources.
The book manuscript has seven planned chapters. Its overall argument will be similar to the argument of the dissertation, but with an expanded chronological and thematic scope. I include brief abstracts of the seven chapters below.
I. Home Invasion Narratives, Early Criminal Rights Cases, and the Literary Balancing of Public and Private Justice
This chapter traces the intersection of literary genre and legal doctrine about illegal search and seizure as the contemporary idea of due process took root in American legal thought. I argue that these early legal procedurals had two sources of momentum: racial bias in the justice system and anxiety about state incursion into private life.
II. Regional Sin: Lynching and States’ Rights in the Southern Gothic
This chapter explores racial bias and state intervention from the perspective of regional literature. I argue that as the Supreme Court consolidated criminal rights under federal authority, Southern literature became a crucial space for managing complex relationships between the national and the local, especially when it came to the matter of racism within the justice system.
III. In Cold Blood, Evidence Exclusion Laws, and the Aesthetics of the Legal Procedural
The third chapter reads Truman Capote’s true crime book In Cold Blood (1966) through the lens of evidence admissibility laws. I argue that as the due process revolution increasingly limited the amount of evidence admissible in the court of law, true-crime literature became popular for its ability to include more evidence and thus correct the legal record.
IV. Representing Justice under the Early Hollywood Production Code Administration
Between 1934 and 1968, all Hollywood films had to comply with the Production Code Administration’s censorship procedures. The fourth chapter studies the years between 1934 and 1952, arguing that the PCA requirement that films favorably represent the law indelibly shaped the American imagination of criminal justice.
V. The Inheritance of Censorship in Post-Burstyn Courtroom Dramas
This chapter continues from the fourth chapter and explores how, between 1952 and 1968, filmmakers experimented with more controversial legal material as the PCA began to weaken.
VI. Episodic Television, Deferred Verdicts, and the Fixity of Rights
This chapter shows how radio and television produced a new kind of legal procedural—one with fixed, formulaic elements that were rearranged to form slightly differentiated installments that produced similar narrative outcomes. These shows taught viewers about their rights, but also downplayed racial bias and the role social movements played in establishing those rights.
VII. Millennial True Crime and Documentary Serial Television
This chapter focuses on the rise of the documentary serial legal procedural in television, especially how filmmakers and audiences increasingly used these shows as springboards for social activism.
VIII. Coda: The Role of the Legal Procedural in Decarceration and Black Lives Matter
The previous chapters have revealed the legal procedural’s deep structural ties to racial inequality, regional difference, and projects of ideological control. Here, I argue that these elements make the legal procedural a powerful weapon both for and against civil rights movements such as Black Lives Matter, anti-death penalty efforts, and prison reform.