Sunday, December 03, 2006

The ABA Museum of Law: We tour it so you don't have to

The word “museum” literally means “place of the Muses.” The Muses, of course, were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, whose role was to inspire the arts. The use of that word in the ABA Museum of Law's title seems misplaced, because there is nothing inspirational about it.

One thing the museum certainly hasn’t inspired is visitors. I was there on 29 November. The previous visitor signed the guestbook on 14 November. For comparison purposes, the great travel correspondent Cash Peters (the self-proclaimed “Best Goofy Tour and Kooky Museum Guy in the Business”) tells us that Worcester, Massachusetts’ American Museum of Sanitary Plumbing draws “[a]t least three people a day." Cash Peters, Gullible’s Travels 83 (2003). You would think that the ABA Museum of Law, right there on the heavily-trafficked north bank of the Chicago River, could do better than one visitor a fortnight. Part of the problem might be that the museum seems to be determined to remain as inconspicuous as possible. A pedestrian standing outside the massive office building that houses it would have no idea there's a museum inside. Nor is the museum mentioned in the Chicago listings in the AAA tourbook. (Hey, ABA is only ONE LETTER away from AAA – you would have thought the AAA folks would extend a little professional courtesy to the ABA.) Even a Google search for Chicago museums failed to reveal the ABA Museum of Law’s existence. So only someone who already knows that there is such a museum and where it is will ever visit.

Well, maybe. First you have to make it through security. When I presented myself to the building’s front desk and asked if I was in the right place for the ABA Museum of Law, the blue blazered security person asked me for a form of identification and called me in – to whom I have no idea. Several minutes passed before, apparently, I passed the i.d. check. She then referred me to another blue blazered apparatchik at another desk about 10 yards from the front desk. Does the ABA Museum of Law have some sort of blacklist of potential visitors not to be let beyond security? Does security turn away the roughly 29 visitors per fortnight it would take to raise the ABA Museum of Law up to the American Museum of Sanitary Plumbing’s levels? I have no idea.

The second blue blazered functionary pleasantly directly me around the corner and down an escalator. There, at the top of the escalator, was a sign that was the first indication of the museum’s actual existence. Down at the bottom of the escalator was the “museum” itself. The museum has only one exhibit at a time, and the current one runs into 2008. It is called America’s Lawyer-Presidents: From Law Office to Oval Office. According to the exhibit, 25 of the nation’s 42 presidents have been lawyers. The exhibit seeks to explore how their legal careers affected their presidencies. Or something like that – the exhibit is thematically weak, presenting its information almost exclusively through a series of two conjoined 4’x7’ panels containing blocks of text, pictures, and – in only a handful of instances – artifacts of or about a particular “lawyer-president.” Standing where the two panels join gives the viewer the impression of looking at the crease of a giant but largely uninformative book with its two open pages stretching out to each side. Only Lincoln rates more that two panels. Not even William Howard Taft – who was not only President but had previously served as Solicitor General and would later become Chief Justice of the United States – rates more. The Taft exhibit is distressingly emblematic of the entire museum. Not only is his extensive and significant legal career given remarkably short shrift, but his exhibit features not a single artifact. This is especially inexplicable because after he was President of the United States, Taft served a term as President of the ABA. How could the ABA possibly NOT have some document bearing Taft’s original signature, some chair that once supported Taft’s ample tush, or some other physical thing that Taft once used, touched, or tried to eat? If it does, you wouldn’t know if from a trip to the ABA Museum of Law.

In addition to the panels, the museum also had a couple of electronic exhibits – or, at least, it was supposed to. An electronic exhibit in the Lincoln area wasn’t working the day I visited. There was an interactive exhibit in the “New Century Presidents” area presenting short historical vignettes – such as FDR’s court packing plan or Woodrow Wilson’s free speech restrictions during World War I – and asking if the visitor would have handled it as the president did. While I was glad to be part of a majority opposing Wilson’s free speech restrictions, it was a bit disconcerting to see that the vote was 51% against while 49% voted for.

The museum also flunks a basic candor test. How can an exhibit about lawyer-presidents, which features the obligatory double panel about William Jefferson Clinton, fail to mention that Arkansas suspended his license to practice law for five years? See generally Clinton legal mess ends Clinton fined; law license is suspended, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Jan. 20, 2001, at A1. Or that he resigned from the Supreme Court’s bar after having been suspended? See In re Clinton, 534 U.S. 1016 (2001) (“Bill Clinton, of New York, New York, having requested to resign as a member of the Bar of this Court, it is ordered that his name be stricken from the roll of attorneys admitted to the practice of law before this Court. The Rule to Show Cause, issued on October 1, 2001, is discharged.”); In re Discipline of Clinton, 534 U.S. 806 (2001) (“Bill Clinton, of New York, New York, is suspended from the practice of law in this Court and a rule will issue, returnable within 40 days, requiring him to show cause why he should not be disbarred from the practice of law in this Court.”).

Actually, the museum flunked an even more basic test: I unsuccessfully searched the museum and all of its surrounding areas on the building’s lower level for a men’s room. There is a clearly marked women’s room, but no male equivalent. Now I’m sure THAT isn’t a problem at Worcester’s American Museum of Sanitary Plumbing. (After bearing the indignity of asking a second female staff member whether there was a men’s room, having failed to learn anything of value upon asking the first – you can just imagine the desperation that warranted that embarrassment – I was finally led to the men’s room down an unmarked secret passage. If any of the male CAAFlog readers decide to visit the museum, send me an advance e-mail and I’ll draw you a map.)

The one thing the museum does right is the cost of admission: it’s free. But a companion book to the exhibit rang in at an astonishing $43.55.

But despite the museum’s many faults, I actually learned some things about, of all things, the history of military law that I hadn’t known before. For example, I was familiar with the court-martial of General William Hull for surrendering Detroit during the War of 1812 without having fired a shot. But I was previously unaware that the special prosecutor at that court-martial was Martin Van Buren.

Van Buren wasn’t the only president who had litigated an important military justice case (or the only president of whose military justice connection I was previously ignorant). For example, I had no idea that the counsel who successfully argued Lambdin Milligan’s case at the United States Supreme Court was James A. Garfield, who was appearing in his first case as a lawyer. Nor did I know that Milligan had successfully sued for damages as a result of his trial by military commission – a case that was defended by Benjamin Harrison. Here is the Harrison exhibit’s description:

After Lambdin P. Milligan prevailed in the landmark Supreme Court case that bears his name – Ex parte Milligan – he sued the military commission that tried and sentenced him, seeking $100,000 in damages. Milligan stood on firm legal ground, armed with the high court’s ruling that the military commission had no jurisdiction in the earlier case. President Ulysses S. Grant, a named defendant, called upon Benjamin Harrison to lead the defense. In the trial, Harrison’s stirring oratory regarding the valor of Union soldiers and Milligan’s traitorous activities bore fruit. Though Milligan won the case, he was awarded a meager $5.00 in damages.

Grover Cleveland, the president who both preceded and followed Harrison in office, also had a military justice connection. The Cleveland exhibit provides this description of the Battle of Limestone Ridge:

In 1866, about 1500 Irish nationalists conducted an ill-fated invasion of Canada. Brought back to Buffalo and tried for organizing the expedition, Cleveland successfully defended them against the charges. Though they raised money to pay for their defense, Cleveland refused to accept a fee for his services.

I also picked up a few interesting non-military justice tidbits along the way. For example, I hadn’t realized that Richard Nixon was the losing counsel in Time v. Hill, 385 U.S. 374 (1967). When Andrew Jackson served as a Tennessee superior court judge, one of his colleagues provided this description of Judge Jackson’s decisions: “[S]hort, untechnical, unlearned, sometimes ungrammatical, and generally right.” And, in an early articulation of the legal realism philosophy, an 1810 letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison complained that Chief Justice Marshall’s “twistifications in the case of Marbury (and other cases) show how dexterously he can reconcile law to his personal biases.” I was also surprised to learn that only one President – Rutherford B. Hayes – has been a graduate of Harvard Law School. (If only Woodrow Wilson had graduated from UVA Law, which he attended from 1879-80, my alma mater would have been tied with Harvard Law.)

But a few interesting facts doesn’t rise to the level of inspiration. An hour spent reading virtually any legal book would probably be time better spent than an hour touring the ABA Museum of Law. Heck, an hour at the Chicago Hyatt Regency's Big Bar would probably be time better spent -- and it would probably cost less than the exhibit's companion book.

Perhaps the museum is especially disappointing because the ABA should have the resources and expertise to do far better. I regret that I didn't get to visit the previous exhibit, Famous Trials in American History: Cases that Shaped and Shocked the Nation. And if I'm back in Chicago in 2008, I'll probably at least check to see what the next exhibit is. I might even stop by -- if I can get past all those blue blazered security people for a second time.


Address: 321 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL
Web site:
Hours: M-F 10-4
Admission: Free

Estimated time to see everthing in the exhibt: 1 hour (add 10 minutes if you might need to search for the men’s room)

--Dwight Sullivan


No Man said...

It is good to know that if CAAFlog comes up short on this whole military commission/expert blogger gig that he has a future with Fodor's. Since we are talking about obscure MilJus trivia, when visiting the US Disciplinary Barracks in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, you can see artifacts from whose court-martial?

Jason Grover said...


Anonymous said...

This is a lot of information about the ABA museum.