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Justice Excused: The Deployment of Law in Everyday Political Encounters

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This paper examines the use of legal claims by government officials and citizens in everyday political encounters involving civil rights. Data come from 580 letters sent to the federal government between 1939 and 1941, and from the replies sent by the newly formed Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department. In almost every case, the department refused to intervene and explained its refusal by making legal claims about federal jurisdiction. These legal claims masked the department's discretionary choices and thus helped depoliticize the encounters. Surprisingly, however, a substantial number of letter writers challenged the government's legal claims by deploying their own legal and moral arguments. The willingness of these citizens to challenge official legal pronouncements cautions against making broad generalizations about the capacity of ordinary people to respond effectively when government officials deploy legal rhetoric.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Washington

Publication date: 2006-06-01

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