Creative and Critical Rights Claims in Marginalized Americans Freedom Suits, Habeas Corpus Petitions, and Disability Claims

AHA Session 51
Thursday, January 5, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Governor's Square 14 (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Concourse Level)
Lawrence Friedman, Stanford Law School
The Audience

Session Abstract

American legal history is marked by the creative and critical claims of marginalized people to rights promised in mandarin texts and only occasionally protected in elite courts. Disfranchised and otherwise vulnerable members of society have made their claims to freedom and protection in unexpected venues and through unusual means. This panel explores three discrete instances of rights claims from the early Republic to the late-twentieth century, and invites audiences to consider patterns and peculiarities within the cases of freedom suit petitioners, habeas corpus petitioners, and disability benefits claimants. Will Thomas’s paper on freedom court petitions in post-Revolutionary Maryland chronicles mixed race litigants’ use of hearsay to uphold their genealogies of freedom. His study finds that freedom petitioners introduced hearsay evidence exposing the fundamental contradictions of enslavement until the 1813 Queen v. Hepburn ruling barred such evidence from courtrooms. Katrina Jagodinsky similarly considers critical evidence submitted in American Indian and women’s habeas corpus petitions in territorial Washington. Focusing on petitions that challenged federal Indian wardship and reservation internment and that exposed coercive marriages and child custody claims, Jagodinsky’s paper posits marginalized Westerners as innovative actors in American legal history. Karen Tani’s paper emphasizes that rights claiming also took place inside the administrative state.  She focuses on poor Americans seeking income support in the late-twentieth century, in a landscape in which disability had become ever more salient as a legal category. Tani’s study of disability claims interrogates the changing relationship between poverty, ability, and concepts of citizenship, and the role of administrative agencies in mediating that relationship. As chair and moderator, Lawrence Friedman will encourage audiences to think of these discrete episodes as part of a cohesive legal history of rights claims among marginalized, but nonetheless creative and critical actors. This panel’s focus on black, female, Indigenous, mixed race and poor litigants will appeal to historians of race, class, and gender in a broad range of periods and regions. Each of these papers represents the exploratory stages of book-length projects, and the panelists look forward to a rich discussion with AHA members.
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