July 30, 1943 – Birth of Legal Scholar Robert M. Cover

Robert M. Cover, a professor at Yale University Law School, wrote and lectured widely on legal history, constitutional law and jurisprudence before his untimely death of a heart attack at age 42.

He is well-known for articulating several thought-provoking concepts about law, including the inherent violence in legal interpretation:

Legal interpretation’ takes place in a field of pain and death. This is true in several senses. Legal interpretive acts signal and occasion the imposition of violence upon others: A judge articulates her understanding of a text, and as a result, somebody loses his freedom, his property, his chil- dren, even his life. Interpretations in law also constitute justifications for violence which has already occurred or which is about to occur. When interpreters have finished their work, they frequently leave behind victims whose lives have been torn apart by these organized, social practices of violence. Neither legal interpretation nor the violence it occasions may be properly understood apart from one another.”

He is perhaps most cited for his writings on law as a bridge in normative space, connecting the world we have to a world we can imagine.

He contended:

A great legal civilization is marked by the richness of the nomos in which it is located and which it helps to constitute. The varied and complex materials of that nomos establish paradigms for dedication, acquiescence, contradiction, and resistance. These materials present not only bodies of rules or doctrine to be understood, but also worlds to be inhabited.”

In other words, one might say, the law sets out guidelines for our “better angels.”

He observed:

In this normative world, law and narrative are inseparably related. Every prescription is insistent in its demand to be located in discourse – to be supplied with history and destiny, beginning and end, explanation and purpose. And every narrative is insistent in its demand for its prescriptive point, its moral. History and literature cannot escape their location in a normative universe, nor can prescription, even when embodied in a legal text, escape its origin and its end in experience, in the narratives that are the trajectories plotted upon material reality by our imaginations.”

What would he think now of the role of narrative, with all the false ones undermining the rule of law that are being disseminated constantly?

His elaboration of the relationship between nomos and narrative in his seminal article by that title for the Harvard Law Review, “Nomos and Narrative” is worth reading in full, and may be accessed online here.

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