This article examines Bill Nelson’s two major books on the history of New York law and politics, The Legalist Reformation (2001) and Fighting for the City (2008). The former deals with developments in New York State from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century; the latter with New York City starting somewhat earlier but concentrating on the same later period. The Legalist Reformation argues that the election of Alfred E. Smith as Governor of New York in 1922 began a transformation of the state’s legal and political culture that brought new and more egalitarian social policies to the state and eventually inspired what became post-New Deal liberalism with its commitment to both greater economic equality and the protection of civil liberties and minority rights. Fighting for the City focuses more narrowly on New York City and its office of Corporation Counsel, exploring the challenges of governing under law in a complex urban environment marked by changing economic conditions and sharp political conflicts rooted in ethnic, racial, religious, and class differences. From their contrasting perspectives both trace the rise of “legalist reform” in the early twentieth century, the emergence of post-New Deal liberalism in the decades around World War II, and ultimately the decline of both in the last third of the twentieth century. The article discusses the author’s normative views on the nature and values of “legalist reform,” and it concludes by identifying seven significant contributions that the two books make to our understanding of New York history, the operation of the American legal system, and the nation’s fundamental ideas about law and democracy.
Edward A. Purcell Jr.,
Semi-Wonderful Town, Semi-Wonderful State: Bill Nelson's New York,
Chi.-Kent L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.kentlaw.iit.edu/cklawreview/vol89/iss3/9