Making Law Work: Robert F. Kennedy and the American Lawyer as an Agent of Reform

Hall, Emma, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
McCurdy, Charles, Department of History, University of Virginia

During his tenure as Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy expressed, through speeches, writings, and official actions, a distinctive conception of the law and of the lawyer’s role in modern American society. While Kennedy’s jurisprudential conception mirrored some crucial tenets of legal realism in its emphasis on fact-responsiveness and pragmatism in the law, it was driven primarily by his own deep moral and political intuitions, rather than by formal principles of legal philosophy. The elements of moral absolutism inherent in his jurisprudence distinguished it from more formal academic notions of legal realism, and his intuitive, morality-driven approach to legal action often created friction with colleagues and staff who viewed their legal obligations as meaningfully distinct from their moral obligations or political preferences. This Thesis explores the central tenets of Kennedy’s conception, examines its origins and development throughout his legal education and early legal career, and evaluates its strengths and weaknesses as an animating force in his administration.

MA (Master of Arts)
Department of Justice, legal history, Robert F. Kennedy, jurisprudence, University of Virginia
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