Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

February 1992


Published in Great Plains Research 2:1 (February 1992), pp. 04-06. Copyright © 1992 The Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Used by permission.


Law and science have been nervous partners for decades. Legal scholarship based upon scientific method, controversial at first, is now an established genre of the literature. It is particularly prominent in criminal justice studies, but it can be found in almost any aspect of legal research.

Social scientists in criminology, political science, and economics have addressed legal issues, but they are less apt to restrict their conclusions to locality or region or subject matter. For the study of regions, historians have the edge, and some historians have adopted scientific methodologies to investigate the history of law. One of the most important treatments of history, case study, and scientific method is Lawrence Friedman and Robert Percival's (1981) study, Roots of Justice: Crime and Punishment in Alameda County, California, 1870-1910. These authors accumulated massive amounts of data from many sources, including appellate court records, prison log books, arrest blotters, felony case files, court registers, and newspapers. Plowing new ground necessitated that the authors provide notes on methodology and sources.

Another attempt at applying social science method to legal history and regional studies is John Wunder's (1979) study, Inferior Courts, Superior Justice: A History of the Justices of the Peace on the Northwest Frontier, 18531889. Manuscript records, newspapers, journals, diaries, and over 1400 justice court cases for a 36-year period were collected. Seventeen variables were isolated to determine the quality of justice, from which four factors contributing to a "superior" quality of justice were identified. They included an assessment of accessibility to the courts for frontier residents, adjudication celerity, the level of community acceptance of court decisions, and the amount of training received by JPs. Court costs were computed, average time for court decisions were tabulated, and attorney and jury actions were evaluated.