2015 Research Winners

Kellen Funk, Department of History. Since the late nineteenth century, the administration of civil justice in America has diverged sharply from the rest of the world’s legal systems. Relative to other countries, American lawyers command more prestige (and higher salaries) than judges and exert more control over litigation. My dissertation, The Lawyers’ Code: The Transformation of American Legal Practice, explores the origins of this trend, which began in 1850 when a commission of New York trial lawyers drafted a code that reoriented legal practice towards their interests. The code abolished all regulation of attorneys’ fees, gave lawyers the power to waive jury trials, and allowed pretrial investigation outside of judicial supervision. The code proved popular among elite American lawyers, as over thirty other states and territories enacted it by 1900, and the 1938 federal rules of practice closely followed its reforms. My dissertation seeks to understand legal practice within its political and cultural context and thus examines Jacksonian political appeals of lawyers who conceived of law as an artisan craft and Protestant theological assumptions that made “common sense” pleading and oath-taking secure indicators of legal truth. State code commissions were some of the first administrative lawmaking bodies in the American constitutional order, yet political and cultural distrust of centralized expert authority bound their work to the rhythms of the legislative calendar. With too little time for commissioners to draft—or legislators to review—comprehensive statutes in a single session, states opted to copy New York’s code and allow a powerful cadre of lawyers to substitute for a robust administrative state.

Casey HedstromDepartment of History   At the end of the nineteenth century, the United States Civil War pension system was the largest welfare administration in the world and accounted for nearly one third of the federal government’s expenditures. My project, “Political Bodies: Defining Disability, Dependency, and Citizenship in the U.S. Civil War Pension System, 1862-1907,” looks to the archives of this sprawling federal program to historicize ‘disability’ as a legal, political, and cultural status. These records reveal the meaning of disability in late nineteenth century America was in flux, subject to revision by not only the claims of petitioners and politicians but also the daily administrative practices and decisions of the Pension Bureau’s agents. Drawing on my research at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., my presentation will highlight claimant’s applications and the often formulaic but also deeply personal ways that veterans and their dependents presented their cases for disability before the federal government. These cases illuminate not only late nineteenth century understandings of the body, labor (and one’s capacity for it), but also the economic and moral relationship between citizen and the growing federal state.​

Sofia Pinedo-Padoch, Department of Anthropology.  What is left of life after death? My research explores the legal and bureaucratic articulations of lives after individuals pass away without a last testament or any known next of kin. I have been conducting fieldwork at the King’s County Public Administrator’s Office, which is tasked with administering the estates of all Brooklyn, New York residents who die intestate. My focus is two-fold. First, I explore what “matters” after an individual passes away without beneficiaries – which remnants of a life become important and which disappear? What kind of life story takes shape when the State administers an estate? Second, I look at how estates are then dealt with en masse by an office with limited resources. Cases arrive in the office constantly from every neighborhood and enclave in Brooklyn. The “decedents,” as the deceased are called, run the gamut from multi-millionaires to the homeless. The work of the public administrator delves into the specifics of myriad life stories and kinship connections, but at the same time, is forced to treat individual stories as systematically organized files in a rapidly expanding archive. How is this tension between the specific and the systematic negotiated in daily office life? I hope to use my work at the public administrator’s office as a unique lens through which to view the dynamic and diverse population of New York City. 

Matt Tokeshi, Department of Politics.   My dissertation examines a neglected but important puzzle in American election campaigns. Despite notable African American gains in elections, success at the statewide level has been elusive. Only five states have ever elected an African American governor or U.S. Senator. Why are African American governors and Senators still so rare? To answer this question, I conducted a set of original voter surveys in real-time during actual campaigns, combined with a content analysis of news, campaign spending, and election results in all relevant states, and supplemented this data with two original experiments. The results offer four major findings. First, African American candidates are attacked more often than comparable white candidates on themes that evoke racial stereotypes, such as crime and welfare. Second, these attacks diminish support among white voters with ambivalent or negative attitudes toward African Americans – a wide swath of voters in statewide elections. Third, the attacked candidates use a variety of rhetorical strategies to respond to these attacks, and some are vastly more successful than others. Fourth, when I systematically analyze each strategy, I find that rebutting these attacks by calling attention to their racial nature backfires against African Americans but serves identical white candidates well, pointing to a racial disadvantage for African American candidates. However, a number of other rebuttal types restore their favorability ratings. Together, these analyses demonstrate that although African American candidates are constrained by race, they can nevertheless find effective ways to respond to attacks they tend to encounter when attempting to reach the highest offices in the United States. My findings advance a central line of research in American racial politics on the conditions that activate racial animosity. Existing studies find that campaign messages that highlight negative stereotypes of African Americans can activate racial stereotypes, fears, or resentments among white voters. However, this research has not taken into account an important fact: that attacked candidates often respond to these negative messages. Elections are not a single-shot event, and messages that activate stereotypes do not exist in isolation. I find that some rebuttals succeed in deactivating racial animosity. Thus, while the existing literature focuses on how campaigns activate racial prejudice, my research shows the circumstances that overcome prejudice.