Robert P. BurnsKafka’s Law: ‘The Trial’ and American Criminal Justice

University of Chicago Press, 2014

by Siobhan Mukerji on March 13, 2015

Robert P. Burns

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Professor Robert P. Burns of Northwestern University School of Law offers an insightful critique of the modern American criminal justice system in his new work Kafka’s Law: ‘The Trial’ and American Criminal Justice (University of Chicago Press 2014). This interview explores the characteristics of Kafka’s “Law” and exposes where and how these characteristics exist within the American criminal justice system.

Burns leads us through the absurd regime The Trial’s protagonist must navigate after he finds himself accused of an unknown crime. Kafka’s dystopian law is unknowable, ubiquitous, overly bureaucratic and yet overly informal. In the story’s world the law functions like God and guilt is inevitable. These legal characteristics may appear to be part of an absurd dystopian fantasy world derived from the same wild imagination that produced a story in which a man metamorphoses into a bug. However, we learn in the second half of the interview that the dystopian themes in The Trial capture a present-day reality for many who are accused of crimes in America.

Burns’s work exposing Kafkaesque aspects of our legal system and his search to find the most effective means of remedying these situations is vastly important to the societal goal of narrowing the gap between justice and law.


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[Cross-posted from New Books in Philosophy] It is generally accepted that lying is morally prohibited. But theorists divide over the nature of lying’s wrongness, and thus there is disagreement over when the prohibition might be outweighed by competing moral norms.  There is also widespread agreement over the idea that promises made under conditions of coercion or […]

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[Cross-posted from New Books in History] This year we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, a legal revolution with far-reaching cultural, political, and economic import. But as J. Douglas Smith argues in On Democracy’s Doorstep: The Inside Story of How the Supreme Court Brought “One Person, One Vote” to the United States (Hill and Wang, 2014), the early […]

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Susan ByrneLaw and History in Cervantes’ Don Quixote

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Jan LemnitzerPower, Law and the End of Privateering

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Kenneth PrewittWhat Is Your Race?: The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans

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[Cross-posted from New Books in Education] The US Census has been an important American institution for over 220 years. Since 1790, the US population has been counted and compiled, important figures when tabulating representation and electoral votes. The Census has also captured the racial make-up of the US and has become a powerful public policy tool with […]

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Frank PasqualeThe Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information

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[Cross-posted from New Books in Technology] Hidden algorithms make many of the decisions that affect significant areas of society: the economy, personal and organizational reputation, the promotion of information, etc. These complex formulas, or processes, are thought by many to be unbiased and impartial and, therefore, good for automated decision-making. Yet, recent scandals, as well as information […]

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Jothie RajahAuthoritarian Rule of Law: Legislation, Discourse and Legitimacy in Singapore

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[Cross-posted from New Books in Southeast Asian Studies] In Authoritarian Rule of Law: Legislation, Discourse and Legitimacy in Singapore (Cambridge University Press, 2012), Jothie Rajah tells a compelling story of the rule of law as discourse and praxis serving illiberal ends. Through a series of case studies on legislation criminalizing vandalism and regulating the print media, legal profession, and religion […]

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