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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