The Trial

You awake one morning to find the police at your door. They unceremoniously arrest you. But they won’t tell you the charges or, for that matter, anything about the case against you. That is for you alone to figure out, they imply, as you navigate the alien landscape of the legal system for the next year of your life.

Not just any legal system, but one that refuses to inform its litigants of any facts, laws, or procedures that might dictate the outcome or assist them in their defense. No due process, only seemingly random process. And you’ll find little help or comfort from your lawyer, who seems equally bent on confusing you with indifference, false assurances, and legal jargon.

This is the surreal legal world of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, by turns a gloomy, ribald and suggestive portrait of a legal system apparently indifferent to any discernible laws or sense of justice.

How does Kafka depict and interpret both the law and the meaning of the legal system? Inscrutable? Menacing? Comedic? Surreal? Irrational?  Indeterminate?

What is the truth about the law itself—how is it defined, what does it mean, does anybody have access to it?

What does Kafka’s novel tell us about legal proceedings and their affects on human dignity and psychology? What can we learn from Kafka about the nature of authority and the legitimacy of our legal institutions?

For another perspective on these questions, we read “Notes From a Difficult Case,” law professor Ruthann Robson’s essay about the dehumanizing effects of professional indifference, technical language, and objectivity in law and medicine.

We also compare our insights from reading Kafka to Stanley Fish’s provocative essay about legal interpretation and legitimacy, “Law Wishes to Have a Formal Existence.” Is the law autonomous and self-declaring, i.e. does it have a formal existence? If so, how does interpretation threaten that formal existence? What are the consequences of differing methods of interpretation? What constrains the judge in making such interpretations?  Here we focus on the legitimacy of legal decision-making, including the role of discretion and whether there are right answers to legal questions?

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