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Judicial Rhetoric and Ulysses in Government Hands


The famous decision by District Judge John Woolsey lifting the ban on the publication of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses in the United States changes the nature of obscenity law when it appears in 1933, but the opinion itself is defective in ways that lead toward an unworkable legal standard in future cases. When a decision is accepted, but the logic for reaching it is faulty, the law suffers in a particular way, and this kind of discrepancy between means and ends is often found in the decisions of high-profile cases. Judge Woolsey’s use of standard rhetorical devices to hold his several audiences in place is, therefore, worth examining beyond itself. United States v. One Book Called “Ulysses” provides a classic example of how judicial rhetoric persuades the auditors ultimately responsible for a rule of law. Properly understood, the opinion can help an engaged citizenry to recognize and evaluate the methods that control understanding in a controversial opinion.

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