Robert Cover

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Robert Cover (July 30, 1943 – July 1986) was a law professor, scholar, and activist, teaching at Yale Law School from 1972 until his untimely death at age 42 in 1986. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1943. He attended Princeton University and Columbia Law School. His most noted works include Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process, "Violence and the Word," and "Nomos and Narrative." He lent his strong support to the campaign to divest Yale of apartheid South African financial holdings. He was also interested in Jewish social and legal history, and was translating a renaissance Hebrew text on the law of jurisdiction at the time of his death. Prior to his death from heart problems, many friends and colleagues speculated that, given his extraordinary success at such a young age, he would one day be considered for the Supreme Court.

In "Nomos and Narrative", he tells that "we inhabit a 'nomos' - a normative universe. We constantly create and maintain a world of right and wrong, of lawful and unlawful, of valid and void". He explains that the normative universe is held together by the force of interpretive commitments - some small and private, others immense and public. These commitments - of officials and of others - do determine what law means and what law shall be. If there existed two legal orders with identical legal precepts and identical, predictable patterns of public force, they would nonetheless differ essentially in meaning if, in one of the orders, the precepts were universally venerated while in the other they were regarded by many as fundamentally unjust. Therefore "the rules and principles of justice, the formal institutions of the law, and the conventions of a social order are, indeed, important to that world; they are, however, but a small part of the normative universe that ought to claim our attention. No set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning. For every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture. Once understood in the context of the narratives that give it meaning, law becomes not merely a system of rules to be observed, but a world in which we live".

In his most famous article, "Violence and the Word", he writes that "Legal interpretation takes place in a field of pain and death. This is true in several senses. Legal interpretive acts signal and occasion the imposition of violence upon others: A judge articulates her understanding of a text, and as a result, somebody loses his freedom, his property, his children, even his life. Interpretations in law also constitute justifications for violence which has already occurred or which is about to occur. When interpreters have finished their work, they frequently leave behind victims whose lives have been torn apart by these organized, social practices of violence. Neither legal interpretation nor the violence it occasions may be properly understood apart from one another", and concludes "The perpetrator and victim of organized violence will undergo achingly disparate significant experiences. For the perpetrator, the pain and fear are remote, unreal, and largely unshared. They are, therefore, almost never made a part of the interpretive artifact, such as the judicial opinion. On the other hand, for those who impose the violence the justification is important, real and carefully cultivated. Conversely, for the victim, the justification for the violence recedes in reality and significance in proportion to the overwhelming reality of the pain and fear that is suffered. Between the idea and the reality of common meaning falls the shadow of the violence of law, itself".[1]

This article has inspired many discussions on the relationship between law, language and violence.

He also published the brief "Your Law Baseball Quiz" on the editorial page of The New York Times on April 5, 1979, amusingly and insightfully comparing Supreme Court Justices to baseball players. It spawned an underground cottage industry of law-baseball and law-other metaphorical devices that still persists. That piece can be found at the end of a collection of his essays titled Narrative, Violence, and the Law: The Essays of Robert Cover published in 1995 by the University of Michigan Press.


  1. ^ Yale Law Journal, Vol. 95, No. 8, July 1986 at p. 1601

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