The King and the Dean: Melvin Belli, Roscoe Pound, and the Common Law Nation

Posted: 29 Jan 2007  

John Fabian Witt

Yale University - Law School


This book chapter in Patriots and Cosmopolitans: Hidden Histories of American Law (Harvard, Feb. 2007) describes the little-known mid-twentieth-century friendship between flamboyant San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli and Roscoe Pound, the aging former dean of Harvard Law School. In the two decades after World War Two, Belli and Pound's unlikely friendship helped organize that most American of lawyers: the plaintiff's-side personal injury lawyer. With Belli and Pound at their helm, the trial lawyers successfully mobilized a defense of the common law of torts, the jury trial, and the judiciary against the ostensibly foreign intrusion of bureaucratic social welfare programs. American legal institutions became key ingredients in a powerful nationalist argument against cosmopolitan administrative reform. Yet even as the trial lawyers fought off public administration in the name of Anglo-American legal traditions, they created a sprawling and decentralized system of private administration in personal injury law, a system that is sometimes brilliant, often deeply flawed - and always distinctively American.

Keywords: torts, tort law, personal injury, administrative law, melvin belli, roscoe pound

JEL Classification: K13, K23

Suggested Citation

Witt, John Fabian, The King and the Dean: Melvin Belli, Roscoe Pound, and the Common Law Nation. Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 07-140. Available at SSRN:

John Fabian Witt (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-4944 (Phone)

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