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What is the earliest work of science fiction to depict legal technology? By legal technology I mean the use of scientific or technological developments to aid in litigation or the practice of law. Thus, mere litigation about new technology does not count (eg, Heinlein’s ‘Jerry was a Man’ features a trial about genetic engineering, but the lawyers involved don’t make use of it to do their job).

The earliest example of which I know is Clifford D. Simak’s ‘How 2’, from 1954, where robots are used as law clerks to aid in legal research. This seems late enough in science fiction that there’s a good chance it isn’t the true first, however…

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  • I immediately thought of This story from Omni but it's not the earliest by any measure.
    – Spencer
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 20:51
  • I can't even think of a real world "use of scientific or technological developments to aid in litigation" - forensic science is not 'legal' tech. As I understand it, people are still researching 'by hand' because a searchable database doesn't exist and lawyers don't really want one to, because then you wouldn't need them so much. All applicable answers below are about "where robots are used as law clerks to aid in legal research" - so, that's the question?
    – Mazura
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 23:07
  • I think you need to narrow down what you are asking. Remember pen and paper are "technology" it's just technology we're used to. If we go by "use technology in a legal context, " the bible comes to mind. "Judgement of Solomon" uses a sword, and swords are technology. But I don't think that's the answer your looking for.
    – coteyr
    Commented Nov 12, 2022 at 13:53
  • I recognize that bible stories are not science fiction, but my point is to show that you need to define "technology" a bit more.
    – coteyr
    Commented Nov 12, 2022 at 13:55

5 Answers 5

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I'm totally stealing @DavidW's idea here (go upvote him!), but how's about, instead of "robot" or "mechanical", we instead search for "automaton"?

Here's a candidate, then, from 1844:

Now Mr BABBAGE, I will tell you what I wish you would do. You have invented a Calculating Machine. Cannot you likewise invent an Engrossing Machine--an Automaton Lawyer's Clerk? The misery of the Clerk at present in use is, that his frame is composed of flesh and blood [...] But, ingenious Sir, could you construct an Automaton Clerk, all these inconveniences would be obviated. Mahogany has no nervous system, springs and wires do nor vibrate with sensations; and to the Attorney's wrong and the Solicitor's contumely, the whole clockwork would be impassible. The machine could not contract matrimony and have to keep a family; and were you, Sir, its Parent, (which Heaven avert!) to fall into distress, it would not be called upon to maintain you. It would bear all kinds of indignity and ill-treatment without a murmur; it could call no meetings, write no letters to the newspapers. Like master and slave, it would be wholly unfeeling. It would work all day, and night too, if necessary, uncomplainingly, till it got out of order; and then it might be mended. Here is a Clerk that would work incessantly, and neither eat, sleep, want payment, or grumble : this, I apprehend, exactly applying the Attorney's grand desideratum--I would advise you to call it THE PATENT INSENSIBLE LAWYER'S CLERK.

-- Punch, 1844

But can we consider Punch of 1844 to be Sci-Fi, any more than The Onion is, today? It was satire, no more.

Debatable, and anyway, I have an earlier contender! In 1827, Jeremy Bentham wrote in Rationale of Judicial Evidence, Specially applied to English practice:

A piece of paper or parchment is provided; the hand of the judge is applied to it; the mind of the judge is not applied to it. So strictly true is this, that by an intoxicated judge, if he had sense enough left to write his name, the business might be done exactly as well as by a sober one: by an automaton judge, a judge made of brass and iron, as well as by either.

But this is an argument. It is not a work of futuristic fiction.

But in the same year, there was written an unquestionable work of sci-fi, The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-second Century, by Mrs. Jane Loudon.

And a work of staggering prescience it is, perfectly predicting the woes brought by automation. Surely, these automata bear the logos "Lexmark" and "Hewlett Packard"!

An automaton judge sat with great dignity upon a magnificant throne, looking, though a little heavy, quite as wise and sagacious as judges are wont to look. A real jury (that is, a jury of flesh and blood,) was ranged upon one side of him, and some automaton counsel sate in front, their briefs having behind each a clerk ready to wind him up when he should be wanted to speak; it being found that the profession of the law gives such an amazing volubility of words, that it was dangerous to wind up the counsel too soon, lest they should go off in the wrong place, and so disturb the silence of the court. In different parts of these counsel were holes, into which briefs were being put they were gradually ground to pieces as the counsel were being wound up, till they came forth in words at the mouth: whilst the language in which the counsel pleaded, depended entirely upon the hole in which the brief was put, there being a different one for each tongue.

[...]The orator had paused for an instant from some error in his machinery; but his clerk setting him in motion again, he went on[...]

It was here intended the counsel should bow to the court, but, owing to his defective machinery, he only gave a kind of jerk, and then continued[...]

"[...] let the prisoner be acquitted. But--unless--he--can--make--up--his--mind to--under-go--privations--like--these--let--him--aid--by--his--vote--to--condemn--the--wretch--who--

And here the orator stopt abruptly, being quite gone down. He had indeed uttered the last words gradually slower and slower, and at lengthened intervals, because the attendant clerk had unfortunately given him a turn too little, and had not screwed him up quite tight enough.

[...] At last all was still, and the attendant clerk began to wind up the counsel for the prince. Lord Maysworth watched the moment; but being afraid to trust his beloved brief in his agitation, he popt it in the wrong hole, and when the counsel began to speak, he burst forth in french! Words are wanting to express Lord Maysworth's unutterable consternation at this unfortunate accident.

"Stop! stop!" cried he, "Hush! hush! Can nobody stop him?" but the inexorable counsel would not stop:--for once wound up, and properly set in motion, not all the powers of Heaven and earth combined could stop him till he had fairly run down.

"What shall I do?" cried lord Maysworth, in an agony of despair; "for, if the judge and jury don't understand French, my fine oration will be utterly lost."

"Oh, if that be all," said the clerk, "your lordship need not distress yourself, for as soon as I found what was going on, I ran up to the judge and pulled out his lordship's French stop!"

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  • 4
    Holy crap! Nice! I didn't even think of "automaton."
    – DavidW
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 2:39
  • 3
    @DavidW The search results were also interesting to me because of how many were just human clerks, being referred to as automata. The phrase "clerk automaton" was also used to describe what we'd call today a "telegraph relay", replacing human clerk operators that would previously receive and re-send telegrams on long lines, to address signal attenuation or simplify switching. The search gave me an interesting new view onto the history of automation. Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 15:29
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    To answer your first question, I would argue that good sci-fi is good sci-fi, regardless of the venue or guise it may hide in. Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 17:24
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Aha! Searching for "mechanical" instead of "robot" gives much earlier results. "The Lord of Tranerica" (1939) by Stanton A. Coblentz contains a "mechanical judge" by which crimes are tried:

"What do you mean by a Mechanical Judge?" demanded Harry; while the iron worker took his right hand and made him hold a knob connecting with an electric wire.

"A Mechanical Judge," the Cipher declared, “represents the height of judicial advance. Now that all decisions are machine-made, we can be sure they will be uniform quality. We can also be sure they will be swift, efficient, and positive. Besides, the Mechanical Judge cannot be bribed."

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Just slightly earlier than "How-2" (Galaxy, November 1954) was Frederik Pohl's "The Midas Plague", Galaxy, April 1954.

The law clerk arrived, a smallish robot with a battered stainless-steel hide and dull coppery features. Elon took the robot aside for a terse conversation before he came back to Morey.

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  • Wow, fascinating to see this idea in the zeitgeist in 1954 in stories so close to each other Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 16:14
  • Wow also at the topicality of the robot's user
    – Chris H
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 13:31
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    In 1955, Pohl and Kornbluth also published Gladiator at Law, which featured computerized judges and stockbrokers.
    – Buzz
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 17:20
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Do you discount the use of technology in establishing the legal status of evidence? For example, Conan Doyle's depiction of fingerprint evidence in "The Sign of the Four" (1890), a Sherlock Holmes story, predates their use in the British court system by at least a decade. A Britannica entry Sherlock Holmes: Pioneer in Forensic Science makes the argument that Doyle also foresaw the use of forensic analysis of technological artifacts, in particular typewriters.

To forestall quibbling about whether Sherlock Holmes is SF, let me suggest that if you accept these as examples of speculative use of technology in fiction then the stories that contain them are by definition SF.

The Science Fiction Encyclopedia states that "real-world polygraphs [...] are anticipated in "The First Watch" (June 1909 Hampton's Magazine) by Edwin Balmer and William MacHarg".

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    "to aid in litigation or the practice of law"
    – DavidW
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 18:14
  • 1
    You include use of technology by judges or lawyers. Do prosecuting attorneys not count as lawyers? Use of technology or science in judicial determination of evidentiary standards?
    – Ethan
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 19:34
  • Those aren't my words, they're from the question. But no, evidence is not collected, evaluated or presented by lawyers; forensics and evidentiary techniques are not practices of law, else there would not need to be rulings to admit new techniques into admissibility.
    – DavidW
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 19:40
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    The question explicitly mentions litigation as well as lawyers. If the use of technology to prepare a brief (mechanical law clerks rather than human ones) fits the bill, why not use of technology (e.g. lie detectors) as a substitute for human testimony during litigation?
    – Ethan
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 19:57
  • Some courts allow lie detector evidence in certain proceedings or only when both parties agree to its admissibility. Other jurisdictions do not allow any lie detector evidence. Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 14:06
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It's probably stretching things a bit, but Arthur K. Barnes's "Satellite Five" (1938) introduced the "psycho-probe" to ferret out truth in criminal cases.

Galt laughed shortly.

“Police methods ain’t changed much in fifty years. Miss Carlyle. When we used t’ want t’ find out things in a hurry, we persuaded people t’ tell us.”

“You mean scopolamine — the truth serum?”

“No, ma’am. That ain’t always reliable. We used to use a rubber hose ’cause it didn’t leave no marks. Science has give us gadgets like the psycho-probe that beat the old hose all hollow. They don’t leave no marks, either, but they sure get the truth out of a man.”

You can read a copy of it in the October 1938 edition of Thrilling Wonder Stories here.

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  • As I noted above police methods produce evidence, not legal judgements.
    – DavidW
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 19:46
  • Fair enough. The mechanical judge matches better for that.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 19:55

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