John Kaplan (1929November 25, 1989) was a
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social scientist Social science is the branch A branch ( or , ) or tree branch (sometimes referred to in botany Botany, also called , plant biology or phytology, is the science of plant life and a branch of biology. A botanist, plant scientist o ...
social justice Social justice is justice in terms of the distribution of wealth Wealth is the abundance of valuable financial asset A financial asset is a non-physical asset whose value is derived from a contractual claim, such as deposit (finance), ban ...
advocate, popular law professor, and author. He was a leading authority in the field of
criminal law Criminal law is the body of law Law is a system A system is a group of Interaction, interacting or interrelated elements that act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole. A system, surrounded and influenced by its env ...
, and was widely known for his legal analyses of some of the deepest social problems in the United States. He was known for his work linking sociological research with legal policies, and limiting academic legal theory with real-world sociological data. He was an advocate for ending criminal
prohibition Prohibition is the act or practice of forbidding something by law; more particularly the term refers to the banning of the manufacture Manufacturing is the production of goods In economics Economics () is the social science that st ...
s on private behavior such as drug use, arguing that these laws only made any problems worse.

Education and career

Kaplan received a bachelor of science degree in physics from
Harvard University Harvard University is a private Private or privates may refer to: Music * "In Private "In Private" was the third single in a row to be a charting success for United Kingdom, British singer Dusty Springfield, after an absence of nearly t ...

Harvard University
, then worked in a Naval research lab for several years. He returned to Harvard to attend Law School, was a member of the
Harvard Law Review The ''Harvard Law Review'' is a law review A law review (or law journal) is a scholarly journal An academic or scholarly journal is a periodical publication in which scholarship relating to a particular academic discipline is published. Ac ...
, and graduated
magna cum laude Latin honors are a system of Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally spoken in the area around Rome, known as Latium. Through the ...
. In 1954–5, after his law degree, he served as
law clerk A law clerk or a judicial clerk is an individual—generally an attorney Attorney may refer to: Roles * Attorney at law, an official title of lawyers in some jurisdictions * Attorney general, the principal legal officer of (or advisor to) a gover ...
for US Supreme Court Justice Thomas C. Clark, then studied criminology in
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Vienna, Austria
. He practiced as a criminal defense attorney then worked in the
Department of Justice A justice ministry, ministry of justice, or department of justice is a ministry or other government agency A government or state agency, sometimes an appointed commission, is a permanent or semi-permanent organization in the machinery of governme ...
in Illinois as a Special U.S. Attorney, trying tax fraud cases, commenting "it was my method of squaring things with poor people." He then moved to work as an
Assistant United States Attorney An Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA), often referred to as a federal prosecutor, is an official career civil service position working for the federal government of the United States The federal government of the United States (U.S. ...
in the
Northern District of California The United States District Court for the Northern District of California (in case citations, N.D. Cal.) is the United States federal courts, federal United States district court whose jurisdiction comprises following counties of California: Alam ...
, later commenting on this work, "I tried to discourage guilty pleas then, because I loved to try cases." In 1962, he began teaching law at
Northwestern University Northwestern University is a private Private or privates may refer to: Music * "In Private "In Private" was the third single in a row to be a charting success for United Kingdom, British singer Dusty Springfield, after an absence of nearl ...

Northwestern University
, then at
University of California Berkeley The University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley, Berkeley, Cal, or California) is a public In public relations and communication science, publics are groups of individual people, and the public (a.k.a. the general public) is the to ...
. In 1965, he joined the law faculty at
Stanford University Stanford University, officially Leland Stanford Junior University, is a private Private or privates may refer to: Music * "In Private "In Private" was the third single in a row to be a charting success for United Kingdom, British singer Du ...

Stanford University
, where he became the
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Professor of Law. He wrote notable text books on the legal theory of evidence and on criminal law, as well as publishing both scholarly works and books on social justice.


Scholarly work

Kaplan's ''Decision Theory and the Factfinding Process'' (1968) applies
decision theory Decision theory (or the theory of choice not to be confused with choice theory) is the study of an agent's choices. Decision theory can be broken into two branches: normative Normative generally means relating to an evaluative standard. Normati ...
to the judicial
factfinding Fact-finding is the job of a person or group of persons in a judicial or administrative proceeding that has or have the responsibility of determining the facts relevant to decide a controversy. The term trier of fact A trier of fact, or finder o ...
process, not with the end of providing a rigorous mathematical process to make decisions of fact, which he considered unrealistic, but to provide insights into the overall decision process in legal system.
United States Supreme Court The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is the highest court in the Federal judiciary of the United States, federal judiciary of the United States of America. It has ultimate and largely Procedures of the Supreme Court of the United ...

United States Supreme Court
Justice William J. Brennan Jr. recommended this article in a footnote of ''
In re Winship ''In re Winship'', 397 U.S. 358 (1970), was a United States The United States of America (U.S.A. or USA), commonly known as the United States (U.S. or US) or America, is a country Continental United States, primarily located in North Amer ...
'', as an "interesting analysis" of the factfinding process. In ''Of Babies and Bathwater'' (1977), Kaplan asserted that jurors mistrust the accuracy of press reports, and assumed their own knowledge of the facts of the case was superior to that of any newspaper reporter. ''The Problem of Capital Punishment'' (1983) was cited by United States Supreme Court Justice
Byron White Byron Raymond "Whizzer" White (June 8, 1917 April 15, 2002) was an American lawyer and professional American football, football player who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1962 to 1993. Born and rais ...
in '' Pulley v. Harris'', as neatly summarizing the problem in which defendants who are charged and convicted for similar crimes often receive vastly different sentences.


His 1972 textbook,''Criminal Justice'' was adopted at more than 100 colleges nationally. In ''The Hardest Drug: Heroin and Public Policy'' (1983), he wrote that drug policies "are about as good as we're going to get. .. Heroin maintenance won't work and free availability would be even worse", noting that "increased law enforcement may not prove very cost-effective. You could send two prisoners to Stanford for the cost of sending one to prison."


Kaplan's colleagues described him as a "spellbinding" and "legendary" teacher, who was "fast on his feet, funny and got right to the point". He was one of the most popular teachers at Stanford University, and taught one its most popular classes - ''The Criminal Law and the Criminal System'', which filled the largest lecture hall on campus and used an innovative (for its time) method of handling overflow by broadcasting the class on the campus radio station. The student press wrote, "hundreds of students in his undergraduate and law school classes have loved him for are his humorous and informative lectures, his caring and open attitude, and his lively personality in and out of class." He received the
John Bingham Hurlbut Award John is a common English name and surname: * John (given name) * John (surname), including a list of people who have the name John John may also refer to: New Testament Works *Johannine literature ** Gospel of John, a title often shortened to ...
for teaching excellence.

Social science and activism

Over his career, Kaplan served on several government committees, advising on drug laws, criminal law, and social issues. As one of the major social scientists of criminal law, he was known as demanding that legal theory confront the hard facts produced by criminological research. He was known as a "hard-nosed policy analyst" and "one of a few legal academics who also had an expertise in policy analysis without ideological preconceptions." In 1985, Stanford University charged Kaplan with investigating allegations of
police brutality Police brutality is the excessive and unwarranted use of force by law enforcement 'Law enforcement'' is the activity of some members of government who act in an organized manner to enforce the law by discovering, deterrence (legal), deterr ...

police brutality
, after a Stanford student was physically injured after being arrested by campus law enforcement officials, who used
pain compliance holds A grappling hold, commonly referred to simply as a hold that in Japanese language, Japanese is referred to as ''katame-waza'' ( "grappling technique"), is any specific grappling, wrestling, judo, or other martial art grip that is applied to an op ...
on students using
passive resistance Nonviolent resistance (NVR), or nonviolent action, is the practice of achieving goals such as social change through symbolic protests, civil disobedience, economic or political noncooperation, satyagraha, or other methods, while being nonviolent ...
to protest Stanford investment in companies doing business in
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South Africa South Africa, officially the Republic of South Africa (RSA), is the southernmost country in Africa. With over 60 million people, it is the world's 23rd-most populous nation and covers an area of . South Africa has three capital citie ...

South Africa
. Kaplan's report was critical of the police hold method, and commended campus security for rapidly changing methods for handling limp protesters. Criticism of the investigation included that the report was prepared prior to meeting with student eyewitnesses, and that when Kaplan and the head of campus police met with student eye-witnesses, the students were not allowed to ask questions at the meeting or see a copy of the report prior to the meeting. In 1989, he chaired the Faculty Senate at Stanford University.


Kaplan was known to his colleagues, students, and community for his academic brilliance, teaching skills, activist concern for others, high energy level, and sense of humor. He often appeared in the media, where he was described as "pithy, humorous, and incisive" and as having a "quick wit and exhaustive knowledge of criminal law. Harvard law professor James Q. Wilson said Kaplan was "one of the ablest and brightest people I know in the field of criminal justice", and additionally was one of the best "conversationalists" he knew. Colleague and Stanford Law School Dean
Paul Brest Paul Brest (born 1940) is an American scholar of constitutional law, a former president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and a former dean of Stanford Law School. He is an influential theorist on the role of non-profit organizations i ...
described him, as "a delight and an education, and sometimes a challenge to get words in edgewise." Kaplan lectured to full audiences at Stanford's largest lecture halls with hyperactive and gesticulating lecture style:
Kaplan appears to move constantly, walking casually back and forth across the stage or in the aisles ... rolling or pushing up the sleeves of his white shirt, and putting his hands in his pockets ... punctuating his lectures with emphatic gestures, pantomiming questions, answers and comments while speaking them, and immediately communicating his opinion of any issue.

Sense of humor

Kaplan was known for "a crackling wit and a boisterous sense of humor." A former student described Kaplan as "a brilliant, often outrageous teacher, who employed humor in an attempt to drive the law into our not always receptive minds." His colleague commented that Kaplan provided "the sense of irreverence that we desperately need around the law school." His sense of self-deprecating humor was described as being of the "New York type" in the Stanford law school newspaper, comparing Kaplan to comedic film director
Woody Allen Woody Allen (born Allan Stewart Konigsberg; November 30, 1935) is an American film director, writer, actor, and comedian whose career spans more than six decades and multiple Academy Award The Academy Awards, popularly known as the Os ...

Woody Allen
. The student press described him as being the worst dresser on campus, and having a desk littered with books, manuscripts, messages, tape recorders, and professorial odds and ends ... and with Kaplan's feet, which he hastily removed and started putting some papers in the wastebasket. Kaplan replied, ''"I'm usually a complete slob ... my filing system is to throw things out"'' and ''"Oh, well, no one has ever loved me for my looks"''. When asked to teach an antitrust class in which he had no expertise, prior to rapidly becoming an expert on the subject, he wrote in the course guide description, ''"This course will have something to do with antitrust law whatever that is."'' He once broadcast his Criminal Law mid-term like a baseball game over the campus radio station, with "a color commentator, pre-exam warm-up, and interviews with students and TA's after the event". He was fond of
practical joke A practical joke, or prank, is a mischievous trick played on someone, generally causing the victim to experience embarrassment Embarrassment or awkwardness is an emotion Emotions are biological states associated with all of the nerve syste ...
s. His colleagues posthumously added this footnote to their criminal Law casebook they coauthored with Kaplan:
The late Prof. John Kaplan was fond of the following classroom hypothetical nvolving_attempt,_ nvolving_attempt,_recklessness_(law)">recklessness,_and_intent.html" ;"title="recklessness_(law).html" ;"title="attempt.html" ;"title="nvolving attempt">nvolving attempt, recklessness (law)">recklessness, and intent">recklessness_(law).html" ;"title="attempt.html" ;"title="nvolving attempt">nvolving attempt, recklessness (law)">recklessness, and intent]: A very bad person goes to the roof of a high-rise building, dragging a very heavy potted plant. He pushes the plant over the edge and down onto a crowded noontime street, but, by miraculous chance, it does not hit any person. Of what is he guilty? (Extra credit was given to anyone answering 'littering'.)

Personal life

Kaplan was born in New York City to Mr. Kaplan and Dorothy Kaplan. He married Elizabeth Kaplan and they fathered three children in
Palo Alto, California Palo Alto (; Spanish language, Spanish for "tall stick") is a charter city located in the northwestern corner of Santa Clara County, California, United States, in the San Francisco Bay Area. The city is named after a Sequoia sempervirens, coast ...

Palo Alto, California
, Carolyn Springer Kaplan, Jonathan Edward Kaplan, and Jessica Baron Kaplan. He died of cancer after aggressively trying to fight it, undergoing experimental therapy to treat the brain tumor that eventually killed him. Doctors infected Kaplan with a bacterium, in conjunction with other chemicals, to stimulate his immune system in an effort to fight off the cancerous cells, based on experiments on mice showing an 80 percent elimination of brain tumors for a type of tumor that was a different from Kaplan's. Colleague
Robert Weisberg Robert I. Weisberg is an American lawyer. He is an Edwin E. Huddleson, Jr. Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, and an expert on criminal law and criminal procedure, as well as a leading scholar in the law and literature movement. Weisberg wa ...

Robert Weisberg
commented that Kaplan's motives for undergoing experimental treatment derived from his "selfless interest in seeing whether this therapy might work" for others.

Selected publications

before 1970

Suits Against Unincorporated Associations Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (1954)

Search and Seizure: A No-Man's Land in the Criminal Law (1961)

Segregation Litigation and the Schools-Part I: The New Rochelle Experience (1963)

Segregation Litigation and the Schools-Part II: The General Northern Problem (1963)

Segregation Litigation and the Schools-Part III: The Gary Litigation (1964)

Prosecutorial Discretion-A Comment (1965)
* The Trial of Jack Ruby (1965)
Equal Justice in an Unequal World: Equality for the Negro-The Problem of Special Treatment (1966)

"The Assassins." Reviews of ''Rush to Judgment'' by Mark Lane; ''Inquest'' by Edward Jay Epstein; ''Whitewash: The Report on the Warren Report'' by Harold Weisberg; ''The Oswald Affair'' by Léo Sauvage; ''The Second Oswald'' by Richard H. Popkin.
Stanford Law Review The ''Stanford Law Review'' (SLR) is a legal journal produced independently by Stanford Law School Stanford Law School (Stanford Law or SLS) is the law school A law school (also known as a law centre or college of law) is an institution sp ...
'', Vol. 19, No. 5, 1967, pp. 1110–1151. .
Decision Theory and the Factfinding Process (1968)


Marijuana, the new prohibition (1970)

The role of the law in drug control (1972)

The Limits of the Exclusionary Rule (1974)

American Merchandising and the Guilty Plea: Replacing the Bazaar with the Department Store (1977)

Of Babies and Bathwater (1977)


The wisdom of gun prohibition (1981)

The Problem of Capital Punishment (1983)

The Hardest Drug: Heroin and Public Policy (1983)

Administering Capital Punishment (1984)

Firearms and violence: Issues of public policy (1984)

Defending Guilty People (1986)

Taking drugs seriously (1988)


* ''Criminal Justice'' (1972) * ''Criminal Law: Cases and Materials'' * ''Evidence: Cases and Materials'' (1992)


{{DEFAULTSORT:Kaplan, John Stanford University faculty American jurists Harvard Law School alumni American prosecutors Law clerks of the Supreme Court of the United States 1929 births 1989 deaths