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Category: Jurisprudence

LawProf as Philosopher-King

brasilia.jpgCarlin Romano’s fascinating profile of Harvard Law Prof Roberto Unger should prove inspiring for any academics who long for a policy role. Here’s a taste:

His political involvement in Brazil dates to the late 1970s, when military dictatorship gave way to a “political opening.” Unger offered his services to the united opposition party. In 1978 he became that party’s chief of staff . . . . In those days, he says with a grin, he consoled himself “during solitary evenings … with readings and translations of Chinese imperial poetry, one of the themes of which is the presence of the exiled intellectual in the dusty steppes.” . . .

In April 2007, [Socialist President] Lula invited Unger for two long conversations in Brasília, then offered him a new position running a “Secretariat for Long-Term Actions.” Unger accepted, informing Lula that he’d start after finishing his Harvard semester. . . .

“I have the only position in the government that is about everything, except for the position of the president,” Unger exults. “He has all power, and I have none. But I have one advantage over him. I don’t have to manage daily crises. I’m therefore free — as he is not — to deal with the future and to deal with our direction. It’s been fantastic.”

Unger’s ideas for change are interesting, though the scholarship that underlies them has gotten a mixed reception in the American academy.

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“For Every Three Judges, Two Are in the Fire”: Richard Posner and the Usul al-Fiqh

I’ve been reading Richard Posner of late, and it strikes me that there is an odd analogy between the his vision of the pragmatic judge and the position of the judge under the classical usul al-fiqh of Islamic law. It seems to me that ultimately Judge Posner’s theory of adjudication rests on a radical rejection of the ex post perspective. On his view all judicial decisions are — and ought to be — forward looking, focusing solely on the consequences for the future that will come from deciding one way rather than another. Of course, a concern for future consequences needn’t preclude a certain respect for past practices, expectations, and rule of law values, but none of this stuff has any force in and of itself. It only matters in so far as it impacts the future. One of the implications of this theory is that the judge can never hide behind the “the law” as a way of distancing him or herself from moral responsibility for her decisions. The law does not dictate particular results in any case. Rather, it is always a matter of the judge making an individual — albeit practically constrained — judgement about what would — all things considered — be best. One doesn’t get any sense that Judge Posner spends much time thinking about the personal moral status of the judge, but it seems to me his theory makes the judge into a radically responsible moral agent. If the consequences of one of Judge Posner’s decisions is really bad, it really is Judge Posner’s fault.

Ulema.pngWhere Judge Posner’s theory of law is radically ex ante, the theory of law (usul al-fiqh) proposed by the classical Islamic jurists purported at any rate to be radically ex post. In theory, all human legislation is a denial of the sovereignty of God, a kind of blasphemy. Rather, a righteous society follows God’s law. This law, however, is finished and complete, indeed according to the dominant theological approach in Islam it is uncreated, a co-eternal emanation of the divine mind. The task of a jurist is to discover the divine law as revealed in the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammed. Put in more concrete terms, the classical Islamic jurists claimed that every rule necessary for the proper government of society could be discovered — not deduced from or promulgated in accordance with — with the sacred texts of Islam. At this point in their theory, however, the jurists came up against the ultimately unsystematic and ad hoc nature of the Islamic revelation. The Qur’an is not a legal code. Rather it is a collection of “recitations” — often in the form of religious poetry — given by God to the Prophet, often in response to concrete questions or problems raised by the early Islamic community. It was only in the generation after his death that these “recitations” were collected into the Qur’an. Not surprisingly, it takes some nimble exegetical gymnastics to transform this religious ur-stuff into a functioning body of substantive law. What haunted the classical jurists was that they might be wrong in their exegesis. As Marshall Hodgson has written, for a Muslim “every person, as such with no exceptions, was summoned in his own person to obey the commands of God: there could be no intermediary, no group responsibility, no evasion of any sort from direct confrontation with the divine will.” Hence, there was no sense in which a jurist could hide behind some abstraction like office or “the law” to shield himself from full responsibility for his judicial decisions. He was to apply the law of God, and if he got it wrong he was responsible for that mistake.

According to one Muslim legal aphorism, “For every three judges, two are in the fire.” The fire in question here is the hell reserved by God for judges who do not apply His law. Indeed, there are stories of great classical legal scholars who fled from Baghdad at the prospect of being made an actual judge by the Caliph. The reason was that once one moved from exegetical speculation to deciding actual cases, one’s eternal soul was on the line. I don’t think that Judge Posner is much worried about hell fire, but ironically his radically ex ante approach leaves him in a similar moral position personally to the radically ex post approach of the ulema.

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Ranking State Courts

Choi, Gulati & Posner have posted an amazing new article on SSRN, Which States Have the Best (and Worst) High Courts?

This paper ranks the high courts of the fifty states, based on their performance during the years 1998-2000, along three dimensions: opinion quality (or influence as measured by out-of-state citations), independence (or non-partisanship), and productivity (opinions written). We also discuss ways of aggregating these measures. California and Delaware had the most influential courts; Georgia and Mississippi had the most productive courts; and Rhode Island and New York had the most independent courts. If equal weight is given to each measure, then the top five states were: California, Arkansas, North Dakota, Montana, and Ohio. We compare our approach and results with those of other scholars and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose influential rankings are based on surveys of lawyers at big corporations.

There’s lots of great, nuanced, analysis in the paper, and a particular emphasis on how congruence & dissonance in ranking systems may help readers/consumers/lawyers better evaluate & build institutions. Of particular interest to readers of California’s gay marriage decision will be the overall, summary, analysis from pages 23-25 of the paper:

“No state emerges as a clear winner, but a strong case can be made that California has the best high court. It has the most #1 rankings on the triangle chart, and the most #1-3 rankings, and is tied for the most #1-5 rankings . . . The top contenders are Arkansas, North Dakota, Montana, and Georgia. If one focuses on common law cases . . . then Mississippi, Rhode Island, and Alabama emerge as the top states. The strong performance of southern states is a bit of a surprise.”

Fun stuff. I wonder what would happen if people drilled deeper and analyzed the relative performance (and influence?) of state trial courts. After all, the trial courts are where the action is, even though studying them is a tremendous pain.

(H/T: Legal Theory Blog)

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Constitutionalism and Legitimacy

constitution5a.jpgOver at Convictions and Balkinization, Orin Kerr and Jack Balkin are having an interesting discussion about Justice Scalia’s constitutionalism versus liberal constitutionalism.

Orin Kerr writes:

Justice Scalia’s view has popular appeal precisely because it is based on populism. His basic theme is that the People created the Constitution, and they can set rules with in it. If the People want to change the Constitution, they can. But it’s up to them. In this view, the People decide: Every citizen is empowered to participate in the rule making that governs us all. I think this resonates not because Justice Scalia is a legal Pied Piper but because the message itself is quite powerful (and to me, I confess, pretty persuasive). At bottom, it’s “we the people.”

Kerr notes that liberal constitutionalism can be defended by arguing that “some limitations on democratic rule making actually enhance democratic rule making.” But, Kerr notes: “This is a very popular move among academics, although it can be hard to sell to the public.” Kerr also contends that another option is “to forget about theory and instead focus on results. . . . The idea is to focus on the bad results that are possible if courts let elected branches run amok, and then ask whether you want to live in a world with good results or the potential for bad ones.”

Jack Balkin contends that “Scalia may say his originalism is respectful of majority rule, but he is perfectly happy to strike down lots of laws for which there is little basis in the original expected application.” Balkin goes on to argue:

By contrast, liberal constitutionalism is far more honest. Its basic principles are simple. First, we must be faithful to the constitutional text and to the basic principles of the Constitution that underlie it. Second, we must apply and adapt these principles in the text to changing times. Liberal constitutionalists from Brandeis to Brennan have made these two basic claims over and over again: Be faithful to the constitution’s text and principles, and apply them faithfully to new circumstances and new challenges.

I have a few thoughts to add to this debate:

1. The quest in theories of constitutional interpretation has often been to find a way to legitimate judicial review. What gives courts the power to stop the will of the majority? The problem is that in a post-realist age, we realize that the Constitution is not very constraining and that justices can interpret it as freely as they can a Rorschach blot. This makes the quest for legitimacy a very difficult one, in at least two senses: (1) we need a theory for why a document written hundreds of years ago can bind us today, even when a large majority of us may want to do something; (2) we need a theory for why judicial interpretations of this document are authoritative and not merely the gussied-up projection of a justice’s preferences. All sorts of valiant efforts have been made to find legitimacy in these two senses.

2. I’m not sure we should be so obsessed with legitimacy, because I’m not sure that we’ll ever come up with a satisfactory way to achieve it. Kerr might very well be right that most theories to find legitimacy might appeal more to theorists than to the general public, and that’s a big problem, for at least one main reason why legitimacy is sought is to convince the public of the validity of the Court’s decisions. Paul Kahn’s Legitimacy and History (1993) makes a very powerful argument for why the quest for legitimacy is futile.

3. Justice Scalia’s populist constitutionalism is also deeply flawed. He says he’s reluctant to overturn the will of the majority, but as Balkin notes, that’s just false. Scalia’s brand of originalism is just one theory among many to claim legitimacy, a way to argue that Scalia’s interpretations are somehow more grounded than other justices’ interpretations, that he somehow has insight into the true meaning of the Constitution. But there is no true meaning of the Constitution. And Scalia’s method of interpretation is no more legitimate than many other methods. The realist in me says that this entire debate is about sloganeering. Everybody wants their vision to be the true meaning of the Constitution, and it devolves into a silly game of “I’m more legitimate than you.”

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Science, Math, and the Essence of All Things

De_revolutionibus_orbium_coelestium2.JPGLast week Thomas Jefferson had Professor James Hackney of Northeastern University School of Law as our last speaker in our colloquium series. His talk focused on his book, Under Cover of Science: American Legal-Economic Theory and the Quest for Objectivity (featured at this past year’s AALS conference) and about his next steps on this topic. The book traces the way that science lurks behind the law and how law and economics has used the appearance of a scientific approach to justify its claims on jurisprudence. As the book’s site puts it “Hackney demonstrates how legal-economic thought has been affected by the prevailing philosophical ideas about objectivity, which have in turn evolved in response to groundbreaking scientific discoveries.” Now Science News reports that the June issue of the European Mathematical Society Newsletter has a debate over whether “new mathematical truths discovered or invented?” (annoyingly, the link to the Newsletter does not have the recent issue available as yet)

According to ScienceNews, one of the participants, Rueben Hersh of the University of New Mexico, “rejects the Platonic view, arguing instead that mathematics is a product of human culture, not fundamentally different from other human creations like music or law or money.” So as Hackney’s work makes a case that law and economics is not as objective as it seems, this group of articles about math suggests that even the science (or here related math) that provides the cover Hackney describes, lacks the objectivity it claims. The recent work on governance by Robert Ahdieh, Orly Lobel, and Mike Madison among others may be a response to the idea that law is not so objective. Rather it may be that the law seeks objectivity but faces complex and less than ideal situations. Governance ideas may fill that gap. We shall see.

Image: Title page of the second edition of Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, printed 1566

Source: WikiCommons

License: Public Domain

cross-posted at Madisonian

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Judges Citing Literature

book35a.jpgProfessor Todd Henderson (U. Chicago Law School) has posted an interesting article on SSRN, Citing Fiction, 11 Green Bag 2d 171 (2008). He provides many illuminating facts about judges citing literary works:

A comprehensive survey of over 2 million federal appellate opinions over the past 100 years reveals only 543 identifiable citations or references to works of fiction. Of these, less than half – 236 – were employed rhetorically to evoke an emotional response in the reader. This type of citation, which I’ll call a “literary” citation, occurs in only about 1 out of every 10,000 federal appellate opinions.

Todd’s data is quite interesting, but I disagree with how he frames his essay and some of the conclusions he draws. Todd writes:

[A] central claim of the law and literature movement (which I’ll refer to as “the Movement”) is that reading fiction can provide judges with knowledge about how to solve real world problems. For example, Professor Martha Nussbaum writes that “the novel constructs a paradigm of a style of ethical reasoning … in which we get potentially universalizable concrete prescriptions by bringing a general idea of human flourishing to bear on a concrete situation.” If this is true and the Movement has had a significant effect on law, one would expect to see an increase in the use of literature in judicial opinions, since judges routinely cite to works that have a direct impact on their decisionmaking. We should also expect to see works cited for the reasons the Movement wants them to be – to reveal that the fiction has evoked feelings of pity and empathy for the less fortunate and given a voice to traditionally marginalized segments of society. Neither of these things is true.

Unpacking this paragraph, I see the following claims: (1) whether the law and literature movement “has had a significant effect on law” can be assessed by instances when literature has a “direct impact” on judicial decisionmaking; (2) “central” claims of the law and literature movement are that literature makes judges more ethical or empathetic and that literature provides judges with “knowledge about how to solve real world problems”; and (3) citations will demonstrate whether literature has a “direct impact” on a judge’s decisionmaking.

Let’s begin with the first claim: Whether the law and literature movement “has had a significant effect on law” can be assessed by instances when literature has a “direct impact” on judicial decisionmaking.

This claim begins with an assumption that having a significant effect should be measured by having a direct impact. But it is unclear why the significant effect must be a direct impact rather than an indirect one. Reading Orwell’s 1984 might help shape how judges perceive surveillance and government power. Will it directly affect their decisions? Probably not, if direct effects mean that but for reading Orwell’s book, a judge inclined to decide a case one way will now decide it another way. But it might have helped shaped a judge’s mindset along with other works of literature and a number of other social and cultural experiences. It might have an indirect effect. The difficulty is that looking for direct impact is far too demanding a requirement.

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Is Baseball the Fairest Sport?

baseball22.jpgAs Spring Training continues, the Boston Review recently published a letter from John Rawls to Yale Law Prof. Owen Fiss singing the praises of baseball. It’s not hard to see the connections between Rawls’s theory and his criteria for excellence in a sport:

The game does not give unusual preference or advantage to special physical types, e.g., to tall men as in basketball. All sorts of abilities can find a place somewhere. . . .

[A]ll plays of the game are open to view: the spectators and the players can see what is going on. Per contra football where it is hard to know what is happening in the battlefront along the line. Even the umpires can’t see it all, so there is lots of cheating etc. And in basketball, it is hard to know when to call a foul.

[B]aseball is the only game where scoring is not done with the ball, and this has the remarkable effect of concentrating the excitement of plays at different points of the field at the same time.

Finally, there is the factor of time, the use of which is a central part of any game. Baseball shares with tennis the idea that time never runs out, as it does in basketball and football and soccer. This means that there is always time for the losing side to make a comeback.

No sudden death OT for philosophers! And let’s not forget George Will’s observation that baseball is an ideal meritocracy because of its long season.

Nevertheless, I wonder if Rawls would have revised his views in light of the steroid crisis, a topic with some philosophical overtones.

Photo Credit: D.F. Shapinsky.

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