Category: Jurisprudence

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Take that Constitution and…

…forget about it.  I understand that some folks must continue to fight Constitutional battles, inside and outside the courtroom, even if just to try to hold the line against Supreme Court precedents and federal legislation that encroach on the most basic interests and freedoms people need. Note that I can mention these without reference to rights.  Rights – another term that legal academics of all stripes tend to obsess about to the point of distraction from considering the very goods that recognized rights foster and protect.  The goods are not the rights.  Rights shelter goods and interests.  If they are the only form of cover your adversaries will acknowledge, then you better pitch a rights tent.  If representing the good or interest as covered by a right does not help further the good or interest, then don’t use the representation.  Rights and “rights” are neither objectively problematic nor objectively wonderful.  What’s important is which interests and goods we decide to foster collectively,  how we decide this, and whether law is a suitable social method for fostering any given worthwhile interest or good.  If law is an appropriate mechanism for the task, then there are interesting empirical questions about whether the law should be strongly interventionist, requiring very specific conduct to facilitate and foster these goods or interests, or whether it should be more subtle, creating background institutions and norms which increase the chance that these goods and interests will flourish.

Now, consider areas of law that start not from rights but from duties, areas like tort (publicly created duties, originating in common law or in legislation) or contracts (privately created duties, originating at the nexus of individual agreements and legal endorsement of certains types of agreement but not others – some agreements are endorsed or disqualified by courts, some by legislatures).  Not coincidentally, torts, contract, and restitution have historically been grouped together as the law of obligations, in both Anglo and Continental traditions.  And not coincidentally, these bodies of law presuppose interconnectedness and relationships. The foundational or mythic state of nature that animates contracts, torts, and restitution is one that assumes that people are always and inevitably embarking on relationships, sometimes on purpose sometimes accidentally.  But whether they mean to get involved with each other or not, whether they set out to affect other people or not, people connect.  Connection is basic.  Then the question becomes, which sort of connections engender which sorts of obligations?

Obviously, one can argue for thinner and thicker versions of legal obligation and sometimes such arguments rely on philosophical theories like liberalism (neo or otherwise) or conservativism (neo or otherwise).  But it is interesting to note that reflective legal scholars and lawyers engaged (knowingly or not) in normative jurisprudence regarding the law of obligations actually tend not to invoke the usual political philosophies that undergird and drive so much of the discourse about the Constitution.  A hypothesis about what why that’s so: if our starting point for thinking about and creating law is connection – the inevitable ties that will arise among social creatures – our starting point is already complicated and textured in ways that cry out for more particularistic arguments than those generated by wholesale political theories of any stripe.  Political theories that start from the individual rather than the connectedness of individuals can be more general and less nuanced because it is easier to oversimplify the individual than it is to oversimplify connection.  Likewise, areas of legal discourse and practice that answer to broad political theories tend to obscure particularities that matter tremendously in the course of actual lived experiences.

Mary Anne Franks’s discussion of creepshots and outing anonymous bloggers reveals the significance of starting from assumptions of connection rather than assumptions of individuality.  In our culture, the rhetoric of free speech and consent is premised on a particular Constitutional background.  The minute somebody invokes the phrase “free speech” they will be heard as invoking the First Amendment and the entire kit and caboodle of the Constitution.  This then spills over to and colors how “consent” and “privacy” get discussed – they are understood as subordinate matters, less important than and bounded by the explicitly Constitutionally acknowledged good of free speech.  It is ironic that these are the terms of the debate about an episode in an environment so often characterized as thoroughgoingly social – the web and websites where people go to interact.  If we all forgot about the Constitution, very different first questions might come to mind when thinking about creepshots. Namely, who is affected by the site and how?  What sort of connections does it foster or stunt?  Are these connections we collectively should concern ourselves with? Should we use law to structure the connections that inevitably arise from activity on the web?  If so, what do the parties (intended or unintended)  in  these connections owe to one another, morally, ethically, and legally?

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The “Missing Jurisprudence”

It is a great honor to participate in this online symposium, discussing Robin West’s Normative Jurisprudence: An Introduction. Last month, I was delighted to participate in an event at Georgetown University Law Center, discussing this important and groundbreaking work.

At that event, I was asked to summarize and comment upon Professor West’s first chapter, “Revitalizing Natural Law.”  (Mark Murphy, whose comments were posted yesterday, presented on the same panel and offered an illuminating commentary on Chapter 1 and natural law methodology generally.)

In this first of two posts, based on my comments at the Georgetown event, I will offer a partial summary of Chapter 1 of the book and comment on the aims of Professor West’s project.

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Professor West’s principal thesis in Chapter 1 is that American liberal and progressive jurisprudence has, to its own detriment, failed to take up the questions that ground the natural law tradition: namely, “What is the common good that law ought to promote?” and “How can law and legal systems best serve the common good?”  This failure has created what Professor West calls a “missing jurisprudence”:  that is, a liberal or progressive jurisprudence that takes natural law concerns seriously.

So… what would be the practical effect of infusing a natural law inquiry into a progressive jurisprudence?  How would the focus of this heretofore “missing jurisprudence” differ from that of the progressive jurisprudence we currently have? What, in other words, is the pay-off for developing a progressive natural law jurisprudence?

According to Professor West, the pay-off is six-fold:

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Justice, Law, and Fellowship: From Coordination to Collaboration

“True peace is not the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice and brotherhood.” — Martin Luther King, Jr. (1955, 1958, 1961)

At the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Washington DC

Dr. King spoke these words or similar ones on a number of occasions, usually when explaining the relationship between love, law, and civil disobedience. I invoke them here because of their affinity with the idea that law that successfully promotes the common good will not yield simply the absence of anarchy but the presence of fellowship.

In the first major chapter of Normative Jurisprudence, “Revitalizing Natural Law”, Robin West argues for “a reengagement of liberal and progressive lawyers with … the ethical inquiry into the nature of the common good furthered by just law.” This is a terrific project. But it is a more complicated project than either a casual reader or a sophisticated scholar might notice. There are at least two major kinds of complexity involved. One, to which West devotes some attention in the chapter, involves how to specify human good, common or individual. The other, which receives less attention, at least at this phase of the book, involves figuring out what is distinctively legal about a project to promote the common good. In this post, a bit about this second area of complexity. This is not to say that West herself does not appreciate the complexity of and need for sorting out the role of law in a quest for the common good.

West persuasively explains that just because the project of promoting the common good might also be a political one or an overall ethical one, that does not mean it is not also a legal one, a distinctively legal one, or one in which law plays a distinctive role. Throughout “Revitalizing Natural Law”, West emphasizes that achieving the common good, understood as arising from the demands of individual good, necessitates coordinated social action, of the sort law is uniquely positioned to bring about.

Individuals going it alone will not get very far in achieving their own good, notes West. A group of uncoordinated individuals who realize this problem need state-sponsored coordination, in the form of law, to ensure that each of them do better, which means that all of them will do better. Fair enough, as far as it goes. But there is a lot more to coordination, and to coordination implemented by law, than meets the eye.

“Coordination” can be understand more or less thickly. A law dictating whether to drive on the left or the right coordinates thinly. It solves a problem whose solution does not impact the good in question: keeping traffic flowing. The content of the law does not matter, what matters is having one. The activities and instrumentalities involved are understood, practically speaking, largely similarly by all the participants.

Most of the time, though, there is a thicker connection between laws governing collective action or social activity and the content of the laws themselves. Laws against polluting the environment presuppose or stipulate agreement on foundational matters, including what constitutes pollution and how to demarcate the polluters from the environment. Laws regulating research on human subjects presuppose or stipulate agreement on what is research, who is human, and what it means to be a subject of another’s study.

To approach jurisprudence as West urges means noticing and taking quite seriously the role law and legal institutions – all of them, not just legislatures, but courts and agencies and review boards and prosecutors and juries and so on – play in coordinating both the understanding and the lived actuality of the activities and instruments law references. The good is rich stuff, and to get us to it, law must make it possible for us to proceed from strategic interaction in a coordinated setting (e.g. driving on the highway) to substantive cooperation (e.g. creating a functional and legitimate banking system). That sort of cooperation rests on shared background understandings of matters basic, diverse, and particularistic. To enable such cooperation law must not only invite and permit, but also foster, collaboration on a worldview sufficiently shared so that law has a shared meaning for law makers, law appliers, law enforcers, and law abiders (not that these four actors are always distinct and separate).

The flight from ethical normativity that West identifies in Normative Jurisprudence is part of a larger flight from normativity in general – including the normativity of meaning. How much agreement on meaning do we need in order to achieve just law that furthers the common good? What sort of legal actors and institutions do we need to get that agreement? In future posts during this celebration of Normative Jurisprudence, I will continue to examine these questions. I take inquiry into them to be part of the project West urges. I also expect that there will be sharp disagreement among liberal and progressive scholars about how much shared meaning we need and what we are willing to do get it.

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“Normative Jurisprudence” and What Law Professors Should Do

(First,by way of full disclosure:  I am one of the co-editors (along with William Edmundson) of the Cambridge University Press Series in which Robin’s book appears.  Connected with that role, I had a small part to play in asking Robin to write the book for the Series, and in offering comments on the text prior to publication.)

Normative Jurisprudence surveys three prominent approaches within legal theory:  natural law theory, legal positivism, and critical schools of jurisprudence (including American legal realism, feminist legal theory, and critical legal studies). Robin argues that these approaches all, at one time or another, have argued for, and offered philosophical grounds for, significant social change, but that they have all fallen away from that proper path.  She holds up as examples of what theorists should do, Jeremy Bentham, who combined important work on abstract moral theory with crusading writing seeking legal and political reform, the American legal realists, whose jurisprudential work was combined with an agenda for legal and political change that they helped to realize in the New Deal, and John Finnis, whose modern work on Natural Law theory (e.g., Natural Law and Natural Rights (Oxford, 1980)) focuses on the importance of the common good, and a detailed argument about what it requires.  To these role models, Robin contrasts the dry debates in analytical legal philosophy (mea culpa!), the cryptic postmodern writings of modern Left theorists (here Robin joins Martha Nussbaum and Terry Eagleton in suggesting that postmodern theorists have done more to undermine social reform than to support or motivate it), and the thin views of the common good in the secular and process-focused natural law theories of Ronald Dworkin and Lon Fuller

I  think Normative Jurisprudence is a marvelous and important book.  Like most books of its stature, it raises significant questions for further discussion.  The one I will focus on relates to specialization and expertise in the legal academy.

One can take it as a given that individuals should work for social justice, and that this is true (other things being equal) whatever one’s training, career, or position.  The question is whether there is something special about academics, legal academics, theorists, or legal theorists, such that we should expect more from them, perhaps because they have special relevant expertise. (Most of the writers for and readers of Concurring Opinions are law professors; perhaps we could begin by asking ourselves what special role we think we have (individually, or collectively as law professors) in relation to matters of policy and justice.)

Speaking as someone who writes in legal theory, but who has never played a prominent role in social reform, I feel a need to respond to Robin’s critique.   I would argue that what most analytical theorists do best is analysis, and they (we) have no special expertise relating to advocating for social change.  I do not think that analytical work should only be done if it can be in the service of fighting injustice (though when it can serve that cause, all the better).  Similarly, critical theorists may have brilliant things to add to the discussions of the social construction of ideas and practices, and perhaps should offer those ideas even if they have little effect on the movement towards social justice (and even potentially a slight negative effect).

I see little reason to think that law professors (qua law professors) have any special insights about what the best society or most just world looks like, or what the best way is to get us there.  Law professors may have some expertise on the distinctive benefits and problems of legal reform:  what has tended to work well and less well in attempting reform through the law, the unintended consequences that can follow from trying to change behavior through legal rules, and so on.  However, this is a limited (if still important) piece of the large and complex social justice puzzle.

There have of course always been law professors who were also great figures in legal and social reform and significant public intellectuals (Catharine MacKinnon is one obvious name that comes to mind).  However, most of us continue to chip away on a smaller scale on matters closer to our training:  doctrinal scholars do doctrine, and theoreticians do theory of various kinds — perhaps showing that conceptual analysis is inappropriate to determining the nature of law, proving the incoherence of legal normativity, explaining the true strengths and limits of analogical reasoning within law, and so on.

I join Robin in celebrating those people who have been able to construct theories that have played key roles in legal and social reform, and I join her also in encouraging those among current academics who have the potential to be the next Bentham or MacKinnon to work towards that goal.   However, I remain doubtful that law professors are generally, by their nature or usual skill set, those best placed to be at the forefront of reform movements.

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Bo Xilai and the Rule of Law

This blog is banned in China, but I thought I would post something about the scandal involving Bo Xilai, a senior member of the Communist Party who fell from power after allegations of corruption and murder surfaced earlier this year.  I used to do some work in China as part of my school’s program in Beijing, and I remain keenly interested in what’s going on there.

When the rule of law develops in a culture, we could imagine that happening either in a top-down or in a bottom-up way.  From what I remember about legal history in England, the story goes something like this.  Ordinary criminal defendants got little or no process as we would understand that concept.  In high-profile treason trials, though, defendants were afforded more protection because of their status and because the Crown was concerned about the legitimacy of any guilty verdict.  Eventually, the innovations and practices that developed in the treason trials seeped down to the ordinary trials.

In China, the evolution is running in the opposite direction.  If you’re an ordinary defendant, you seem to get some reasonable protections.  (I would say, though, that this depends a lot on what part of the country that you’re in.)  If you’re really important, though, you vanish into the Party’s secret justice system.  Then, months later, you get a show trial where you confess.  This is what happened to Bo Xilai’s wife, one of his key political hatchet men, and will probably happen to Bo himself.  The thought, I guess, is that the prosecution of garden-variety crimes does not threaten the one-party state, whereas corruption among the elite does.  At some point, though, this two-track criminal justice system (at least one with such a wide difference) will collapse to the benefit of the rule of law.  Or so I hope.

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On Information Justice

Like the other commenters on From Goods to a Good Life, I also enjoyed the book and applaud Professor Sunder’s initiative in engaging more explicitly in the values conversation than has been conventionally done in IP scholarship. I also agree with most of what the other commenters have said.  I want to offer plaudits, a few challenges, and some suggestions about future directions for this conversation.

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Is IP for People or Corporations?

Another day brings another cornucopia of exciting and important comments on my book, From Goods to a Good Life: Intellectual Property and Global Justice. I thank Professors Molly Van Houweling, Jessica Silbey, Michael Madison, and Mark McKenna, and earlier Concurring Opinions commentators —Professors Deven Desai, Lea Shaver, Laura DeNardis, Zahr Said, and Brett Frischmann—for reading my book so carefully, and engaging it so helpfully. I focus here on Professor Van Houweling’s framing of an important issue arising in the discussion.

Professor Van Houweling has provoked stimulating discussion with her astute observation of two competing visions of intellectual property within the emergent “capabilities approach” school of intellectual property we identified earlier this week. Professor Van Houweling contrasts Professor Julie Cohen’s alternative justification of copyright as a tool for promoting corporate welfare (sustaining creative industries), with my attention to intellectual property laws as tools for promoting livelihood and human welfare (sustaining human beings in their quest for a good life).

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Intellectual Property Theory: An Homage and Reply

I am moved and honored by this deep engagement with my book by this amazing array of scholars. Let me reply to each that has chimed in so far, and seek to situate my work within the broader IP discourse at the same time.

What a difference a few years make! Professor Said, who is younger than I am, arrived on the IP scene more recently, and happily she found a more plural discourse than I saw several years back. In the first few years of the new century, scholars on both the Right and Left seemed unified in their commitment both to the incentives rationale and the ultimate goal–innovation. Scholars on the Left saw the incentives rationale as limiting IP rights, because they argued that intellectual property need not offer rights beyond those necessary to incentivize creation. They also argued that too many property rights might result in an anticommons and erode the public domain. Some public domain scholars—to whom my book is both homage and reply—worried that opening IP to alternative discourses such as human rights might bolster property owners’ arguments rather than limit them.

The public domain scholars opened a space for critique in a field that was “coming of age.” In my new book, From Goods to a Good Life: Intellectual Property and Global Justice (Yale University Press 2012), I seek to both consolidate and expand that critique. I argue that we need to rethink the ultimate goal of intellectual property itself. We should seek not simply to promote more goods, but rather the capability of people to live a good life. To that end, we need to ask new questions beyond just how much intellectual production law spurs, and turn to disciplines beyond law and economics for guidance. Which goods are being produced and which are neglected under market incentives? Even when goods are produced, like AIDS medicines, how can we ensure just access to these knowledge goods? Surely access to essential medicines for people who cannot afford them is important if we believe in the dignity of all human beings. But what about access to culture, such as films, music, and literature? I argue that participation in these cultural activities is just as important – singing and dancing together and sharing stories are activities central to our humanity. They promote learning, sociability, and mutual understanding.

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Adam Thierer on Classical Liberalism on the Net

As the political season is in full swing and folks claim to understand SOPA, PIPA, etc., I thought I should point people to Adam Theirer’s post Mueller’s Networks and States = Classical Liberalism for the Information Age. I knew Adam a little before my stint at Google. I came to know him more while there. I do not agree with everything Adam says. Rather, he reminds me of folks I knew in law school. I disagreed with many people there, but respected the way they argued. Their points made me rethink mine and perhaps improve them. The distinction between cyber-libertarianism and Internet exceptionalism that Berin Szoka and Adam try to make is important. I am not sure it succeeds but as Adam says

They are not identical. Rather, as Berin and I argued, they are close cousins. Properly defined, cyber-libertarianism is essentially the application of traditional libertarian thinking — which is more properly defined as classically “liberal” — to Internet policy issues. Berin and I define “cyber-libertarianism” as “the belief that individuals — acting in whatever capacity they choose (as citizens, consumers, companies, or collectives) — should be at liberty to pursue their own tastes and interests online.” Internet exceptionalism, by contrast, is the belief that the Internet has changed culture and history profoundly and is deserving of special care before governments intervene. But that does not necessarily tell us what sort of philosophy or core tenants ultimately animate exceptionalism going forward. (emphasis added by me)

This last point is the reason I call out the piece. So far I have not seen anything that addresses the point in a satisfactory way. Adam and Berin face this gap and try to fill it. Agree. Disagree. That is your choice. But read the whole thing and see where you end up. One final note, I think classical liberalism as Adam defines it may be more empty than it seems. For now I cannot explain why. For that I apologize to those of that camp, but I am working on that. Oh which reminds me, Julie Cohen’s book, Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code, and the Play of Everyday Practice, takes on this issue.

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Stanford Law Review Online: Politicizing the Supreme Court

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published a Note by Eric Hamilton entitled Politicizing the Supreme Court. Hamilton writes that the Framers carefully constructed a Supreme Court independent from the political branches of government:

To state the obvious, Americans do not trust the federal government, and that includes the Supreme Court. Americans believe politics played “too great a role” in the recent health care cases by a greater than two-to-one margin. Only thirty-seven percent of Americans express more than some confidence in the Supreme Court. Academics continue to debate how much politics actually influences the Court, but Americans are excessively skeptical. They do not know that almost half of the cases this Term were decided unanimously, and the Justices’ voting pattern split by the political party of the president to whom they owe their appointment in fewer than seven percent of cases. Why the mistrust? When the Court is front-page, above-the-fold news after the rare landmark decision or during infrequent U.S. Senate confirmation proceedings, political rhetoric from the President and Congress drowns out the Court. Public perceptions of the Court are shaped by politicians’ arguments “for” or “against” the ruling or the nominee, which usually fall along partisan lines and sometimes are based on misleading premises that ignore the Court’s special, nonpolitical responsibilities.

He concludes:

The health care law’s closely watched journey through the three branches of government concluded in the Supreme Court, a rare opportunity in the sun for the Court. What would have been a shining moment for the Constitution in a vacuum was instead validation of the Framers’ apprehensions. Our Constitution is the longest-lasting in the world because of Americans’ enduring reverence for it. But when elected officials exploit Americans’ patriotism to score political points, they jeopardize the Framers’ carefully constructed balance of power. Instead, honest public discourse on the Constitution and the Court is the surest security for our government.

Read the full article, Politicizing the Supreme Court by Eric Hamilton, at the Stanford Law Review Online.