Category: Legal Theory

7

The Meaning of “Well Settled Law”

Alito.photo.jpg

Lawyers use the phrase liberally in their briefs; judges sprinkle their opinions with it. But hardly anyone agrees what it means. The phrase: “well settled law.” One of the most interesting exchanges occurred during the Alito hearings over this very phrase:

Ms. Feinstein asked whether Judge Alito did not agree that Roe “was well settled in court.”

He said, “It depends on what one means by the term ‘well settled.’”

This was followed by an extended back-and-forth and careful parsing of what the phrase may or may not mean to Alito.

It would be a mistake to see Alito’s equivocation as merely a product of confusion over terminology. Indeed, Alito’s hesitation to accord Roe the status of “well settled law”–he finally said only that it must be accorded “respect” as “very important precedent”–cannot be understood in an internally coherent way.

Read More

2

On Conservative and Liberal Labels

My most recent post has engendered some discussion on a point tangential to its purpose, but important nonetheless — how to determine whether a particular Justice (or, I imagine, judge or individual for that matter) is conservative or liberal, or somewhere in between. Can we agree in any significant percentage of cases that an individual belongs at a particular place on that spectrum?

I think the answer is no, because such categorization depends on context, and each of us subjectively chooses the context.

Focusing on categorizing judges, now, each of us, I imagine, wants to see conservative and liberal as labels indicating the direction in which the given judge deviates from the ideal. Thus Judge Bork sees originalists not as “conservatives,” but as simply applying the law, and I am sure others on the left are the mirror image. If you’re an originalist, therefore, a conservative is one who deviates from originalism to achieve conservative results, and a liberal is one who deviates from originalism to achieve liberal results.

But because we have no agreement on what is the proper way to interpret legal texts, including constitutions, any labeling system dependent on evaluating a judge’s agreement with the “correct” results is not likely to be effective in general conversation. There are two alternatives I see. First, you could make the label purely relative, being explicit about context. In that manner we could quite sensibly (if over-simplistically) refer to the most conservative Justice on a certain issue, or even the most conservative Justice overall on the current Court.

Second, the inquiry could be more self-consciously empirical, in that a Justice will be scaled liberal or conserrvative based on the percentage of cases in which he decides cases in a liberal or conservative direction. Thus, we would rank Justice Ginsburg as 60% liberal, and Justice Scalia as 34% so. Such an effort has the promise of being relatively objective, but even there there are problems with determining how liberal one must be to be a “liberal” and so forth. For example, Epstein & Segal (from whom I got those figures, see p. 126) characterize Justice Ginsburg as “moderately liberal for voting liberal 60% of the time, but characterize Justice Scalia as “very conservative” and “extremely conservative” for voting conservative 66% of the time.

These debates are played out in plenty of areas besides the judiciary, and rarely do we agree on resolutions because we rarely agree on the proper context. Is academia liberal, for example, because such an overwhelming majority votes Democratic? Or is it conservative because taking a world view American academia is less liberal than much of the rest of the world?

8

Legal Realism and Fashion Consulting: A Misunderstood Relation?

dresssuccess.jpgSome years ago a colleague gave me a copy of John Molloy’s 1975 book Dress for Success. Perhaps the fact that he asked me whether I own an iron contains a clue to his message; I’m not sure.

I found it buried in a box of books I unpacked recently and began to read the chapter “For Lawyers: How to Dress Up Your Case and Win Jurors and Judges.” It contains the following sage commentary on the behavior of judges:

Before the urban judge you should avoid the Ivy League tie. You should avoid any sign of ostentation. You should avoid any look that is with-it, chic or “in.” Urban judges tend to be quite ticklish about their newfound socioeconomic positions, even if they’ve held them for some time, and often look upon anyone coming into their courtroom as a threat to them personally. Anybody who doesn’t treat their courtrroms with respect, and that means anyone who dresses in a manner that they find is unbecoming, will be dealt with harshly. Their response may well be subconscious; no judge will ever tell you that he’s ruling against you because of your smartass tie, but believe me, many of them will.

Read More

5

Why Blawging is Bad For Law

Hello Folks.

I’ve joined Co-Op today from Prawfsblawg. This is by my count the fifth time I’ve introduced myself at a new blog-home. That makes me a bit of an itinerant blogger. It is also pretty ironic, because I generally think that the institution of blogging/blawging threatens to fundamentally disrupt some very valuable aspects of how law is currently organized, administered and transmitted.

To take an example I posted on recently on Prawfs, consider what happens to the common law when the primary sources which form its skeleton — judicial opinions – become the fodder for the entertainment of an audience of millions of eager web-surfers. Yes, I’m talking about you, Howard. It isn’t that How Appealing, and like blawgs, are bad. Indeed, I visit Howard’s blawg every day, and it is an invaluable resource. It is that Howard’s popularity, and the increasing linking of opinions by the MSM-online, provides incentives for judges to write witty, funny, entertaining, short, glib opinions, instead of careful, boring, technically precise ones. That is, to the extent that lower-court judges want to be noticed and profiled by (kind of silly) websites like these, it makes sense to be more like Scalia and Douglas than Souter and Rutledge.

Some might protest: surely federal judges don’t care much about having their opinions widely publicized? They have life tenure, and they care only about not being reversed. But the motivations of federal judges seem to me to be an open question, and I think that if I could somehow chart the growth of funny and media friendly opinions, we’d see a small bump beginning with the introduction of WL and a huge increase in the last five years.

So, why is this bad?

To find out, you’ll have to visit here again, as I will be retuning to this topic soon.

11

Spinning Straw into Gold

LawBooks.jpgI was initially attracted to the law because I thought that the books looked cool. My father is an art historian and my mother was an adjunct English professor before she became a tech writer. My grandfathers were a rancher and a farmer respectively. I did not come from a legal background. Nevertheless, my first year of college I wrote a paper that required that I venture into the law library, and I was entranced by the look and feel of old copies of the U.S. Reports.

There was something about the heavy mustiness of the books, the calfskin bindings, and the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century type faces that captured my imagination. The books just looked like they contained “lore” and “learning.” One of the great pleasures of my clerkship was going through my judge’s personal collection of rare legal books: a first edition of Blackstone, Yearbooks printed in the 17th and 16th centuries, a Restoration-era printing of the record in Charles I’s trial, and so on.

Read More

1

The Philosophical Significance of the Repo Man

It is time to consider a much neglected topic in legal thought: the philosophical significance of the repo man. Aside from providing the grist for cult movies, the repo man also poses some very basic questions about the nature of the social contract and the autonomy of private law.

Read More