There is an argument to be made that Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. matters more today than he did in his own lifetime, even if he is, with a few exceptions, less understood. He continues to be the most cited Supreme Court justice in United States history, and his pithy phrases, hard-hitting prose, and axiomatic opinions and dissents continue to obtain as law; even when they do not obtain as law, they almost always remain valid candidates for becoming law.
Holmes wrote his ambitious tome The Common Law to outline the history of the development of Anglo-American jurisprudence as it played out in the complex interactions among people down through the centuries. In so doing, he showed that law is a meliorative process of applying and organizing—with mixed purposes and results—general principles in different ages. Holmes’s attention to precedent as both a corrective heuristic and a systematic hermeneutic grounded in case patterns and practices demonstrates how common law systems work. In recent Supreme Court cases, justices on both the putative “left” and “right” wing of the court have cited Holmes to authorize certain viewpoints, and Holmes’s writings are recycled so often by judges that they appear to have been central to ensuring the validity and viability of the very organism—the common law—that they sought to improve and describe.
Holmes was, and is, known for his deference to local legislatures; he did not think that unelected judges should be able to impose their viewpoints upon distinct, regional cultures and communities. He resisted sprawling interpretations of words and principles, even if his hermeneutics brought about consequences he did not like. He was open about his willingness to decide cases against his own interests. As he wrote to his cousin John T. Morse, “It has given me great pleasure to sustain the Constitutionality of laws that I believe to be as bad as possible, because I thereby helped to mark the difference between what I would forbid and what the Constitution permits.”
Louis Menand, in The Metaphysical Club, asserts that “one thing that can be said with certainty about Holmes as a judge is that he almost never cared, in the cases he decided, about outcomes,” because he was “utterly, sometimes fantastically, indifferent to the real-world effects of his decisions.” In other words, Holmes did not reach his decisions because they would produce results that he could applaud; he reached them because he thought they were conclusions he had to arrive at in light of facts, circumstances, precedents, and rules. A common mistake is to take Holmes’s deference to the mores and traditions of states and localities as evidence of his shared belief in those mores and traditions. For instance, David Bernstein’s Rehabilitating Lochner (University of Chicago Press, 2011) tickets Holmes’s dissent in Lochner v. New York as a denunciation of business interests, but that was not the case. Holmes did not have to agree with states and localities to say that federal judges and Supreme Court justices should not inject their worldview (economic or otherwise) into the life of a community with an opposing worldview. As Frankfurter said of Holmes, “He has ever been keenly conscious of the delicacy involved in reviewing other men’s judgment not as to its wisdom but as to their right to entertain the reasonableness of its wisdom.”
In this respect, Holmes is a pragmatic pluralist in the manner of William James, and his judicial outlook seems to enact a more political version of James’s religious masterpiece “Varieties of Religious Experience.” Holmes’s jurisprudence might even be dubbed “Varieties of Political Experience.” Holmes’s position on judging is analogous to James’s suggestion in “Varieties of Religious Experience” that a person is entitled to believe what he wants so long as the practice of his religious belief is verifiable in experience and does not infringe upon the opportunity of others to exercise their own legitimate religious practices. James put forth the idea of a “pluralistic universe,” which he envisioned to be, in his words, “more like a federal republic than an empire or a kingdom.” Holmes likewise contemplated the notion of a federal republic in his opinions and dissents, especially in his deference to the states and their legislatures. Although countless biographers and historians have noted the relationship between Holmes and James, I have yet to see an article-length treatment of this federalist aspect of their commonalities.
Holmes is often harnessed in the service of some conservative or liberal position—the most polemical on this score is Albert W. Alschuler’s Law Without Values: The Life, Work, and Legacy of Justice Holmes (University of Chicago Press, 2001)—but it is a mistake to treat his writings as an endorsement of the politics they enabled. The most recent article published on Holmes, “The House that Built Holmes” by Brad Snyder (Vol. 30 of the Law & History Review, 2012), argues that Holmes’s reputation is largely a product of the iconic status to which young progressives elevated him, even though, ironically, Holmes disagreed with their politics. In fact, Holmes did not support many of the projects that his decisions made possible; nor did he consider his own views unconditionally right; he therefore refused to insert his ideas into places where a faraway, federal judge’s opinion did not belong. Menand seems to suggest that Holmes’s experiences as a soldier in the 20th Massachusetts, during the Civil War, shaped Holmes’s views about law, particularly with regard to regional particularities and idiosyncrasies. His entire life, Holmes would couch his catchy rhetoric in the vocabularies of war, and he insisted that certitude, such as it was, could lead only to violence.
Absolute, uncompromising certitude is precisely what Holmes had against natural law jurisprudence. Holmes saw natural law as an excuse for those who thought their worldview was correct to impose their politics onto others with different ideas. Holmes defined truth as the system of his own limitations and as whatever it was that he could not help but believe. Truth, for him, was no grounds for policy; it was simply what one does with what one knows.
In “The Path of the Law,” Holmes put forth the bad man theory or prediction theory of law, which holds that we should not view the law as an abstract statement about morals, but as those consequences which a bad man predicts will obtain if he chooses one course of action instead of another. The law is, accordingly, a prediction about what will happen if one performs certain acts. Such informed, calculated guessing—a habit acquired and refined by experience—is the way most of us decide to do one thing or another. Most of us do not, when we stop at a traffic light, for example, consider the morality of the action we are performing, but instead consider the ramifications of our potential act should we actually carry it out.
That Holmes continues to be such a hotly contested figure, that his writings continue to be cited by judges at all levels, state and federal, suggests that his legacy remains important and that his ideas, however misunderstood, continue to figure the direction of American law and government.