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The Law is Above the Lawyers

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Conservatism, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Research & Writing, Literary Theory & Criticism, The Supreme Court, Writing on October 3, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review appeared here in The American Spectator.

Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (Thomson West, 2012)

Do not let its girth fool you: Reading Law by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and legal writing guru Bryan A. Garner is an accessible and straightforward clarification of originalism and textualism.* A guide for the perplexed and a manual of sorts for judges, this book presents 57 canons of construction. Each canon is formatted as a rule — e.g., “When the syntax involves something other than a parallel series of nouns or verbs, a prepositive or postpositive modifier normally applies only to the nearest reasonable referent” — followed by a short explanation of the rule.

Frank H. Easterbrook, who provided the foreword to the book, submits that originalism is not about determining legislative intent, but construing legislative enactment. In other words, originalists interpret as strictly as possible the words of the particular text and do not look to the earlier maze of political compromises, equivocations, and platitudes that brought about the text. Each legislator has unique intent; projecting one person’s intent onto the whole legislative body generates a fiction of vast proportion.

That the process of enacting a law is so rigorous and convoluted suggests the importance of adhering closely to the express language of the law; legislators, after all, have taken into account the views of their constituents and advisors and have struggled with other legislators to reach a settlement that will please enough people to obtain a majority. A judge should trust that painstaking process and not overturn or disregard it.

Originalism involves what Stanley Fish, the eminent Milton scholar and literary critic turned law professor, has called “interpretive communities.” That is the very term Easterbrook employs to describe how judges should account for cultural and communal conventions at the time a text is produced: “Words don’t have intrinsic meanings; the significance of an expression depends on how the interpretive community alive at the time of the text’s adoption understood those words.”

To be sure, the original meaning of a text — what reasonable people living at the time and place of its adoption ordinarily would have understood it to mean — is never fully accessible. The meanings of old laws are particularly elusive. When a judge can no longer identify the context of a law by referring to dictionaries or legal treatises available when it was promulgated, then he should defer to the legislature to make the law clearer.

Judges should not impose their interpretative guesses onto the law and, hence, onto the people; nor should judges make new law on the mere supposition, however reasonable, that a text means something that it might not have meant when it was written. “Meaning” is itself a slippery signifier, and it is in some measure the aim of this book to simplify what is meant by “meaning.”

The book is not all about grammar, syntax, and punctuation. It has philosophical and political urgency. The authors propose that the legal system is in decline because of its infidelity to textual precision and scrupulous hermeneutics. A general neglect for interpretive exactitude and consistency has “impaired the predictability of legal dispositions, has led to unequal treatment of similarly situated litigants, has weakened our democratic processes, and has distorted our system of governmental checks and balances.” All of this has undermined public faith in lawyers and judges.

Scalia and Garner, who recently teamed up to write Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (Thomson West, 2009), proclaim themselves “textualists,” because they “look for meaning in the governing text, ascribe to that text the meaning that it has borne from its inception, and reject judicial speculation about both the drafters’ extratextually derived purposes and the desirability of the fair reading’s anticipated consequences.” Most of us, they say, are textualists in the broadest sense; the purest textualists, however, are those who commit themselves to finding accurate meanings for words and phrases without regard for the practical results.

Consequences are the province of legislators. A judge ought to be a linguist and lexicographer rather than a legislator; he or she must be faithful to texts, not accountable to the people as are elected officials. (Leaving aside the issue of elected judges at the state level.) The authors seem to be suggesting that their approach needn’t be controversial. Originalism and textualism are simply names for meticulous interpretive schemes that could lead judges to decisions reflecting either conservative orliberal outcomes. One doesn’t need to be a fan of Scalia to appreciate the hermeneutics in this treatise.

Never have we seen a plainer, more complete expression of originalism or textualism. Reading Law could become a landmark of American jurisprudence, numbered among such tomes as James Kent’s Commentaries on American Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s The Common Law, H.L.A. Hart’s The Concept of Law, and Lon L. Fuller’s The Morality of Law. Although different from these works in important ways, Reading Law is equally ambitious and perhaps even more useful for the legal community, especially on account of its sizable glossary of terms, extensive table of cases, impressive bibliography, and thorough index.

Every judge should read this book; every lawyer who cares about law in the grand sense — who takes the time to consider the nature of law, its purpose and role as a social institution, and its historical development — should read this book as well. If Scalia and Garner are correct that the general public no longer respects the institutions of law, then this book is valuable not only for revealing the root causes, but also for recommending realistic and systematic solutions.


* Originalism and textualism are not the same thing; this review treats them as interchangeable only because Judge Easterbrook’s forward uses the term “originalism” whereas Scalia and Garner use the term “textualism,” but each author appears to refer to the same interpretive approach.

The Problem with Legal Education; or, Another Piece About the Aimlessness, Pointlessness, and Groundlessness of Law School

In Arts & Letters, Humanities, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Pedagogy, Teaching, Writing on July 27, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Allen Mendenhall

The latest issue of Academic Questions (Summer 2011: Vol. 24, No. 2) devotes most of its content to legal education.  Published by the National Association of Scholars, Academic Questions often features theme issues and invites scholars from across the disciplines to comment on particular concerns about the professoriate.  (Full disclosure: I am a member of the NAS.)  Carol Iannone, editor at large, titles her introduction to the issue “Law School and Other Tyrannies,” and writes that “[w]hat is happening in the law schools has everything to do with the damage and depredation that we see in the legal system at large.”  She adds that the contributors to this issue “may not agree on all particulars, but they tell us that all is not well, that law school education is outrageously expensive, heavily politicized, and utterly saturated with ‘diversity’ mania.”  What’s more, Iannone submits, law school “fails to provide any grounding in sound legal doctrine, or any moral or ethical basis from which to understand principles of law in debate today.”  These are strong words.  But are they accurate?  I would say yes and no.

Law school education is too expensive, but its costs seem to have risen alongside the costs of university education in general.  Whether any university or postgraduate education should cost what it costs today is another matter altogether.

There is little doubt that law schools are “heavily politicized,” as even a cursory glance at the articles in “specialized” law journals would suggest.  These journals address anything from gender and race to transnational law and human rights.

But how can law be taught without politicizing?  Unlike literature, which does not always immediately implicate politics, law bears a direct relation to politics, or at least to political choices.  The problem is not the political topics of legal scholarship and pedagogy so much as it is the lack of sophistication with which these topics are addressed.  The problem is that many law professors lack a broad historical perspective and are unable to contextualize their interests within the wider university curriculum or against the subtle trends of intellectual history.

In law journals devoted to gender and feminism, or law journals considered left-wing, you will rarely find articles written by individuals with the intelligence or learning of Judith Butler, Camille Paglia, or Eve Sedgwick.  Say what you will about them, these figures are well-read and historically informed.  Their writings and theories go far beyond infantile movement politics and everyday partisan advocacy.    Read the rest of this entry »

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