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A Better Sort of Constitutional Learning: James McClellan’s Liberty, Order, and Justice

In American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Britain, History, Humanities, Law, Philosophy, Scholarship on July 25, 2018 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in Law & Liberty.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions not long ago characterized the office of sheriff as a “critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.” This plain statement of an incontrovertible fact should not have been controversial. Yet with clockwork predictability, social media activists began excoriating Sessions for his ethnocentrism.

Even those who should have known better—Bernice King (daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.), the NAACP, college-educated personalities in the Twittersphere—piled on the criticism, accusing Sessions of racism and suggesting the term “Anglo-American” was a dog whistle for white nationalists and the alt-Right. It was another sign of how uninformed many in our society have become, and of how name-calling and crude labeling have replaced constructive dialogue and civil conversation in the political sphere.

Fortunately, there’s a good, levelheaded primer for understanding the basic framework of American government that teachers and other leaders should recommend and assign to our ignorant masses: James McClellan’s Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government, which the Liberty Fund published in 2000.

McClellan, who passed away in 2005, was a proud Virginian who taught at several universities, including the University of Virginia, and was, among other things, the James Bryce Visiting Fellow in American Studies at the Institute of United States Studies (University of London) and president of the Center for Judicial Studies at Claremont McKenna College in California. He was also for a time a senior resident scholar at Liberty Fund.

Liberty, Order, and Justice is McClellan’s best known work. It maps the history and philosophy that shaped the U.S. Constitution and its amendments and is separated into seven parts, each appended with primary sources that are reproduced in full or in part: Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, the English Bill of Rights, the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan, the Northwest Ordinance, and many others.

As a straightforward overview of the seminal concepts that characterize American government—separation of powers, republicanism, federalism, checks and balances, rule of law—this volume could serve, and probably has served, as the principal textbook for a high school or college course. The “Suggested Reading” lists at the end of each of its sections provide more than enough supplemental material to round out a semester of comprehensive study.

A work of such breadth and scope is impossible to summarize. McClellan begins with British history, in particular the emergence of Parliament, the evolution of the common law, and the development of legal doctrines and principles that responded to changing circumstances. He discusses the differences between the French and American Revolutions, and their respective effects upon the imaginations of Americans who were alive at the time. He devotes an entire section to the Philadelphia Convention, which he says, perhaps overstating, was “often more like a gathering of polite friends than an assemblage of angry political zealots.”

McClellan’s chief concern is federalism, a principle that appears throughout. He highlights disagreements between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, warning that “we should not presume that the Anti-Federalists were wrong.” He adds: “The inquiring student, having examined the debates thoroughly and objectively, may well conclude that the Anti-Federalists were right about certain matters.”

Lest his readers get lost in the historical and conceptual details, McClellan prefaces each section with the heading “Points to Remember,” followed by numbered outlines of central facts and themes. This feature enables easy memorization and study—another reason the book is suited for the classroom. 

For the most part, McClellan recounts historical events dispassionately, and lays out influential concepts with no personal pique or ideological bent. Only occasionally is he tendentious, and then only subtly so. For instance, his judicial hermeneutics seek out authorial intent, thereby rejecting textualism and signing on to a now passé version of originalism. “The basic interpretive task,” he submits, “is to determine the intent of the Constitution, laws, and treatises, and to construe all instruments according to the sense of the terms and the intentions of the parties.”

This statement might have made Justice Antonin Scalia unhappy.

He’s also skeptical of natural law, stating:

It may well be that we are all governed by a higher, unwritten natural law, emanating from God; that certain rights are by nature indelibly impressed upon the hearts and minds of all mankind; and that the spirit of ’76 is incorporated into our fundamental law. The problem is that these concepts, whatever their merit and value, are not provided for in the Constitution, and there is no evidence that the Framers ever intended them to be.

This statement would have made Justice Scalia happy.

McClellan calls Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England a “great compendium of learning,” a term of endearment that applies equally to Liberty, Order, and Justice. The two have a similar aim: to synthesize disparate principles into a coherent treatise and to explain the origins and foundations of the current legal and political order. In a different age, when information wasn’t immediately available and students couldn’t google their way to quick answers, this book might well have become as important as the Commentaries.

Its cheerful conclusion, at any rate, seems naïve in our present moment: “What we have offered you in this book is the basic structure of America’s constitutional order. It is up to you to preserve and improve that structure; and you have a lifetime in which to work at it.” Were he alive today, McClellan might not be so optimistic.

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Love and the Law Professors

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Jurisprudence, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Liberalism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Pedagogy, Scholarship, Teaching, Writing on March 29, 2017 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared here in The University Bookman. 

As improbable as it sounds, someone has written “a love letter to the teaching of law.” At least that’s what Stephen B. Presser sets out to do in Law Professors, which is less pedagogical than it is historical and biographical in approach. If not a love letter, it’s at minimum a labor of love about the genealogy of American legal education, for which Presser is admirably passionate.

Even more improbable is how a book about three centuries of law professors could be enjoyable. Yet it is. Every rising law student in the United States should read it as a primer; experienced legal educators should consult it to refresh their memory about the history and purpose of their profession.

Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern University’s Prizker School of Law and the legal-affairs editor of Chronicles. He’s a leading voice of what is sometime referred to as paleoconservatism, who maintains that our political dysfunction derives in part from the methods and jurisprudence of law professors. His book might be called a diagnosis of our social ailments, the cure being the repurposing of legal education.

Beneath his silhouettes—two involve fictional figures (Lewis Eliot and Charles Kingsfield) while the other twenty deal with actual flesh-and-blood teachers—lies a structural dualism that enables him to classify his subjects under mutually exclusive heads: those who believe in higher law and divine order, and those who believe that laws are merely commands of some human sovereign. The former recognize natural law, whereby rules and norms are antecedent to human promulgation, whereas the latter promote positivism, or the concept of law as socially constructed, i.e., ordered and instituted by human rulers.

These binaries, Presser says, explain the difference between “common lawyers and codifiers,” “advocates of Constitutional original understanding and a living Constitution,” and “economic analysts of law and Critical Legal Studies.” Here the dualism collapses into itself. The common-law method is at odds with originalism in that it is evolutionary, reflecting the changing mores and values of local populations in a bottom-up rather than a top-down process of deciphering governing norms. Constitutionalism, especially the originalism practiced by Justice Scalia, treats the social contract created by a small group of founding framers as fixed and unamendable except on its own terms. The law-and-economics movement as represented by Judge Posner and Judge Easterbrook is difficult to square with natural law because it’s predicated on cost-benefit analysis and utilitarianism. In short, it’s a stretch to group the common law, originalism, and the law-and-economics movements together, just as it’s strange to conflate legislative codification with critical legal studies. Distinctions between these schools and traditions are important, and with regard to certain law professors, the binaries Presser erects are permeable, not rigid or absolute.

Presser’s narrative is one of decline, spanning from the late eighteenth century to the present day. It begins with Sir William Blackstone, “the first of the great modern law professors.” Presser may overstate the degree to which Blackstone propounded a common-law paradigm that was frozen or static and characterized by biblical principles. The influence of Christianity and moral principles is unmistakable in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England, especially in its introductory and more general sections, but the vast majority of the treatise—which was intended for an audience of young aspiring lawyers, not scholars or jurists—describes basic, mundane elements of the British legal system and organizes judicial principles and decisions topically for ease of reference. Presser is right that, more than anyone else, Blackstone influenced early American lawyers and their conception that the common law conformed to universal, uniform Christian values, but Jefferson’s more secular articulation of natural law as rooted in nature had its own adherents.

Other teachers included here are James Wilson (after whom Hadley Arkes has named a fine institute), Joseph Story (whose commitment to natural law is offset by his federalist and nationalist leanings), Christopher Columbus Langdell (whose “original and continuing impact on American legal education is unparalleled”), Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (whose career as a professor was short and undistinguished), John Henry Wigmore (whose “sometimes idol” was Holmes), Roscoe Pound (“a figure of extraordinary talent”), Karl Llewellyn (the “avatar” of the legal-realist movement), Felix Frankfurter (“no longer the God-like figure at Harvard”), Herbert Wechsler (“the anti-Holmes”), Ronald Dworkin (who reformulated the theories of John Rawls), Richard Posner (the subject of William Domnarski’s recent biography), Antonin Scalia (“best known for his bold conservative jurisprudence”), and several still-living contemporaries.

Presser is particularly hard on Holmes, relying on Albert Alschuler’s harsh and often careless assessments of the Magnificent Yankee. He charges Holmes with embracing the view that judges were essentially legislators and suggests that Holmes was “policy-oriented.” Although this portrayal is popular, it is not entirely accurate. In fact, Holmes’s jurisprudence was marked not by crude command theory (the Benthamite version of which he adamantly rejected) but by deference and restraint. Presser himself recalls Alschuler in claiming that Holmes “was prepared to approve of virtually anything any legislature did.”

So was Holmes a policy-oriented judge legislating from the bench, or did he defer to legislatures? Undoubtedly the latter. Only once during his twenty years on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court did he hold legislation to be unconstitutional. As a Supreme Court Justice, he almost programmatically deferred to state law. “[A] state legislature,” he said, “can do whatever it sees fit to do unless it is restrained by some express prohibition in the Constitution of the United States,” adding that courts “should be careful not to extend such prohibitions beyond their obvious meaning by reading into them conceptions of public policy that the particular Court may happen to entertain.” Rather than imposing his personal policy preferences, Holmes believed that a judge’s “first business is to see that the game is played according to the rules whether [he] like[s] them or not.” If Holmes’s conception of judicial restraint and the Fourteenth Amendment had carried the day, the holdings in Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Lawrence v. Texas, and Obergefell v. Hodges, among others, would not have occurred.

Presser admittedly doesn’t like Holmes, but he is polite about it. There’s a charming sense of collegiality in his assessments of his contemporaries as well. He boasts of his own traditionalism without hesitating to call Duncan Kennedy and Catharine MacKinnon “brilliant.” He disagrees with his opponents without denigrating their intelligence and expresses gratitude to faculty whose politics differ radically from his own. He describes a variety of disciplinary schools, including critical race theory, which don’t appeal to him. And he gives some unjustly neglected thinkers (e.g., Mary Ann Glendon) the attention they rightly deserve while some overrated thinkers (e.g., Cass Sunstein) receive the attention they relish.

President Obama is held up as the quintessential modern law professor, the type of haughty pedagogue responsible for the demise of the rule of law and the widespread disregard for constitutional mandates and restrictions. Yet law professors as a class weren’t always bad; in fact, they once, according to Presser, contributed marvelously to the moral, spiritual, and religious life of America. Presser hopes for a return to that era. He wishes to restore a proper understanding of natural law and the common-law tradition. His conclusion takes a tendentious turn that reveals his abiding conservatism. Those who agree with him will finish reading this book on a high note. His political adversaries, however, may question whether they missed some latent political message in earlier chapters.

But isn’t that the nature of love letters—to mean more than they say and say more than they mean? Presser’s love letter to law teaching is enjoyable to read and draws attention to the far-reaching consequences of mundane classroom instruction. He’s a trustworthy voice in these loud and rowdy times.

Varieties of Emersonian Pragmatism: Synthesis in Justice Holmes

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Creativity, Emerson, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Poetry, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Scholarship on April 20, 2016 at 6:45 am

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There is a long tradition of scholarship regarding Emerson’s pragmatism. Among those who have written about Emerson’s pragmatism are Russell B. Goodman, Giles Gunn, Poirier, Cornel West, Joan Richardson, Levin, and James M. Albrecht. Even earlier Kenneth Burke noted that “we can see the incipient pragmatism in Emerson’s idealism” and that “Emerson’s brand of transcendentalism was but a short step ahead of an out-and-out pragmatism.”

Goodman analyzed Emerson as “America’s first Romantic philosopher,” the counterpart to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Carlyle whose idealism would influence William James and later John Dewey and Stanley Cavell.

Gunn examined while contributing to the critical renaissance of American pragmatism in the 1990s; he suggested that Emerson cast a long shadow “at the commencement of the pragmatist tradition in America” and that Emerson belonged to a family of writers that included Henry James, Kenneth Burke, John Dewey, Frank Lentricchia, and others.

To reach this conclusion Gunn adopted a more diffuse definition of pragmatism that went beyond the philosophical tradition of Peirce, Dewey, George Herbert Mead, Sidney Hook, Morton White, Richard Bernstein, John McDermott, and Richard Rorty. He attended to aesthetically charged political texts presented not only by Emerson but also by W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, Flannery O’ Connor, Elizabeth Hardwick, Poirier, Cornel West, Clifford Geertz, and Stanley Fish. Gunn left behind James’s “somewhat restricted focus on the nature of knowledge and the meaning of truth” and turned instead to literary and cultural works that affected social issues.

Gunn’s focus on the social indicates a debt to Dewey, and his valuation of Emerson must be considered in a Deweyian context. That Emerson is a pragmatist is somewhat implied or tacit in Gunn’s account; his discussion is not about what elements of Emersonian thought evidence pragmatism but about how Emerson influenced Henry James Sr. and his sons William and Henry, who in turn influenced a host of other writers; how Emerson spearheaded an American tradition of strong poets and transmitted optimism to subsequent writers; and how Emerson cultivated aesthetic rhetoric and anticipated progressive sociopolitical thought.

If Gunn is a bridge between classical philosophical pragmatism and neopragmatism of the aesthetic variety, Poirier was neither classical philosophical nor neopragmatist, eschewing as he did the logics and empiricism of Pierce and James as well as the political agitating of some of Gunn’s subjects. Poirier concentrated above all on the literary and cultural aspects of pragmatism: not that these aspects are divorced from politics, only that their primary objective is aesthetic or philosophical rather than partisan or activist.

Poirier sought to “revitalize a tradition linking Emerson to, among others, Stein, and to claim that new directions can thereby be opened up for contemporary criticism.” He, like Gunn, was frank about his attempt to expand the pragmatist canon that purportedly began with Emerson. “As Emerson would have it,” he explained, “every text is a reconstruction of some previous texts of work, work that itself is always, again, work-in-progress.”

This constant, competitive process of aesthetic revision gives rise to a community of authors whose mimetic activities gradually form and reform a canon that resembles and functions like the constantly reformulating legal principles in a common-law system: “The same work gets repeated throughout history in different texts, each being a revision of past texts to meet present needs, needs which are perceived differently by each new generation.” Within this revisionary paradigm, Poirier heralded Emerson as the writer who “wants us […] to discover traces of productive energy that pass through a text or a composition or an author, pointing always beyond any one of them.”

Cornel West explored the radical implications of pragmatism to democracy in the works of Emerson, Peirce, William James, Dewey, Sidney Hook, C. Wright Mills, W.E.B. DuBois, Reinhold Niebuhur, Lionel Trilling, Roberto Unger, and Michel Foucault. Unlike the interpreters of pragmatism discussed above, West extended the pragmatist canon from America to the European continent and professed a radical preoccupation with knowledge, power, control, discourse, and politics. Like the previous interpreters, however, he acknowledged the family resemblances among disparate pragmatist thinkers and their ideas and so, in Nietzschean or Foucaultian fashion, undertook a “genealogy” of their traditions.

Recent work by Colin Koopman has run with the historicist compatibilities between genealogy and pragmatism to articulate novel approaches to cultural studies. Although the topic exceeds the scope of this short post, genealogical pragmatism might serve as a promising methodology for future studies of the common-law system.

“My emphasis on the political and moral side of pragmatism,” West explained, “permits me to make the case for the familiar, but rarely argued, claim that Emerson is the appropriate starting point for the pragmatist tradition.” West’s emphasis on pragmatism as a “new and novel form of indigenous American oppositional thought” has an interesting valence with Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s new and novel form of dissenting from the majority and plurality opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Holmes’s jurisprudence was oppositional, in other words, although not radical in the sense that West means.

West credited Emerson with enacting “an intellectual style of cultural criticism that permits and encourages American pragmatists to swerve from mainstream European philosophy,” and Holmes’s dissents likewise moved American jurisprudence away from its British origins—especially from Blackstonian paradigms of the common law—and towards an oppositional paradigm modeled off theories of Darwinian struggle.

Richardson borrows a phrase from Darwin, “frontier instances,” which he borrowed from Francis Bacon, to trace the continuity of pragmatism in American life and thought. Her argument “proceeds by amplification, a gesture mimetic of Pragmatism itself, each essay illustrating what happened over time to a form of thinking brought over by the Puritans to the New World.” She treats pragmatism as a uniquely American philosophy and more impressively as an organism that develops through natural selection: “The signal, if implicit, motive of Pragmatism is the realization of thinking as a life form, subject to the same processes of growth and change as all other life forms.” Her diverse subjects signal the definitive expositors of pragmatism for their respective eras: Jonathan Edwards, Emerson, William and Henry James, Wallace Stevens, and Gertrude Stein.

Richardson’s Emerson is a visionary who retained a ministerial or spiritual philosophy but who repackaged it in less conventionally Christian terms than his Puritan, evangelical predecessors. She explains that Emerson imperfectly replicated the work of Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles to make it apprehensible in the rapidly changing American context. Her latest book, Pragmatism and American Experience, endeavors to untangle the knot of pragmatism and transcendentalism, searching Cavell for illumination regarding the perceived mismatch between these two prominent schools of American philosophy.

Albrecht interrogates the term “individualism” and describes its currency within a pragmatic tradition that runs from Emerson, William James, and Dewey to Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison. Unlike the aforementioned scholars of Emerson, who “do not resolve the question of how far, and to what purpose, one can claim the ‘pragmatic’ character of Emerson’s thought,” Albrecht comes close to a practical answer that is made more insightful and understandable in light of Holmes’s judicial writings that appear in media (opinions and dissents) that control rather than merely influence social patterns.

Albrecht strikes a balance between radical and conservative characterizations of pragmatism, “which gets accused of […] contradictory sins: it optimistically overestimates the possibilities for reform, or it succumbs to a conservative gradualism; it is too committed to a mere, contentless method of inquiry that undermines the stability of traditional meanings, or its emphasis on existing means places too much weight on the need to accommodate existing customs, truths, and institutions.” The same could be said of the common-law tradition that Holmes adored and about which he authored his only book, The Common Law, in 1881.

Albrecht never mentions the common law, but there is a mutual radiance between his analysis of Emerson and the longstanding notion of the common law as the gradual implementation and description of rules by courts, aggregated into a canon by way of innumerable cases and in response to changing social norms. Nor does Albrecht mention Holmes, whose Emersonian contributions to pragmatism only affirm Albrecht’s contention that “there are important benefits to be gained not by calling Emerson a pragmatist, […] but by reading Emerson pragmatically—by applying the fundamental methods and attitudes of pragmatism in order to highlight the ways in which similar attitudes are already present in, and central to, Emerson.”

One such benefit involves the sober realization that Holmes’s Emersonian pragmatism cannot be or ought not to be distorted to mean an equivalence with contemporary and coordinate signifiers such as “Left” and “Right,” “Liberal” and “Conservative,” for there are as many self-proclaimed “Conservative pragmatists,” to borrow a term from the jurist Robert H. Bork, as there are Cornel Wests: thinkers “concern[ed] with particularity—respect for difference, circumstance, tradition, history and the irreducible complexity of human beings and human societies—[which] does not qualify as a universal principle, but competes with and holds absurd the idea of a utopia achievable in this world” (Bork’s words).

Due to the long line of scholars celebrating and studying Emersonian pragmatism, Albrecht is able to remark, “The notion that Emerson is a seminal figure or precursor for American pragmatism is no longer new or controversial.” He extends and affirms a scholarly tradition by depicting “an Emerson whose vision of the limited yet sufficient opportunities for human agency and power prefigures the philosophy of American pragmatism.”

More important than Albrecht’s being the latest link in a chain is the clarifying focus he provides for examining an Emersonian Holmes by attending to two ideas that comport with common-law theory: first, that Emerson prefigured James by walking a line between monism and pluralism and by emphasizing the contingency and complexity of natural phenomena; and second, that Emerson considered ideas as derived from past experience but open to creative revision in keeping with present circumstances.

Regarding the first, Albrecht seeks to undermine a prevailing assumption that Emerson was some kind of absolute idealist, as even William James suggested. Albrecht’s argument is based on the position that Emerson rejected essentialisms and envisioned a cosmos consisting of competing forms and ideas that grow and evolve because of their competition.

Regarding the second, Albrecht seeks to show that although Emerson imagined himself as breaking from past forms and ideas, he also regarded the past as indispensable to our understanding of the present and as necessary for generating and cultivating creative dynamism; the past is inescapable and must be utilized to shape the present, in other words. “All attempts to project and establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me vain,” Emerson preached in this vein in his Divinity School address, adding that all “attempts to contrive a system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the French to the goddess of Reason[.] […] Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing.”

Albrecht promises an Emerson who recounts the mimetic and derivative nature of creativity and genius; yet his portrait of Emerson is incomplete without Poirier, who describes an Emersonian stream of pragmatism flowing with idiomatic, resonate, sonorous, and figurative language. Poirier’s notion of superfluity is central to understanding Holmes’s Emersonian role within a common-law system where “[e]very several result is threatened and judged by that which follows” (Emerson, “Circles”). In the common-law system according to Holmes, a “rapid intrinsic energy worketh everywhere, righting wrongs, correcting appearances, and bringing up facts to a harmony with thoughts” as they are permutated in case precedents (Emerson, “Divinity School Address).

Poirier’s notion of Emersonian superfluity involves a thinker’s “continual effort to raise himself above himself, to work a pitch above his last height,” and to push the syntactical and intellectual boundaries so as to avoid having “the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow” (Emerson, “Circles”). Superfluity is an attempt to realize in language the restive impulse to drive forward and reenergize, to prophesy and transcend. It characterizes language that is designed to “stir the feelings of a generation” (Holmes, “Law in Science and Science in Law”), or less grandiosely to compensate rhetorically for the inability of the written word to realize the extraordinary power of an idea or emotion.

 

What is a Condominium?

In Law, Property on February 17, 2016 at 8:45 am

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Condominiums are creatures of statute and did not exist at common law, although they have an ancient history. They are common-property arrangements. Each owner within a condominium association owns an individual unit but also possesses shared ownership of common areas with every other owner of a unit within the community.

Community associations regulated by restrictive covenants are widespread in every state in the United States. These associations typically reserve certain spaces within the community for common areas such as swimming pools, tennis courts, gardens, playgrounds, or other recreational facilities or uses that each member of the association subsidizes with his or her respective homeowner-association dues.

The law has for centuries treated such covenants as contracts. Sir William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, surmised that a “covenant also, contained in a deed, to do a direct act or to omit one, is another species of express contracts, the violation or breach of which is a civil injury.” On this view, covenants may regulate the actions and behaviors of those who submit to them even if those actions and behaviors are only indirectly related to the physical property contemplated by the covenants.

Today’s covenants for condominiums may include restrictions on renting or other uses (e.g., they may prohibit the keeping of pets or require that a unit not be used for business purposes), impose obligations (such as proper maintenance of the unit and payment of assessments or dues), and institute sanctions such as fines or penalties for the violations of any terms of the covenant.

The association takes the form of a nonprofit corporation or other corporate entity, and membership in the association is accomplished by holding a deed to a lot within the community. All fifty states in the United States have statutory laws dealing with the creation and regulation of condominiums.

The Immunity Community

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Britain, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Justice, Law, Libertarianism, Philosophy on September 10, 2014 at 8:45 am

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This piece first appeared here as a Mises Emerging Scholar article for the Ludwig von Mises Institute Canada.

The doctrine of sovereign immunity derives from the English notion that “the king can do no wrong” and hence cannot be sued without his consent. The purpose of this doctrine was, in England, from at least the Middle Ages until eighteenth century, to bar certain lawsuits against the monarch and his or her ministers and servants. With the rise of the English Parliament after the death of Elizabeth I, government officers and politicians sought to gain the power of immunity that the monarch and his or her agents had enjoyed.

In practice, however, English subjects were not totally deprived of remedies against the monarch or the government. The doctrine of sovereign immunity was not an absolute prohibition on actions against the crown or against other branches of government;[1] subjects could avail themselves of petitions of right or writs of mandamus, for instance, and monarchs fearful of losing the support of the people would often consent to be sued.

It was not until the monarchy had been demonstrably weakened that the doctrine of sovereign immunity began to be espoused with added urgency and enforced with added zeal. In the late eighteenth century, Sir William Blackstone intoned in his Commentaries on the Laws of England that the king “is not only incapable of doing wrong, but ever of thinking wrong: he can never mean to do an improper thing: in him is no folly of weakness.” These lines convert sovereign immunity into sovereign infallibility, a more ominous yet more dubious pretension.

Once the monarchy had been abolished altogether, the idea that the sovereign had to consent to be sued no longer held credence. As Louis L. Jaffe explains, “Because the King had been abolished, the courts concluded that where in the past the procedure had been by petition of right there was now no one authorized to consent to suit! If there was any successor to the King qua sovereign it was the legislature,” which, having many members subject to differing constituencies, was not as accountable as the monarch had been to the parties seeking to sue.[2]

The principle of sovereign immunity carried over from England to the United States, where most states have enshrined in their constitution an absolute bar against suing the State or its agencies and officers whose actions fall within the scope of official duties. The Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution likewise states that “the Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” This provision, which applies only in federal courts and which does not on its face prohibit a lawsuit against a state by a citizen of that same state, was adopted in response to the ruling in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), a case that held sovereign immunity to have been abrogated and that vested in federal courts the authority to preside over disputes between private citizens and state governments.

Notwithstanding the complex issues of federalism at play in the Chisholm decision and in the Eleventh Amendment, the fact remains that the doctrine of sovereign immunity has been applied with widening scope and frequency since the states ratified the Eleventh Amendment in 1795. The U.S. Supreme Court has contributed to the doctrine’s flourishing. “The Supreme Court’s acceptance of sovereign immunity as constitutional principle,” explains one commentator, “depends on its determination of the intent of the Framers, which ignores a great deal of historical evidence from the time of the founding and relies primarily on a discredited account of the Eleventh Amendment first articulated in the 1890 case of Hans v. Louisiana.”[3]

State and federal courts have now built an impregnable wall of immunity around certain state and federal officers. The sovereign immunity that is enshrined in state constitutions is, in theory, not absolute because it is conferred only to certain agents and officers and does not prohibit lawsuits to enjoin such agents and officers from performing unconstitutional or other bad acts. In practice, however, the growth of qualified immunities, which is in keeping with the growth of government itself, has caused more and more agents of the State to cloak themselves in immunity.

Bus drivers, teachers, coroners, constables, high school coaches, doctors and nurses at university hospitals, security guards, justices of the peace, government attorneys, legislators, mayors, boards of education and health, university administrators, Indian reservations, prison guards and wardens, police officers and detectives, janitors in government facilities, licensing boards, tax assessors, librarians, railroad workers, government engineers, judges and justices, school superintendents and principals, towing companies, health inspectors, probation officers, game wardens, museum docents and curators, social workers, court clerks, dog catchers, contractors for public utilities, public notaries, tollbooth attendants, airport traffic controllers, park rangers, ambulance drivers, firefighters, telephone operators, bus drivers, subway workers, city council members, state auditors, agricultural commissioners—all have sought to establish for themselves, with mixed degrees of success, the legal invincibility that comes with being an arm of the state.

Yet the idea that “the king can do no wrong” makes no sense in a governmental system that has lacked a king from its inception. Its application as law has left ordinary citizens with limited recourse against governments (or against people claiming governmental status for the purpose of immunity) that have committed actual wrongs. When the government, even at the state level, consists of vast bureaucracies of the kind that exist today, the doctrine of sovereign immunity becomes absurd. If it is true that in nine states and in the District of Columbia the government employs more than 20% of all workers, imagine how many people are eligible to claim immunity from liability for their tortious conduct and bad acts committed on the job.

Local news reports are full of stories about government employees invoking the doctrine of sovereign immunity; few such stories find their way into the national media. Judge Wade McCree of Michigan, for instance, recently carried out an affair with a woman who was a party in a child-support case on his docket, having sexual intercourse with her in his chambers and “sexting” her even on the day she appeared as a witness in his courtroom. Although McCree was removed from office, he was immune from civil liability. An airport in Charleston, West Virginia, is invoking the doctrine of immunity to shield itself from claims that it contributed to a chemical spill that contaminated the water supply. Officer Darren Wilson may be entitled to immunity for the shooting of Michael Brown, depending on how the facts unfold in that investigation.

The U.S. Supreme Court once famously declared that the doctrine of sovereign immunity “has never been discussed or the reasons for it given, but it has always been treated as an established doctrine.”[4] A disestablishment is now in order. The size and scope of government is simply too massive on the state and national level to sustain this doctrine that undermines the widely held belief of the American Founders that State power must be limited and that the State itself must be held accountable for its wrongs. Friedrich Hayek pointed out that the ideal of the rule of law requires the government to “act under the same law” and to “be limited in the same manner as any private person.”[5] The doctrine of sovereign immunity stands in contradistinction to this ideal: it places an increasing number of individuals above the law.

If the law is to be meaningful and just, it must apply equally to all persons and must bind those who enforce it. It must not recognize and condone privileges bestowed upon those with government connections or incentivize bad behavior within government ranks. Sovereign immunity is a problem that will only worsen if it is not addressed soon. The king can do wrong, and so can modern governments. It’s time for these governments to be held accountable for the harms they produce and to stop hiding behind a fiction that was long ago discredited.

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[1]See generally, Louis L. Jaffe, “Suits Against Governments and Officers: Sovereign Immunity,” 77 Harvard Law Review 1 (1963).

[2]Jaffe at 2.

[3]Susan Randall, “Sovereign Immunity and the Uses of History,” 81 Nebraska L. Rev. 1, 4 (2002-03).

[4]U.S. v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196, 207 (1882).

[5]F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, Vol. 17 of The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, ed. Ronald Hamowy(Routlege, 2011), p. 318.

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