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1881: The Year Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Adapted Emerson to the Post-War Intellectual Climate

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Emerson, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Western Philosophy on October 14, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. turned forty in 1881. The publication of The Common Law that year gave him a chance to express his jurisprudence to a wide audience. This marked a turning point in his career. Over the next year, he would become a professor at Harvard Law School and then, a few months later, an associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The trauma of the Civil War affected his thinking and would eventually impact his jurisprudence. Leading up to the War, he had been an Emersonian idealist who associated with such abolitionists as Wendell Phillips. As a student at Harvard, he had served as Phillips’s bodyguard. He later enlisted in the infantry before joining the Twentieth Massachusetts, a regiment that lost five eighths of its men. He was wounded at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in October of 1861, when he took a bullet to his chest; the bullet passed through his body without touching his heart or lungs. In September of 1862, he was wounded at the Battle of Antietam, a bullet having passed through his neck. In May of 1863, at Marye’s Hill, close to where the battle of Fredericksburg had taken place six months earlier, Holmes was shot and wounded a third time. This time the bullet struck him in the heel, splintered his bone, and tore his ligaments; his doctors were convinced that he would lose his leg. He did not, but he limped for the rest of his life.

He emerged from the War a different man. He was colder now, and more soberminded. “Holmes believed,” Louis Menand says, “that it was no longer possible to think the way he had as a young man before the war, that the world was more resistant than he had imagined. But he did not forget what it felt like to be a young man before the war.” And he learned that forms of resistance were necessary and natural in the constant struggle of humans to organize their societies and to discover what practices and activities ought to govern their conduct. The War, accordingly, made him both wiser and more disillusioned. In light of his disillusionment, he reflected the general attitudes of many men his age.

But not all men his age shared his penetrating intellect or his exhilarating facility with words; nor did they have his wartime experience, for most men who experienced what he had during the war did not live to tell about it. Certainly no one besides Holmes could claim to have enjoyed such intimate and privileged access to the Brahmin, Emersonian culture of New England before the War, and he more than anyone was equipped to see the continued relevance of that culture to the present. He knew there were things the War could not destroy and varieties of thought that could endure.

The above text is an excerpt from my essay “Pragmatism on the Shoulders of Emerson: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s Jurisprudence as a Synthesis of Emerson, Peirce, James, and Dewey,” published in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 48, No. 1 (2015). To view the full essay, you may download it here at SSRN or visit the website of The South Carolina Review.

 

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Lines to Holmes

In America, Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Poetry, Writing on May 14, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

Lines to Holmes

A canon of rules and principles,

embodied in individual cases,

aggregated by judges

from different courts

and with different ranks,

makes up the common law system.

Perhaps the better way to put it

is that the common law is a canon

unto itself.

Rules and principles

that regulate people

are always engaged in a struggle for existence,

always subject to challenge and subversion

by the trends and movements of culture.

Tested by their ability

to obtain to society

and to yield constructive results,

they compete with one another

and become canonized

only if they prove

fit to survive the test of time,

the onslaught of new technologies,

which necessitate new approaches

to lawyering.

This is the law of the law

today as always.

Holmes and the Pragmatic Common Law

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Pragmatism, Scholarship, The Supreme Court on May 7, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

No summary could do justice to the wealth of literature about Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s relationship to C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, but a few points of commonality are worth mentioning. First, Holmes was akin to Peirce in the embrace of fallibilism and the scientific method. Holmes disliked natural law thinkers because they purported to know the truth about the law by way of reason or moral teaching. In contrast, Holmes believed that the common law gradually filtered out the most workable, although not necessarily the most moral, theories; in fact, he felt that it was not the province, expertise, or training of the judge to explore issues of morality. He also believed that truth was best determined by a community of inquiring minds rather than by a judge ruling in isolation or by a justice with only eight colleagues to help work through his or her analysis. Therefore, he adhered to the doctrine of judicial restraint and deferred to statutes enacted by legislatures, which consisted of representatives elected by and accountable to the people.

Second, his notion of truth was like James’s: fluid but ultimately associated with the conglomerate views of a majority that have been tested and corroborated by concrete evidence. Holmes did not share James’s optimism, but he did share his literary sparkle. He also shared James’s meliorism and pluralism. The Common Law is a testament to the melioristic nature of the common law system. Holmes’s judicial restraint and deference to local legislatures, moreover, attest to his recognition of diverse local communities and associations that enable social cooperation and legal growth.

Third, Holmes’s celebration of the instrumentalism of the common law smacks of Dewey’s instrumentalism and its Darwinian complements. Like Dewey, Holmes moved pragmatism away from the science, logic, and mathematics that intrigued Peirce, away from the moral psychology and religious vibrancy that intrigued James, and towards the social and political considerations that intrigued Dewey. Holmes and Dewey were, to some degree, consequentialists; they cannot be made out as pure utilitarians—far from it—but their analyses do tend to focus on the importance of outcomes to the evaluation of human action. Finally, Holmes and Dewey emphasized the value of experiment and were majoritarian in that they maintained faith in the ability of distinct communities to arrive at unique solutions to pressing social issues and to memorialize those solutions in official legislation.

These three pragmatist influences enabled Holmes to create a theory of the common law unique to him that both accounted for and distanced itself from the legal positivism of John Austin and Hobbes, who traditionally have been thought of as adversaries of common law theory.

Legal Positivism and the Common Law

In Britain, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Western Philosophy on April 30, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

Legal positivism, in the most basic sense, holds that laws are the manifestation of sovereign commands. It stands in contradistinction to natural law or the judicial conformity with human reason that supposedly defines the common law.[i] Legal positivism generally rebuffs the premise that law and morals are necessarily or even customarily united. Legal positivists from Jeremy Bentham to John Austin to H.L.A. Hart maintained or implied that the formal source of the law was human promulgation, not nature or divine decree; theirs was an analytical jurisprudence that treated the normative function of the law as imposing rules and duties upon the subjects of the sovereign. Positivism generally holds that law is logical and analytical and made up of legislative policies with a linear history that can be understood through utilitarian calculation. To comprehend the law in the positivist paradigm requires analyzing the signification of words as grammatical imperatives—as “commands,” in Austin’s lexicon.

The common law, on the other hand, traditionally was seen as the vast accumulation of judicial decisions as against the commands of legislatures or the unbinding whims of equity courts; a legislative code announces rules whereas judicial decisions follow, clarify, and sustain them. The common law is a body of cases, a growing organism representing the general rules and inherited customs of the jurisdiction. It is simultaneously conservative and progressive. It comes together over time as innumerable judges and justices struggle with and against precedent to apply longstanding rules to new and unique situations. It responds and reacts to cultural norms rather than making them.

What distinguishes the common law from a civil law system is the doctrine of stare decisis (“let the decision stand”), which requires judges to follow precedents established by prior decisions or to distinguish the facts of new cases from the facts of previous cases in order to reach an applicable rule. Certain rules persevere because they triumph over lesser practices that have not worked. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., explained that this process of creating and sustaining laws in graduated stages does not always make sense or produce the perfect outcome: “In form its growth is logical. The official theory is that each new decision follows syllogistically from existing precedents. But just as the clavicle in the cat only tells of the existence of some earlier creature to which a collar-bone was useful, precedents survive in the law long after the use they once served is at an end and the reason for them has been forgotten.” If some laws seem to be artifacts, Holmes qualifies, they are not likely to burden the people subject to them, for their effect is in their use, and anyway it is only a matter of time before they are overgrown by the “secret root from which the law draws all the juices of life,” which is to say the legislature.

 

Note

[i] The literature on this subject is enormous. The distinction between legal positivism, natural law, and the common law has been the object of discussion among so many jurists and jurisprudents over centuries that it is impossible to recommend a single text on the topic that would clarify all competing views. The most authoritative voice on matters of positivism today is probably Joseph Raz.

 

The Enduring Importance of Justice Holmes: A Brief Note

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Liberalism, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism on December 19, 2012 at 9:00 am

Allen Mendenhall

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.

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.

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