Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Legal Determinacy as Presumptive Fiction: The Blackmun Papers on the Primacy of Life and the Machinery of Death

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Legal Determinacy as Presumptive Fiction: The Blackmun Papers on the Primacy of Life and the Machinery of Death

Article excerpt

Concerns for rationality and consistency have informed contemporary legal philosophy in no small measure. So-called "non-skeptic" jurists such as Ronald Dworkin (1) and Nell MacCormick (2) have been characterized as "formalist standard bearers" for their thoughts regarding the need for logical, deductive justification in the law and the application of clear and unambiguous legal propositions. (3) Formalist sensibilities, or the "classical model" of legal decision-making, views law as integrity, that is, the consistent application of precedent by judges who decide cases on the basis of rules that justify unique results in most cases. (4) Dworkin characterizes formal legal decision-making as a "chain novel" that is passed down from one author (jurist) to the next, all the while being sustained by an implicit understanding that future voices must respect the tone, tenor, and plot of the chapters that precede it. (5) This metaphor presumes that as chapters are written, the judicial decision-making of subsequent authors is increasingly constrained. (6) But just as judicial decision-making is informed by general principles, so too does decision-making vary in the nature of the principles that a legal actor draws upon to make his/her argument.

In their critical legal-studies-based critique of formalism, legal scholars Mark Tushnet and Jennifer Jaff have identified four subsets of legal formalism: (1) classical doctrinal formalism, or principles of law drawn from controlling legal documents; (2) law and economics, or legal principles drawn from the logically consequences of rationality that manifest in scenarios of limited resources; (3) moral philosophy, or legal principles determined by principles of morality; and, (4) the sociology of professions, or principles based upon systematic observation of the actions of participants in the legal system. (7) The recently released papers of Justice Harry A. Blackmun allows legal analysts to gauge whether the formalist arguments have merit, or, to put it another way, whether the sweep of time in the U.S. Supreme Court during the last quarter of the twentieth century is best explained formalistically or by something altogether different.

Realist Critiques

Finding much of its basis in the "revolt" by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in his Lochner (1905) dissent and in the scholarship of Jerome Frank, Karl Llewellyn, and Herman Oliphant, legal realists have vigorously criticized formalist assumptions of strict judicial adherence to rules for much of the twentieth century. (8) As law and philosophy professor Brian Leiter explains:

   The Realists argued ... that careful empirical consideration of how
   courts really decide cases reveals that they decide not primarily
   because of law, but based (roughly speaking) on their sense of what
   would be "fair" on the facts of the case.... Legal rules and
   reasons figure simply as post-hoc rationalizations for decisions
   reached on the basis of non-legal considerations. (9)

Beginning in the 1920s, decades of research were borne in the spirit of critiquing formalist assumptions in the law, mostly through empirical analysis. Existing definitions of the law were examined for consistency with "nature" (i.e., the way law "really" operates). (10) As a consequence, realism characterizes the law as both rationally indeterminate (i.e., not justifying a unique decision based on an available class of legal reasons) and causally indeterminate (i.e., not sufficient to explain why judges act as they do based on legal reasons). One can thus characterize the primary question for realists as "why did the judge reach that result, given that law and legal reasons did not require him to do so?" (11)

The Release of the Blackmun Papers

The recent release of the Blackmun Papers provides a unique opportunity to assess extant critiques of formalism and realism in a context rarely open to public scrutiny: via the personal letters, notes, and journals of a prominent U. …

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