Monday, June 09, 2008

Another Report from the AALS Con Law Conference: Guilt by Association?

So much of interest happened at the AALS Con Law Conference last week, that I thought I’d devote a few more posts to it. This one is a follow-up on the notes I posted regarding my keynote speech at the lunch on Friday. In an ad lib, I ventured that the median point of opinion in the legal academy is probably about one standard deviation to the left of the median of public opinion in general, while the median point of opinion in the U.S. Supreme Court is about half a standard deviation to the right of the median of public opinion. Nothing turns on whether I have these numbers right; the key is that law professors are, on average, substantially more left/liberal than the current Supreme Court Justices, on average. That seems unassailable.

I offered my assessment of the academic/judicial divide as part of the explanation for the growing distance, over the last 20-30 years, between the concerns of the legal academy and the concerns of the judiciary. In the Friday afternoon session on constitutional theory, Mark Tushnet suggested that the political distance between the legal academy and the Court also explained (in part) the decline, over the last decade or two, of Dworkinian constitutionalism.

Ronald Dworkin, recall (or learn now for the very first time!) has long argued that the job of a Supreme Court Justice in a constitutional case (and more broadly, the job of a judge in any precedent-based legal system) is to answer each question in the way that: 1) best “fits” the pre-existing law and also 2) best “justifies” the law, where notions of “best” invoke principles of political morality. Reams of books and articles have been written about Dworkin’s theory—some supportive, some critical—but for the novice, try understanding it as applied Rawlsian constructivism: A Justice should answer a constitutional question in the way that makes the law best hang together. So long as the Supreme Court was issuing generally liberal opinions, one could do Dworkin’s work from the left/liberal side of the political spectrum (which is where Dworkin is, along with most of the legal academy, including yours truly). However, as the Court has become increasingly conservative, Tushnet said persuasively, it has become increasingly difficult to rationalize the decisions via left/liberal principles: The “fit” work has become just about impossible. This explains why, Tushnet said, Dworkin’s own writings in the NY Review of Books in recent years have been principally devoted to arguing that the Court is screwing up or worse. (E.g., here.)

“Fit” work from the right should be easier to do these days, and yet we see almost no right-wing Dworkinians. Why not? Tushnet argued that this is because conservatives tend to be committed to originalism, not Dworikinianism. I agree with this as a partial explanation. Indeed, I have ong thought that champions of the personal/self-defense view of the Second Amendment might have a better argument for an unenumerated right to self-defense---perhaps extrapolated from the Second Amendment---but because unenumerated rights are a bogeyman for much of the right (with notable exceptions like Randy Barnett), they insist on making the argument principally in terms of the original understanding. I also claimed in a 2005 FindLaw column that the pro-life movement blew its best shot of winning the Terri Schiavo case because it was unwilling to make an unenumerated rights claim until very late in the litigation.

Here I’ll suggest one additional explanation for the right’s failure to develop a right-wing Dworkinianism: guilt by association. Because Dworkin is liberal, they assume that his method produces liberal results—even though Dworkin himself has acknowledged that this need not be so, and it seems self-evident that a conservative conception of political morality will lead to a much different set of outcomes from a liberal conception.

One can see something like the mirror image of this phenomenon in the hostility to originalism of liberal judges in other constitutional systems. As Richard Primus argues in a new article, close adherence to the original understanding is best justified for new constitutions or new constitutional provisions. Yet to take a leading example, very early on, the South African Constitutional Court disavowed originalism, even though the framers of the South African Constitution were strongly progressive/liberal. I have it on pretty good authority from my South African friends that a key objection to originalism was its association in the United States with the political right.

Posted by Mike Dorf


  1. I'm not sure I see the distinction between yours and Tushnet's explanations. Dworkinianism is a rejection of originalism, and therefore bad (from a conservative point of view). Adopting Dworkinianism (ugh -- we can't get a better term than that?) is not necessarily bad because of what Dworkin believes per se, but because Dworkin believes in something other than originalism.

    It may very well be possible for conservative academics to adopt an approach akin to Dworkin's in response to an increasingly-conservative Court, and I suppose on one level it would be satisfying to do so -- kind of a "give the liberals a taste of their own medicine" thing. But to do so would not be conservative, because conservativism, at least in principle if not always in practice, is originalism.

    Much as I'd like the results of a decade of "screw you guys, we have a majority of the votes so we can invent whatever crazy crap we want, just like you did," I would despise the means, and I wouldn't call it conservative.

  2. i (and professor tushnet) should be clearer: Of course, by definition, if judicial conservatism=originalism, then we have an explanation. the question tushnet and i are interested in, however, is this: why haven't POLITICAL conservatives developed and sold a different judicial philosophy? After all, originalism wasn't ALWAYS the preferred judicial philosophy of political conservatives. People like me, who are deeply skeptical about the claims originalism makes to being the sole legitimate form of interpretation, expect that there might be others with similar views about language and political theory but with different views about judicial philosophy. And indeed there are. Thus, e.g., there are political conservatives (as well as liberals) who favor judicial restraint in the sense championed by Thayer in the 19th century---which is sometimes non-originalist. So if we have conservative Thayerians why not conservative Dworkinians? That's the question that interested us. (I agree that "Dworkinianism" is an awkward term. "Dworkinism" is better but sounds like something from Star Trek.)

  3. Why isn't Scalia's variant of originalism right-wing Dworkinianism?

  4. Political liberalism produces good results and political conservatism produces bad results. Even Scalia knows this, and thus, to lend normative value to results lacking in substantive desirability, it's necessary to add (what purports to be) procedural-legitimacy desirability.

    (Okay, maybe not, but I do like that explanation.)

  5. (Okay, maybe not, but I do like that explanation.)

    That seems to be making my argument, not contradicting it. Plenty of Dworkin's political preferences lead to crazyland.

  6. perhaps it is the case that originalism has been adopted by the right as offering legitimacy to conservative rulings.

    there is a wealth of material to pick and choose from.

    the liberal/conserative dichotomy is basically gov't power vs. personal freedom.

    again, there is a wealth of material out there that lends itself to liberal reasoning, but, has a heavy rhetorical and vague component.

    both sides have chosen a theory that best allows them to make their respective arguments.

    granted, as you point out, there will be questions in which it may be more expedient to adopt the originalist or interpretive view, but i think it a reflection of intellectual consistency, or habit, or natural prejudice or some combination of all the above that conservatives and liberals stick to their own theories.

    it also lends legitimacy to those theories by inserting them into case law if only by way of reasoning.

  7. i submit to you that we have recently seen a prime example of conservative Dworkinianism...

    Bush v. Gore

  8. What would conservative Dworkinism look like? I thought there had been a least some efforts in that direction by Epstein, McGinnis, and maybe Merrill. You would look at an array of important SC decisions and say there is a coherent and consistent conservative judicial philosophy behind them, one that promotes appropriate conservative values. That doesn't sound too difficult.

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