Lawyer Bashing by a Former Bush Administration Policymaker

Yesterday's NY Times story questioning the efficacy and morality of "enhanced" interrogation techniques employed by the CIA and US military since 9/11 noted that "[i]n an April lecture, Philip D. Zelikow, the former adviser to [Condolezza] Rice, said it was a grave mistake to delegate to attorneys decisions on the moral question of how prisoners should be treated." The full text of the speech to which the Times story refers has been posted here, and Zelikow's argument is not at all persuasive.

Zelikow contends that in the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush Administration turned to lawyers to assess the legality of various policy options on interrogation and other issues, and that these lawyers, per their training, asked the question whether the proposed policy options (including the "enhanced" interrogation techniques) could be accomplished legally without asking whether they should be undertaken. That focus on could but not should, Zelikow argues, is simply a function of the narrowness of legal education. Here is a crucial passage from Zelikow's speech:

Lawyers are not generally trained in legal policy. Even some of the finest lawyers cannot be considered expert in it. Confronted with a novel problem, the habit of thought developed in law schools, and practice, is to spot the legal issue and determine an authoritative, or at least arguable, position on what the law requires. It is important for lawyers, and those who use them, to know the strengths and limitations of these skills. [Consider] moral reasoning. Moral reasoning, which most people think has something to do with ‘right and wrong,’ is not taught in law school. The relationship of law to morality is an interesting question, wonderfully explored by thinkers as diverse as Edmond Cahn and James Q. Wilson. But, for better or worse, moral reasoning is not generally taught in law school.

This is simply false. Although not in practice, Zelikow did go to law school and should know better. From Lon Fuller through Ronald Dworkin, leading legal scholars have argued that law and morality are inseparable. Even those who disagree --- who follow in the positivist footsteps of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., H.L.A. Hart, and my colleague Joseph Raz --- do not say that moral arguments play no role or even a small role in the formulation of legal rules. On the contrary, they say that when lawyers disagree about what the law requires, but nonetheless make normative arguments, those arguments are moral arguments rather than strictly legal ones. Importantly, even for positivists, it is lawyers who make these moral arguments. As for legal education, the whole point of the Socratic method is to bring out the moral and policy consequences of various rules of law, so that, to the extent permitted by authoritative sources, one can select the best rule under the circumstances. Socrates himself was (among other things) a moral teacher, who inspired his students to question received moral wisdom.

Zelikow has things exactly backwards when he taxes the legal profession with the moral blindness of Alberto Gonzales, Jay Bybee and John Yoo. He lets them and their ilk off the hook for DISTORTING legal analysis in the pursuit of immoral aims. The problem with the infamous torture memos is not that they dotted every legal i and crossed every legal t while missing the bigger moral questions. Quite the opposite. The problem is that the government lawyers who wrote them set aside the law --- including its moral commands --- to reach the policy outcomes that their political masters desired.