Scott Sumner has just written an interesting comment to my previous post in which I criticized a remark made by Judge Gorsuch upon being nominated to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court — so interesting, in fact, that I think it is worth responding to him in a separate post.
First, here is the remark made by Judge Gorsuch to which I took exception.
I respect, too, the fact that in our legal order, it is for Congress and not the courts to write new laws. It is the role of judges to apply, not alter, the work of the people’s representatives. A judge who likes every outcome he reaches is very likely a bad judge . . . stretching for results he prefers rather than those the law demands.
I criticized Judge Gorsuch for denying what to me is the obvious fact that judges do make law. They make law, because the incremental effect of each individual decision results in a legal order that is different from the legislation that has been enacted by legislatures. Each decision creates a precedent that must be considered by other judges as they apply and construe the sum total of legislatively enacted statutes in light of, and informed by, the precedents of judges and the legal principles that have guided judges those precedents. Law-making by judges under a common law system — even a common law system in which judges are bound to acknowledge the authority of statutory law — is inevitable for many reasons, one but not the only reason being that statutes will sooner or later have to be applied in circumstances were not foreseen by that legislators who enacted those statutes.
To take an example of Constitutional law off the top of my head: is it an unreasonable search for the police to search the cell phone of someone they have arrested without first getting a search warrant? That’s what the Supreme Court had to decide two years ago in Riley v. California. The answer to that question could not be determined by reading the text of the Fourth Amendment which talks about the people being secure in their “persons, houses, papers, or effects” or doing a historical analysis of what the original understanding of the terms “search” and “seizure” and “papers and effects” was when the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution was enacted. Earlier courts had to decide whether government eavesdropping on phone calls violated the Fourth Amendment. And other courts have had to decide whether collecting meta data about phone calls is a violation. Answers to those legal questions can’t be found by reading the relevant legal text.
Here’s part of the New York Times story about the Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. Califronia.
“The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand,” the chief justice also wrote, “does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the founders fought.”
Now for Scott’s comment:
I don’t see how Gorsuch’s view conflicts with your view. It seems like Gorsuch is saying something like “Judges should not legislate, they should interpret the laws.” And you are saying “the laws are complicated.” Both can be true!
Well, in a sense, maybe, because what judges do is technically not legislation. But they do make law; their opinions determine for the rest of us what we may legally do and what we may not legally do and what rights to expect will be respected and what rights will not be respected. Judges can even change the plain meaning of a statute in order to uphold a more basic, if unwritten, principle of justice, which,under, the plain meaning of Judge Gorsuch’s remark (“It is the role of judges to apply, not alter, the work of the people’s representatives”) would have to be regarded as an abuse of judicial discretion. The absurdity of what I take to be Gorsuch’s position is beautifully illustrated by the case of Riggs v. Palmer which the late — and truly great — Ronald Dworkin discussed in his magnificent article “Is Law a System of Rules?” aka “The Model of Rules.” Here is the one paragraph in which Dworkin uses the Riggs case to show that judges apply not just specific legal rules (e.g., statutory rules), but also deeper principles that govern how those rules should be applied.
My immediate purpose, however, is to distinguish principles in the generic sense from rules, and I shall start by collecting some examples of the former. The examples I offer are chosen haphazardly; almost any case in a law school casebook would provide examples that would serve as well. In 1889, a New York court, in the famous case of Riggs v. Palmer, had to decide whether an heir named in the will of his grandfather could inherit under that will, even though he had murdered his grandfather to do so. The court began its reasoning with this admission: “It is quite true that statues regulating the making, proof and effect of wills, and the devolution of property, if literally construed [my emphasis], and if their force and effect can in no way and under no circumstances be controlled or modified, give this property to the murderer.” But the court continued to note that “all laws as well as all contracts may be controlled in their operation and effect by general, fundamental maxims of the common law. No one shall be permitted to profit by his own fraud, or to take advantage of his own wrong, or to found any claim upon his own iniquity, or to acquire property by his own crime.” The murderer did not receive his inheritance.
QED. In this case the Common law overruled the statute, and justice prevailed over injustice. Game, set, match to the judge!