Archive for the 'Neil Gorsuch' Category

Yes, Judges Do Make Law

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.

In a sweeping victory for privacy rights in the digital age, the Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously ruled that the police need warrants to search the cellphones of people they arrest.

While the decision will offer protection to the 12 million people arrested every year, many for minor crimes, its impact will most likely be much broader. The ruling almost certainly also applies to searches of tablet and laptop computers, and its reasoning may apply to searches of homes and businesses and of information held by third parties like phone companies.

“This is a bold opinion,” said Orin S. Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University. “It is the first computer-search case, and it says we are in a new digital age. You can’t apply the old rules anymore.”

But he added that old principles required that their contents be protected from routine searches. One of the driving forces behind the American Revolution, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, was revulsion against “general warrants,” which “allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity.”

“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!

Judge Gorsuch on “the Role of Judges” in our Legal System

Neil Gorsuch, nominated this week to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by the demise of Antonin Scalia, is in many respects an impressive Judge on the tenth circuit Court of Appeals, receiving accolades and encomiums not only from his ideological allies but also from legal experts and scholars on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. Besides a J.D. from Harvard, Gorsuch has a Ph.D. in law from Oxford, having written his doctoral dissertation on assisted suicide and euthanasia, a work subsequently published by Princeton University Press. A scholarly judge, known for well-crafted and lucid opinions, he is likely, if confirmed, to leave a lasting mark on the Supreme Court and on American jurisprudence.

So I was really disappointed, though not really surprised, to find out that Judge Gorsuch, at his public introduction at the White House on Tuesday evening, felt compelled to indulge in an abject ritual obeisance to the prevailing right-wing populist legal ideology, delivering the following willfully ignorant, ahistorical, misrepresentation of the role of judges in our Anglo/American, common law legal system.

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.

How someone trained in the law both at Harvard and Oxford could so flagrantly mischaracterize what it is that judges do – a mischacterization of the same ilk as John Roberts’s infamous comparison, as a nominee for Chief Justice testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, of judges to baseball umpires calling balls and strikes – when the entire Anglo-American legal system and the whole of its jurisprudence rests on the foundation of the common law, a law made in its entirety by judges deciding cases according to their understanding of the principles of justice and their understanding of how earlier judges had decided similar cases in similar situations, a law that evolved slowly as an organic, living tradition over countless generations and many centuries, is simply beyond my comprehension.

With all due respect to Judge Gorsuch’s impressive legal scholarship, I consider his statement to be a monumental denial of reality, orders of magnitude beyond denying climate change or even evolution. It is a denial of the obvious on the level of a Ph.D. mathematician denying that two plus two equals four. But so ferocious and so intransigent are the demands of current right-wing populist legal ideology that failure to deny obvious historical reality would be regarded as an unpardonable sin and a damnable heresy, more than ample grounds for being rejected to fill a coveted seat on the Supreme Court.

I can almost hear the howls of protest emanating from the Federalist Society, which, in its mission statement, solemnly asserts “that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to state what the law is, not what it should be.” But what exactly is the meaning of “the law” in that ever-so emphatic pronouncement?

“The law” could mean a specific statute, ordinance, enactment, provision, article, or rule, which, if duly enacted by an appropriate law-making body, has “the force of law.” Or alternatively, “the law” could mean the entire body of law under which a rule of law is said to be in effect. Whether a specific statute, ordinance, enactment, provision, article, or rule exists is a purely factual question, and, for the most part, not a controversial one. When a question of law becomes controversial, it is rarely because people have forgotten the existence of a relevant statute, ordinance, or rule, of whose existence they must be reminded by a judge with a superior memory. Rather the question of law arises, because it is not clear which one of a number of alternative, potentially applicable rules should govern the outcome of the case at hand. And that question of law can rarely be answered – certainly not satisfactorily answered – simply by reminding the litigants that the law says such and such and so and so.

The real challenge confronting the judge – especially an appellate judge – is to determine which of the alternative, potentially applicable rules should determine the outcome of the case. And to answer that question, a judge can’t just look up what the law says, the judge has to consider how the entire legal system, including not just the explicit rules, but all the relevant previous judicial decisions and all the principles embodied in those decisions, comports with the decision that must be rendered. The judge deciding the case has to figure out how to make a ruling that best fits in with all those previous decisions and all their underlying principles. It is that best decision which is what “the law,” considered as an overall system, requires. But if that is what a judge is trying to do, it is simply nonsense – as in absurd and incoherent – to assert that the judge is stating “what the law is, not what it should be.”

To be sure, judges sometimes have to make decisions with which they are personally uncomfortable, judges never being possessed of unlimited discretion to rule as they please. But judging means a weighing of arguments and of conflicting values to arrive at the best possible decision under the circumstances — the decision most consistent with the entire system of law, not just particular statutes, enactments or decisions.

For example, Korematsu v. United States has never formally been overruled or vacated by the US Supreme Court. Under the absurd doctrine of the Federalist Society, that abominable decision, no less than the admirable Marbury v. Madison, is “law.” But under any defensible understanding of what the US legal system actually entails, Korematsu is not law, even though it has, regrettably, not yet been formally expunged from precedents of the Supreme Court. One would hope that Judge Gorsuch will be given an opportunity to opine on the legal status of Korematsu and perhaps other legal abominations which are still available to be invoked as precedent, when he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,282 other followers

Follow Uneasy Money on