Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Popular Myths About the Legal Realists
On several recent occasions I have heard youngish (35-45 years old) law professors say something to this effect: “I’m too much of a Realist to believe that judges' decisions are determined by the law.” Although there is no poll to confirm it, many younger law professors appear to see the Legal Realists as sort of proto- or early day Crits (members of Critical Legal Studies) who exposed the rampant indeterminacy of law and insisted that judging is inevitably infused with and shaped by the subjective views of judges.
This is a good distinction between the Crits and the Realists, and I agree it is an important distinction even though I think the Realist enterprise is symptomatic of cognitive dissonance (but I won't go back down the line again this week). The blurring goes 80 years back, to Brandeis's decision in Erie where he discusses the folly of federal common law. If you look at it he goes back and forth between a CLS viewpoint and a realist viewpoint, even thought the points are pretty distinct.
I think associating indeterminacy claims with the Realists is just a way to distance onself from the backlash against the Crits.
As a law student I've claimed nostalgic fondness for the CLS movement I never really knew, and have immediately been dismissed from serious consideration. As I learned, the Crits lost what little mainstream credibility they had in their self-marginalizing infights. In contrast, when I identify with the Realists and then make indeterminacy claims, people actually listen to it.
It is possible to be a lawyer, embrace claims about absurdity and indeterminacy, and yet share higher aspirations towards bringing our better natures to bear on the law. See the life of Kafka and Jaspers (incorporating Kierkegaard). That existential mindset would perhaps put one post-Realist and yet, because it actively rejects the more nihlistic aspects of CLS, it makes more sense to call it realism. It is not really pragmatism in the new-Posner sense either because it doesn't value efficiency. It is only conservative in the sense the Realists were, matching outcomes to community norms.
Maybe that is a yet-to-be-realized-outside-my-own-brain jurisprudential approach, maybe it is the new progressive natural law that I hear rumors might exist. But it is why I call myself a realist rather than a crit (unless I want to annoy particularily stodgy folks and play radical leftist.)
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Just to clarify, this post was about distinguishing the Realists from the Crits, but it is not critical of the Crits. You are right that CLS is often dismissed today. Atlhough I have real disagreements with them, don't count me as a Crit basher. Unger's Knowledge and Politics had a profound influence on me (still one of the top five law books I have ever read); I have also learned a great deal from the work of Duncan Kennedy and Morty Horwitz, among other Crits. I am of a later generation and have different concerns, but CLS taught me to see the law in a different light--and that is an essential lesson I will not forget.
Jenya--thanks for the tip, but I'll pass.
In what way does the Chemerinsky excerpt "exude" the notion that law is besotted with "rampant indeterminacy"? It seems to me all that Chemerinsky's claiming here is that the reasoning of judges is modulated by ideology, and that (therefore) the ideology of a judge is a legitimate object of inquiry in confirmation hearings. This seems pretty far from endorsing radical indeterminacy (not to say far from imputing such an endorsement to the realists).
The post is highly interesting to me, and I thank you for it.
Can you please point us to the particular publications in which Llewellyn and Pound have their exchange? I would like to explore those writings.
Brian Lieter, an expert in American Legal Realism, has shown that realists advanced only a descriptive theory of jurisprudence. Realists offered no philosophical concept of law. Realists were writing to practioners in practical terms. The CLS were philosophical.
It is easier to "get the realists right" if this distinction is kept in mind.
The best staring point for all this is Brian Leiter, Rethinking Legal Realism: Toward a Naturalized Jurisprudence, 76 Tex. L. Rev. 267 (1997).
In the Chemerinsky article you quote, he defines "ideology" as follows: "Throughout this paper, I am defining 'ideology' as the views of a judicial candidate that influence his or her likely decisions as a judge."
Therefore, it is both unsurprising a judge's ideology influences his decisions (because it does so by definition) and unclear whether Chemerinsky even disagrees with Llewellyn (becasue we do not know what Chemerinsky believes, in fact, influences the decisions . . . could be the law itself under his definition).
Acknowledging ideological influence is not the same thing as encouraging it.
As a practical matter, being realistic (or Realistic) about the process of judicial reasoning may be a first step in counter-acting personal ideologies in favor of more consistent outcomes, or at least encourage jurists to critically evaluate their own unconscious prejudices.
...the first thing a certain man might say to get sober is, "My name is John Roberts, and I'm an ideologue."
The Pound-Llewellyn exchange can be found in 44 Harvard Law Review 697 (Pound) and 1222 (Llewellyn).
Your more tempered reading of Chemerinsky is legitimate, and might be what he had in mind (though it would require that we sever and read indepedently the line about the Realists from the sentence that came before). That's why I used the term "exude." The passage suggests that the Realists believed that judicial decision-making is pervasively ideological, and that is why I used it to illustrate my broader point about perceptions of the Realists.
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