Return of Legal Realism

Return of Legal Realism

Bush v. Gore may have superficially resolved a short-run political crisis, but it has triggered a deep intellectual crisis.


The most enduring debate among twentieth-century legal analysts has been that between "legal realists" and those who believe in a reasonably strong version of "the rule of law." Though legal realism was often caricatured as reducing law to what the judge ate for breakfast, what it was really about was attacking the notion of the majestic impersonality of the judge, who was above politics. As Felix Frankfurter once put it, "as judges we are neither Jew nor Gentile, neither Catholic nor agnostic [and, presumably, neither Democrat nor Republican]. We owe equal attachment to the Constitution and are equally bound by our judicial obligations." Such claims were derided by realists like Yale law professor Fred Rodell, who viewed judges as no more than politicians in robes using legalistic mumbo-jumbo to write their politics into law. The argument has proceeded apace into the twenty-first century.

Almost everyone has accepted what might be termed a "soft" legal realism, one articulated by Frankfurter himself when he wrote in 1930 that "the controlling conceptions of the justices are their 'idealized political pictures' of the existing social order." Thus it is a commonplace to refer to "conservative" and "liberal" wings of the Supreme Court as a shorthand reference to two quite different pictures painted by the two sides in cases involving race relations, the autonomy of states, the death penalty and the like. Though judges are "political," the politics are "high" rather than "low"; that is, decisions are based on ideology rather than a simple desire to help out one's political friends in the short run.

Thus the legal attack on racial gerrymandering led by "conservative" judges probably favors the interests of the Democratic Party, while its defense by "liberal" judges probably enhances the power of the Republican Party (because it "packs" overwhelmingly Democratic black voters into relatively few Congressional districts). Ideology seems to be a better explanation of the two positions than a desire to maximize the interests of one or the other party.

The Court's decision in Bush v. Gore, however, seems an exercise in low rather than high politics. How can one take seriously the majority's claims that their award of the presidency to Bush is based on their deep concern for safeguarding the fundamental values of equality? This majority has been infamous in recent years for relentlessly defending states' rights against the invocation of national legal or constitutional norms. Bush v. Gore is all too easily explainable as the decision by five conservative Republicans–at least two of whom are eager to retire and be replaced by Republicans nominated by a Republican President–to assure the triumph of a fellow Republican who might not become President if Florida were left to its own legal process.

Of course, a consistent realist might point to tension between the generally nationalist, equality-protecting positions taken by the dissenters and their esteem in Bush v. Gore for state autonomy and, concomitantly, for the different standards being applied in various county recounts. It is decidedly "unrealist" to denounce one group of judges as behaving politically while praising another for simply following the "rule of law." Rodell or any other hard-core realist would deride any praise of the Florida Supreme Court for its wisdom in construing the Florida statutes. Those judges, too, could easily be depicted as Democratic partisans manipulating the law to serve their political favorite, Al Gore.

Few Americans, however, and almost no law professors, embrace such a complete legal realism, even if they rightly accept its "softer," more ideologically oriented version. Full-scale realism leaves one without the ability to argue that legal arguments can be assessed by their conformity to norms that can be invoked, by judges and others, to discipline the vagaries of political choice. But a strong critique of the Court's opinion that presupposes that it indeed violated basic norms and "descended" into raw politics would violate the premise of an unabashedly "political" realism.

That "hard" realism has nihilistic overtones might explain why we resist it so strongly, but it does not constitute a genuine refutation of the position. It is a sign of the truly unprecedented nature of Bush v. Gore that many liberal law professors, who have spent much of their career asserting the reality of the rule of law (and of the Supreme Court as what Ronald Dworkin terms "the forum of principle," even if they sometimes disagree with particular principles enunciated by the Court), find themselves wondering if they can continue to do so. Bush v. Gore may have superficially resolved a short-run political crisis, but it has triggered the deepest intellectual crisis–at least for people who profess to take the law seriously–in decades.

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