legal theory: philosophy

 Antonin Scalia: The Rule of Law as a Law of Rules

 56 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1175, 1175-81 (1989)

 . . . Tom Paine . . . said

[L]et a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth . . . [so] the world may know, that as far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is king. For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other.
    In his Politics, Aristotle states:
Rightly constituted laws should be the final sovereign; and personal rule, whether it be exercised by a single person or a body of persons, should be sovereign only in those matters on which law is unable, owing to the difficulty of framing general rules for all contingencies, to make an exact pronouncement.It is this dichotomy between "general rule of law" and "personal discretion to do justice" that I wish to explore.
    [In particular,] I want to explore the dichotomy between general rules and personal discretion within the narrow context of law that is made by the courts. In a judicial system such as ours, in which judges are bound, not only by the text of code or Constitution, but also by the prior decisions of superior courts, and even by the prior decisions of their own court, courts have the capacity to "make" law. ...  [W]hen the Supreme Court of the federal system, or of one of the state systems, decides a case, not merely the outcome of that decision, but the [standard of decision] that it applies will thereafter be followed by the lower courts within that system, and even by that supreme court itself.  And by making the [standard] relatively [broad and definite] or relatively fact-specific [and judgmental], the courts can either establish general rules or leave ample discretion for the future.
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    The advantages of the discretion-conferring approach are obvious.  All generalizations (including, I know, the present one) are to some degree invalid, and hence every rule of law has a few corners that do not quite fit.  It follows that perfect justice can only be achieved if courts are unconstrained by such imperfect generalizations. ...

    Of course, in a system in which prior decisions are authoritative, no opinion can leave total discretion to later judges.  It is all a matter of degree.  At least the very facts of the particular case are covered for the future.  But sticking close to those facts, not relying upon overarching generalizations, and thereby leaving considerable room for future judges is thought to be the genius of the common-law system.  The law grows and develops, the theory goes, not through the pronouncement of general principles, but case-by-case, deliberately, incrementally, one-step-at-a-time.  Today we decide that these nine facts sustain recovery.  Whether only eight of them will do so -- or whether the addition of a tenth will change the outcome -- are questions for another day.

    When I was in law school, I was a great enthusiast for this approach -- an advocate of both writing and reading the "holding" of a decision narrowly, thereby leaving greater discretion to future courts.  Over the years, however -- and not merely the years since I have been a judge -- I have found myself drawn more and more to the opposite view.  There are a number of reasons, some theoretical and some very practical indeed.

    To begin with, the value of perfection in judicial decisions should not be overrated.  To achieve what is, from the standpoint of the substantive policies involved, the "perfect" answer is nice -- but it is just one of a number of competing values.  And one of the most substantial of those competing values, which often contradicts the search for perfection, is the appearance of equal treatment.  As a motivating force of the human spirit, that value cannot be overestimated.  Parents know that children will accept quite readily all sorts of arbitrary substantive dispositions -- no television in the afternoon, or no television in the evening, or even no television at all.  But try to let one brother or sister watch television when the others do not, and you will feel the fury of the fundamental sense of justice unleashed.  . . .  And the trouble with the discretion-conferring approach to judicial law making is that it does not satisfy this sense of justice very well.  When a case is accorded a different disposition from an earlier one, it is important, if the system of justice is to be respected, not only that the later case be different, but that it be seen to be so. When one is dealing, as my Court often is, with issues so heartfelt that they are believed by one side or the other to be resolved by the Constitution itself, it does not greatly appeal to one's sense of justice to say: "Well, that earlier case had nine factors, this one has nine plus one." Much better, even at the expense of the mild substantive distortion that any generalization introduces, to have a clear, previously enunciated rule that one can point to in explanation of the decision.

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    [There is] . . . another obvious advantage of establishing as soon as possible a clear, general principle of decision: predictability.  Even in simpler times uncertainty has been regarded as incompatible with the Rule of Law.  Rudimentary justice requires that those subject to the law must have the means of knowing what it prescribes.  It is said that one of emperor Nero's nasty practices was to post his edicts high on the columns so that they would be harder to read and easier to transgress.  As laws have become more numerous, and as people have become increasingly ready to punish their adversaries in the courts, we can less and less afford protracted uncertainty regarding what the law may mean.  Predictability, or as Llewellyn put it, "reckonability," is a needful characteristic of any law worthy of the name.  There are times when even a bad rule is better than no rule at all.

    I had always thought that the common-law approach had at least one thing to be said for it: it was the course of judicial restraint, "making" as little law as possible in order to decide the case at hand.  I have come to doubt whether that is true.  For when, in writing for the majority of the Court, I adopt a general rule, and say, "This is the basis of our decision," I not only constrain lower courts, I constrain myself as well.  If the next case should have such different facts that my political or policy preferences regarding the outcome are quite the opposite, I will be unable to indulge those preferences; I have committed myself to the governing principle.  In the real world of appellate judging, it displays more judicial restraint to adopt such a course than to announce that, "on balance," we think the law was violated here -- leaving ourselves free to say in the next case that, "on balance," it was not.  It is a commonplace that the one effective check upon arbitrary judges is criticism by the bar and the academy.  But it is [very difficult] to demonstrate the inconsistency of two opinions based upon a "totality of the circumstances" test ... .  Only by announcing rules do we hedge ourselves in.

    While announcing a firm rule of decision can thus inhibit courts, strangely enough it can embolden them as well.  Judges are sometimes called upon to be courageous, because they must sometimes stand up to what is generally supreme in a democracy: the popular will.  Their most significant roles, in our system, are to protect the individual criminal defendant against the occasional excesses of that popular will, and to preserve the checks and balances within our constitutional system that are precisely designed to inhibit swift and complete accomplishment of that popular will.  Those are tasks which, properly performed, may earn widespread respect and admiration in the long run, but -- almost by definition -- never in the particular case.  The chances that frail men and women will stand up to their unpleasant duty are greatly increased if they can stand behind the solid shield of a firm, clear principle enunciated in earlier cases.  It is very difficult to say that a particular convicted felon who is the object of widespread hatred must go free because, on balance, we think that excluding the defense attorney from the line-up process in this case may have prevented a fair trial.  It is easier to say that our cases plainly hold that, absent exigent circumstances, such exclusion is a per se denial of due process.

    I stand with Aristotle, then -- which is a pretty good place to stand -- in the view that "personal rule, whether it be exercised by a single person or a body of persons, should be sovereign only in those matters on which law is unable, owing to the difficulty of framing general rules for all contingencies, to make an exact pronouncement."

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