Beyond the Formalist-Realist Divide: The Role of Politics in Judging the Role of Politics in Judging

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According to conventional wisdom in American legal culture, the 1870s to 1920s was the age of legal formalism, when judges believed that the law was autonomous and logically ordered, and that they mechanically deduced right answers in cases. In the 1920s and 1930s, the story continues, the legal realists discredited this view by demonstrating that the law is marked by gaps and contradictions, arguing that judges construct legal justifications to support desired outcomes. This often-repeated historical account is virtually taken for granted today, and continues to shape understandings about judging. In this groundbreaking book, esteemed legal theorist Brian Tamanaha thoroughly debunks the formalist-realist divide.

Drawing from extensive research into the writings of judges and scholars, Tamanaha shows how, over the past century and a half, jurists have regularly expressed a balanced view of judging that acknowledges the limitations of law and of judges, yet recognizes that judges can and do render rule-bound decisions. He reveals how the story about the formalist age was an invention of politically motivated critics of the courts, and how it has led to significant misunderstandings about legal realism.

Beyond the Formalist-Realist Divide traces how this false tale has distorted studies of judging by political scientists and debates among legal theorists. Recovering a balanced realism about judging, this book fundamentally rewrites legal history and offers a fresh perspective for theorists, judges, and practitioners of law.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Tamanaha has written a provocative challenge to conventional wisdom about the rise of judicial realism. . . . Strongly recommended for scholars and students of law, political science, and history."Choice

"Beyond the Formalist-Realist Divide is a clearly written and groundbreaking book. Although its focus is historical, its objective—in which it succeeds—is to change the way we think about law today."—Henry Cohen, Federal Lawyer

"Tamanaha's book reflects some striking research into the views of (largely forgotten or neglected) 19th-century law professors and jurists, and the material he has brought to our attention will demand attention from legal historians. . . . [W]e should be grateful to Tamanaha for his provocative historical research, for laying down a vigorous challenge that should be met by historians of ideas and social scientists, and for imparting appropriate intellectual caution and modesty to future writers who might otherwise be prone to casual talk about a 'formalist' age in American legal thought."—Brian Leiter, Legal Theory

"Tamanaha's . . . book will change the way we think about both formalism and realism, about the history of legal scholarship and about the empirical study of judicial decision making."—Edward Rubin, Law and Politics Review

Tamanaha has written a provocative challenge to conventional wisdom about the rise of judicial realism. . . . Strongly recommended for scholars and students of law, political science, and history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691142791
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 10/26/2009
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Brian Z. Tamanaha is professor of law at Washington University School of Law. His books include "On the Rule of Law and Law as a Means to an End".
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The Role of Politics in Judging
By Brian Z. Tamanaha

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2010 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-14280-7

Chapter One


PERSPECTIVES ON JUDGING in the United States are dominated by a story about the formalists and the realists. From the 1870s through the 1920s-the heyday of legal formalism-lawyers and judges saw law as autonomous, comprehensive, logically ordered, and determinate and believed that judges engaged in pure mechanical deduction from this body of law to produce single correct outcomes. In the 1920s and 1930s, building upon the insights of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Roscoe Pound, and Benjamin Cardozo, the legal realists discredited legal formalism, demonstrating that the law is filled with gaps and contradictions, that the law is indeterminate, that there are exceptions for almost every legal rule or principle, and that legal principles and precedents can support different results. The realists argued that judges decide according to their personal preferences and then construct the legal analysis to justify the desired outcome.

This is the standard chronicle within legal circles as well as in political science, repeated numerous times by legal historians, political scientists who study courts, legal theorists, and others. A recent article on judging coauthored by two law professors and a federal judge begins:

How do judges judge? According to the formalists, judges apply the governing law to the facts of a case in a logical, mechanical, and deliberative way. For the formalists, the judicial system is a "giant syllogism machine," and the judge acts like a "highly skilled mechanic." Legal realism, on the other hand, represents a sharp contrast.... For the realists, the judge "decides by feeling and not by judgment; by 'hunching' and not by ratiocination" and later uses deliberative faculties "not only to justify that intuition to himself, but to make it pass muster."

A book on judging by three political scientists lays out the same account: "Until the twentieth century, most lawyers and scholars believed that judging was a mechanistic enterprise in which judges applied the law and rendered decisions without recourse to their own ideological or policy preferences.... In the 1920s, however, a group of jurists and legal philosophers, known collectively as 'legal realists,' recognized that judicial discretion was quite broad and that often the law did not mandate a particular result." A legal historian writes, "Formalist judges of the 1895-1937 period assumed that law was objective, unchanging, extrinsic to the social climate, and, above all, different from and superior to politics.... The Legal Realists of the 1920s and 1930s, tutored by Holmes, Pound, and Cardozo, devastated these assumptions.... They sought to weaken, if not dissolve, the law-politics dichotomy, by showing that the act of judging was not impersonal or mechanistic, but rather was necessarily infected by the judges' personal values." A legal theorist writes that "we may characterize formalism as the descriptive theory of adjudication according to which (1) the law is rationally determinate, and (2) judging is mechanical. It follows, moreover, from (1), that (3) legal reasoning is autonomous, since the class of legal reasons suffices to justify a unique outcome; no recourse to non-legal reasons is demanded or required." "Realists were certainly antiformalists," he adds. Identifying the inspiration for legal realism, a legal sociologist writes, "Holmes's central ideas on law are based on a rejection of the doctrine of legal formalism that dominated American legal thought. The doctrine of legal formalism holds that the law is an internally consistent and logical body of rules that is independent from the variable forms of its surrounding social institutions."

The formalist-realist antithesis has migrated to shape general historical understandings. A specialist in the turn of the twentieth century reports, "At the beginning of the Progressive Era, the judges of the Supreme Court had long followed the abstract concept of legal formalism. They ruled through a deductive process that followed the logic that had shaped preceding rulings.... Progressives argued that rather than law being a set of abstract principles and accumulated precedents from which jurists could not deviate, law had to take account of social conditions from which law arose.... They urged that attachment to legal formalism be abandoned and replaced with legal realism."

This ubiquitous formalist-realist narrative is not a quaint story of exclusively historical interest: it structures contemporary debates and research on judging. The formalists are "the great villains of contemporary jurisprudence." A "formalist" judge is guilty of foolishness or dishonesty-of slavish adherence to rules contrary to good sense or manipulation under the guise of adherence. Judge Richard Posner's How Judges Think is pitched as an effort to debunk the delusions of legal formalism that still beguile the legal fraternity. Well over a hundred quantitative studies of judging have been conducted by political scientists, with reams more currently underway, many aiming to prove that formalism is wrong and realism is correct. Legal academics are busily developing "new legal formalism" or "new legal realism." The entire legal culture has been indoctrinated in the formalist-realist divide.

A database of U.S. law journals going back two centuries provides concrete evidence of the rapid ascendance and current attention to formalism and realism. Before 1968, no article (zero) was published in a law journal with "formalism" or "formalist" in the title. The first article title to include one of these terms was written by Grant Gilmore in 1968. From 1968 through 1979, nine articles had one of these terms in the title. From 1980 through 1989, the total was twenty-seven; from 1990 through 1999, it was sixty-eight; and from 2000 through 2007, forty-eight. A search for titles with "realism" or "realist" (subtracting other usages of these common terms) shows a similar trajectory, moving from a relatively low frequency from the 1930s through the 1950s (a low of seven and high of sixteen), going up a bit in the 1960s and 1970s (numbering in the low twenties each decade), then jumping to a much higher level in the 1980s (sixty-five), 1990s (eighty-two), and 2000 through 2007 (sixty-four). Remember that this counts only titles with a reference to the formalists or the realists. Many more articles (in the thousands) and books mention or discuss them.

The pervasive influence this story exercises on contemporary thought about judging is all the more extraordinary when one realizes that the formalist-realist divide is wrong in essential respects. The story about the legal formalists is largely an invention, and legal realism is substantially misapprehended. Quantitative studies of judging are marked by a distorting slant owing to incorrect beliefs about the formalists and realists. Legal theory discussions of legal formalism are irrelevant, misleading, or empty. Debates about judging are routinely framed in terms of antithetical formalist-realist poles that jurists do not actually hold.

The objective of this book is to free us from the formalist-realist stranglehold. It consists of a web of interlocking misinterpretations and confusions bundled in a mutually reinforcing package that is now virtually taken for granted. The consequences of this collection of errors are ongoing and pernicious. Rooting out the formalist-realist story will help us recover a sound understanding of judging.

The Myth about the Legal Formalists: Part I

The key to dislodging this framework is to refute assumed beliefs about legal formalism. This effort will take some doing. Many historians and theorists have made confident assertions about what the legal formalists believed. I and others have taught a generation of students about the former dominance of legal formalism. It is stupefying to think that we could have been collectively wrong for so long about something so central and well known.

To demonstrate that the age of "legal formalism" never really existed as such is like proving that ghosts do not exist: one must dispute the credibility of ghost sightings and offer more plausible alternative explanations for the phenomena witnessed. That is the approach taken in part I. Much like chasing ghosts, investigating the formalists proves elusive because they are hard to catch a glimpse of. The formalists never speak for themselves. Every account of the legal formalists and the purportedly widespread belief in "mechanical jurisprudence" has been written by critics like Roscoe Pound and Jerome Frank, and by modern historians and theorists relying upon the accounts of critics. "Formalism," legal theorist Tony Sebok observed, "... does not really have an identity of its own: As a theory of law, it exists only as a reflection of scholars like Holmes, Pound, Llewellyn, and Frank."

To break down the story, the leading accounts of mechanical jurisprudence and legal formalism-written by Roscoe Pound, Jerome Frank, Grant Gilmore, and others-will be exposed as replete with errors and falsehoods. Although Pound repeatedly claimed that turn-of-the century judges and lawyers believed in mechanical deduction, he offered no quotations or citations to that effect by anyone who espoused this purportedly dominant view of judging. When describing this set of beliefs, Pound relied heavily on discussions of German legal science. Frank also relied upon German legal science in his portrayal of judging, and he cited Pound. Most claims about the legal formalists trace back through a string of citations to Pound and Frank.

Abundant ironies will tumble forth as this false story is splayed open. Jurists in the late nineteenth century, it turns out, took substantial pride in the progress they had made in overcoming formalism in law. They thought formalism was a primitive legal stage beyond which they had evolved. Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5 reveal that many people in law-including many of the most prominent lawyers, judges, and academics of the day-described judging in consummately realistic terms.

As a preview of the evidence to come, consider this 1881 passage about judging:

It is useless for judges to quote a score of cases from the digest to sustain almost every sentence, when every one knows that another score might be collected to support the opposite ruling. The perverse habit of qualifying and distinguishing has been carried so far that all fixed lines are obliterated, and a little ingenuity in stating the facts of a case is enough to bring it under a rule that will warrant the desired conclusion.... [T]he most honest judge knows that the authorities with which his opinions are garnished often have had very little to do with the decision of the court-perhaps have only been looked up after that decision was reached upon the general equities of the case.... He writes, it may be, a beautiful essay upon the law of the case, but the real grounds of decision lie concealed under the statement of facts with which it is prefaced. It is the power of stating the facts as he himself views them which preserves the superficial consistency and certainty of the law, and hides from careless eyes its utter lack of definiteness and precision.

William G. Hammond made these striking statements, as skeptical as anything the legal realists would say five decades later, upon his installation as the first full-time dean and professor at St. Louis Law School. He was not a legal radical. Hammond, indeed, has been identified by legal historians as an important contributor to legal formalism.

A Reconstruction of Legal Realism: Part II

The standard portrait of the legal realists as a band of pioneering jurists shining a realistic light on judging to illuminate a previously darkened age advances a gross misunderstanding of our legal history. Contemporary historiography paints Holmes as an iconoclast, Pound as a bridge from Holmes to the realists, Cardozo as bravely breaking taboos in his candor about judging, and the realists as rebellious radicals who finally crushed the formalist resistance. Chapters 5 and 6 show that much of this narrative is misleading. Holmes's views were presaged by others, were not unusual among his contemporaries, and were tame in comparison to some; what Cardozo said about judging in the 1920s had been openly stated by leading judges decades earlier; the realists' views of judging closely match what the historical jurists wrote in the 1880s and 1890s.

Pound coined "mechanical jurisprudence" in 1908 to criticize judges as trapped in a straightjacket of logical reasoning. Multiple accounts by his contemporaries, however, suggest that judges were not reasoning in any peculiarly mechanical or precedent-bound manner. The dominant theme at the time, contrary to the standard image of the formalist age, was the worrisome uncertainty of the law created by the proliferation of inconsistent precedents and an explosion of legislation. In 1930, in the course of attacking contemporary courts, Jerome Frank reprised and embellished Pound's characterization of judges beguiled by mechanical jurisprudence. Then in the 1970s the story was once again dusted off by critics of courts and worked into the full-blown theory of the formalist age. Loud bouts of skepticism about judging erupt periodically owing to unhappiness with law and judging, and the legal realists were one such episode.

A "Balanced Realism" about Judging

The objective of this book is to recover an understanding of judging now obscured by the formalist-realist divide that has prevailed for well over a century-what I call "balanced realism." Balanced realism has two integrally conjoined aspects-a skeptical aspect and a rule-bound aspect. It refers to an awareness of the flaws, limitations, and openness of law, an awareness that judges sometimes make choices, that they can manipulate legal rules and precedents, and that they sometimes are influenced by their political and moral views and their personal biases (the skeptical aspect). Yet it conditions this skeptical awareness with the understanding that legal rules nonetheless work; that judges abide by and apply the law; that there are practice-related, social, and institutional factors that constrain judges; and that judges render generally predictable decisions consistent with the law (the rule-bound aspect). The rule-bound aspect of judging can function reliably notwithstanding the challenges presented by the skepticism-inducing aspect, although this is an achievement that must be earned, is never perfectly achieved, and is never guaranteed.

A concise statement of balanced realism was set forth by Cardozo:

Those, I think, are the conclusions to which a sense of realism must lead us. No doubt there is a field within which judicial judgment moves untrammeled by fixed principles. Obscurity of statute or of precedent or of customs or morals, or collision between some or all of them, may leave the law unsettled, and cast a duty upon the courts to declare it retrospectively in the exercise of a power frankly legislative in function. In such cases, all that the parties to the controversy can do is to forecast the declaration of the rule as best they can, and govern themselves accordingly. We must not let these occasional and relatively rare instances blind our eyes to the innumerable instances where there is neither obscurity nor collision nor opportunity for diverse judgment.

Contrary to their image as skeptics, the legal realists viewed judging in similarly balanced terms. They did not assert that judges routinely manipulate the law to produce desired outcomes. The misleading skeptical image of the realists is perpetuated by the formalist-realist antithesis, which casts the realists as the opposite of formalism. Karl Llewellyn, realist extraordinaire, devoted a 500-page book to refuting the "Law School Skeptic," arguing at length that judicial decisions are highly predictable and determined mainly by legal factors. He wrote the book to counteract the corrosive effect of facile skepticism about judging.

Not only did the legal realists see judging in terms of balanced realism, so did their contemporaries, and so did many leading jurists in the late nineteenth century as well as in the twentieth century. Beneath roiling surface debates, jurists have generally viewed judging in terms of balanced realism. A theme that runs through this book is that judges, in particular, have consistently and candidly expressed a balanced realism about judging. Many judges will be heard from in these pages.


Excerpted from BEYOND THE FORMALIST-REALIST DIVIDE by Brian Z. Tamanaha Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
CHAPTER 1: Introduction 1
CHAPTER 2: The Myth about Beliefs in the Common Law 13
CHAPTER 3: The Myth about "Mechanical Jurisprudence" 27
CHAPTER 4: The Holes in the Story about Legal Formalism 44
PART TWO: The Legal Realists
CHAPTER 5: Realism before the Legal Realists 67
CHAPTER 6: A Reconstruction of Legal Realism 91
CHAPTER 7: The Slant in the "Judicial Politics" Field 111
CHAPTER 8: What Quantitative Studies of Judging Have Found 132
CHAPTER 9: The Emptiness of "Formalism" in Legal Theory 159
CHAPTER 10: Beyond the Formalist-Realist Divide 181
Afterword 200
Notes 203
Index 251

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