Hosanna-Tabor has come and gone, with a flurry of commentary out of the gate and now a bit of (perhaps welcome!) silence. Last week, I described the decision as particularist, but I did not define the term. Judicial particularism is a concept that I explore in my current book project, Tragedy and History: The Quality of Religious Liberty, but for purposes of this post, I thought to offer some quick-shot thoughts about what judicial particularism might mean — first what it does not, or need not, mean, and second what I believe it does, or at least could, mean.
If judicial particularism is taken to mean only the simple and bland proposition that “context matters” in the adjudication of cases, then that seems fairly uncontroversial. Of course context matters. Who would disagree? Even those who prefer the ostensible discipline of hard rules in adjudication acknowledge that general rules are not self-applying and that the specifics of a case will and ought to affect the outcome.
Judicial particularism also does not necessarily mean or imply adjudicatory narrowness, in the sense of deciding only the absolute minimum that one needs to dispose of the case. It is true that often times particularistic judgments may also be narrow judgments. Indeed, this is a position with great appeal. But one could be both a judicial particularist and write a decision that intimates (perhaps subtly, in dicta, or perhaps implicitly, by failing to say anything) the resolution of other, future cases that are factually similar on similar grounds, or the resolution of other, future cases that are factually dissimilar on dissimilar grounds.
Following Jonathan Dancy’s work on moral particularism, I take the core of judicial particularism to be that it is possible to decide cases reasonably predictably without the necessity of relying on a single general value or principle, or even a set number of general values or principles, to do so. The sting in particularism is not that ‘context matters’ but that reasons or values which are important in some specific context may not be so in others. Reasons or values do not have either constant or categorical weight across a range of disputes, or even among cases within a range, so that what is a reason for reaching a judgment in one set of circumstances may not, as Dancy puts it, retain the same “polarity” in another set of circumstances.