Stoner’s Response: “Legal Realism, Legal Revolution”

The final response to my essay on law and tradition has been posted over at Liberty Law, Tradition Projectand it is superb: Professor James Stoner’s Legal Realism, Legal Revolution. Jim’s work has been formative for my own learning about the relationship of the common law tradition and American constitutionalism–and in particular about the erroneous and all-too-common characterization of constitutional law as “judge-made law.” It’s wonderful to have his contribution. A bit from the end of Jim’s piece:

Just a little over two months after praising Americans for discarding a “blind veneration” of legal tradition, Madison wrote a most interesting passage in Federalist 49. In that February 2, 1788 essay he explained the need for the Constitution to earn what I infer must be enlightened “veneration” (he repeats the noun, without an adjective) from the people. This would come over time, as the system established by the Constitution demonstrated its capacity to insure good government. I think Madison had in mind a respect that inclines people to work within the system to seek improvements, and an inclination to wonder whether even what appear to the most agitated of us to be “stupidities” or “rigging,” might not have a reasonable purpose, even if that purpose has come to be overlooked or forgotten.

“In a nation of philosophers,” he continued, “this consideration ought to be disregarded. A reverence for the laws would be sufficiently inculcated by the voice of enlightened reason. But a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected, as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato.” The impossibility of such a nation, moreover, is not accidental, but somehow essential, if the limits of human reason are understood. As Madison explains a few papers later, “Had every Athenian citizen had been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”

DeGirolami seems right on point in describing the anti-traditionalism of the legal academy today and, since this has been the case for more than a generation, of the bar and bench that they have trained. The thirst for novelty, driven by academic practices that ultimately imitate the natural sciences without showing anything like scientific progress, except perhaps to partisans of dominant opinion, has corrupted the respect for tradition that once imbued the law and that—let me repeat by way of emphasis—made possible genuinely successful reform.

Perhaps, as DeGirolami hopes, something can be salvaged of the common law tradition, in its new guise as “judicial process,” to guide pragmatic reformers who don’t want to scrape their shins on the furniture—even if the brightest and most ambitious eschew Holmes’ path of “profound interstitial change” in favor of openly promoting causes they think noble. I confess to being a bit skeptical that tradition can be recovered as a formal category and an independent good apart from the actual, concrete tradition of common law and constitutionalism which we inherited, developed, and now seem eager to spend down. I doubt, too, whether that tradition could be restored unless the difficult philosophical work were done inside the law schools and outside of them—the work that would be needed to revive the thought, the experience, and even the faith in human reason out of which our tradition first emerged.

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