More on Motive in Law

A followup to Marc’s post on motive in law. Marc notes that motive remains salient in constitutional law, but not in tort or criminal law. I’d like to add just a couple of points.

First, when it comes to constitutional law, motive is especially important in contemporary Religion Clause jurisprudence. The Lemon test (much-derided, but still extant, in my opinion, even after last term’s Bladensburg Cross case) makes government motive central to Establishment Clause cases. In the Free Exercise context, government motive figures prominently as well. The Masterpiece Cakeshop decision turned almost entirely on the Court’s inferences about the anti-religious motives of Colorado state officials.

Marc wonders why motive should be relevant in constitutional law, when it has lost its relevance in tort law. It’s a good question. Because motive is even more elusive in public law than in private law. Take contract law, for example. Classical contract law disregards a party’s motives for making a contract. It doesn’t matter why someone makes a contract. The only thing that matters is that the person intends to make a contract–or, rather, that an objective observer would understand that the person intends to make a contract. This is so because a party may have several motivations for making a contract: profit, affection, indifference, etc. To try to figure which motive was the most important is a hopeless task.

The problem is even more compounded when it comes to government motive. In contract law, we’re talking about the intentions of two actors. But government actions turn on the decisions of potentially hundreds of actors, all of whom may have multiple motives. The problem of ascertaining motive is even more difficult in this context.

I’m not sure where all this leads. But Marc is right in pointing out the continued relevance of motive in constitutional law, and its continued irrelevance in private law. It’s a puzzle that demands an answer.

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