Panel Friday on Stare Decisis, Justice, and the Rule of Law

I’m very happy to be participating in an online panel discussion this Friday on Stare Decisis, Justice, and the Rule of Law. The panel is part of The Global Summit on the Future of Constitutionalism, a huge conference put together by Professor Richard Albert of the University of Texas Law School. My co-panelists are Lisa Burton-Crawford (University of New South Wales Faculty of Law); Jeffrey Pojanowski (Notre Dame Law School); and Leonid Sirota (Auckland University of Technology). Andrea Pin (University of Padua) will moderate.

The title of my presentation: “How the Morality of the Rule of Law and Stare Decisis is More Like Vichyssoise Than Oatmeal.”

The panel is this Friday at 2:00. Registration is free! Zoom on by.

Originalism and Its Discontents

I’m on a panel today at the Federalist Society Faculty Conference with this subject as its title, moderated by Professor John McGinnis (Northwestern) and with commentary by Professor Randy Barnett (Georgetown). The panel runs from 11:00-12:30. Here’s a link to the livestream, which I’ve also included below–please listen in!

EVENT VIDEO

DESCRIPTION

Originalism & Its Discontents
11:00 am – 12:30 pm

This panel will discuss some of the critiques of originalism as offered by libertarians and social conservatives.

  • Prof. Randy Barnett, Georgetown University Law Center
  • Prof. Marc DeGirolami, St. John’s University School of Law
  • Prof. Joshua Kleinfeld, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law
  • Dr. Jesse Merriam, Patrick Henry College
  • Prof. Christina Mulligan, Brooklyn Law School
  • Moderator: Prof. John McGinnis, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law

“Reconstructing Malice in the Law of Punitive Damages”

I’m pleased to announce that my new paper, Reconstructing Malice in the Law of Punitive Damages, will be published by the Journal of Tort Law next year. The paper is my first foray into tort law scholarship, though I have been teaching Torts for the last 3 years at St. John’s. Malice, in the common law of crime and tort, is a thorny subject with a complicated and ancient lineage. Indeed, there are interesting connections between law and religion, on the one hand, and notions of malice in the law, on the other. But malice’s legacy was questioned beginning in the 19th century with Holmes (and others including J.F. Stephen) and then repudiated more decisively in the work of 20th century tort law giants like William Prosser and criminal law giants like Herbert Wechsler.

This paper attempts to reconstruct a historically correct, conceptually coherent, and normatively compelling case for malice’s reintroduction into the law of punitive damages. It also speculates about the utility of this reconstructed account of malice in other fields, especially criminal law. Finally, though this paper does not approach this topic, it does suggest the possibility of reconstructivism as a broader theory of law and legal development, something about which I hope to write in the future. Here is the abstract.

Punitive damages present two related puzzles. One concerns their object. If they are punitive, their object is to punish tortfeasors. If they are damages, their object is to compensate tort victims. If they are both, as the Supreme Court has recently stated, the problem is to reconcile these different objects in applying them. A second puzzle involves their subject. Punitive damages are awarded for egregious wrongdoing. But the nature of that egregiousness is nebulous and contested, implicating many poorly understood terms. The two puzzles are connected, because the subject of punitive damages will inform their object. Once we know the type of wrongfulness that punitive damages deal with, we can understand better whether and how they are punishing, compensating, or both.

This Article reconstructs one of punitive damages’ central subjects: malice. In so doing, it clarifies one key object of punitive damages: to offer redress to a victim of cruelty. Malice is a ubiquitous textual element in the state law of punitive damages. But there has been little scholarly commentary about what malice means for punitive damages. Drawing from the common history of tort and criminal law, this Article identifies two core meanings of malice: a desire or motive to do wrong, and a disposition of callous indifference to the wrong inflicted. Though distinct, these meanings broadly coalesce in the concept of cruelty. The Article argues that this reconstructed account of the wrong of malice represents a powerful justification for awarding punitive damages. Malice as cruelty as a justification for punitive damages also fits within a broader view of tort law as redress for specific private wrongs. But malice as a subject of punitive damages clarifies and enriches this account of their object. A victim of a tort done with malice, and who is aware of it, has been wronged more gravely than a victim of a tort done without malice and is therefore entitled to greater redress.

A New Work on Patriotism and Other Loyalties

I’ve learned a great deal from Professor Steven B. Smith’s work on political philosophy over the years. A few years back, I watched his terrific lectures (and tried to keep up with the reading!) which are available to everybody, and then read his fine book, Modernity and Its Discontents.

Early next year, Professor Smith has a new book in the offing: Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes (Yale University Press) that is worth highlighting. For the law and religion crowd, I’m sure this will be a timely and important contribution on the question of balancing various competing loyalties. Here is the description.

The concept of patriotism has fallen on hard times. What was once a value that united Americans has become so politicized by both the left and the right that it threatens to rip apart the social fabric. On the right, patriotism has become synonymous with nationalism and an “us versus them” worldview, while on the left it is seen as an impediment to acknowledging important ethnic, religious, or racial identities and a threat to cosmopolitan globalism.
 
Steven B. Smith reclaims patriotism from these extremist positions and advocates for a patriotism that is broad enough to balance loyalty to country against other loyalties. Describing how it is a matter of both the head and the heart, Smith shows how patriotism can bring the country together around the highest ideals of equality and is a central and ennobling disposition that democratic societies cannot afford to do without.

Don Drakeman’s New Book: “The Hollow Core of Constitutional Theory”

Congratulations to Center board member Don Drakeman for his new book, available later this month, The Hollow Core of Constitutional Theory: Why We Need the Framers (CUP 2020)! Don has been making the case for an approach to originalism that looks to original meaning as well as original intention for several years. I know that I have benefited from his work greatly over the years.

More later, when I’ve had a chance to read the book. But for the moment, wonderful news.

Inaugural Session of the CLR Reading Society: Antigone

Mark and I hosted the first session of our Reading Society last night, an occasion for students to gather with us and one another in the evening, over a beverage, to discuss a classic work. Our first choice was Antigone, by Sophocles. It was an enormous success. We were both very impressed with the depth of insight our students brought to this masterpiece of literature. Truly, we learned a lot from our students.

Stay tuned for the next gathering, in the spring.

JCLS Symposium on A Light Unseen: A History of Catholic Legal Education

Congratulations to the staff of the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies for the publication of these papers connected to the symposium last February on Professors John Breen and Lee Strang’s forthcoming book, A Light Unseen: A History of Catholic Legal Education. The volume contains contributions by several law school deans and professors reflecting on the project.

For more details on the symposium, see these two notices.

On Judge Barrett, Stare Decisis, and Methodological Disagreement

I have an essay at First Things that lays out my understanding of what Judge Amy Coney Barrett has written about stare decisis and the fact of methodological disagreement in constitutional interpretation. The essay in part aims to correct this grossly misinformed and error-saturated piece published at Commonweal. But in much larger part, it tries simply to do justice to Judge Barrett’s view in her scholarly work. A bit:

Judge Barrett’s principal writing on this problem can be found in Precedent and Jurisprudential Disagreement and Originalism and Stare Decisis, although she has discussed these matters in other places as well. Her view can be summarized as originalist but also committed to the presumption of stare decisis force for existing precedent. She has elaborated a comparatively “weak” or “soft” presumption in favor of stare decisis in constitutional cases, but it is important to be clear about just what that means. 

For Judge Barrett, the fact of methodological pluralism about fundamental issues in constitutional methodology (for example, in the disagreements between originalism and varieties of non-originalism) makes a comparatively soft stare decisis presumption attractive. This pluralism has implications for how judges view basic doctrinal error, because such error is likely to concern foundational methodological differences and deep jurisprudential commitments. In such situations, Judge Barrett writes, “stare decisis seems less about error correction than about mediating intense jurisprudential disagreement.” 

As to precedents where a judge has a deep disagreement about method, it is not realistic or desirable, Judge Barrett says, to expect the judge to abandon her commitments simply for the sake of preserving those precedents. That would be asking the judge to betray her core judicial philosophy, something that would do no favors to judicial legitimacy, perceived or actual. Nevertheless, “the preference for continuity disciplines jurisprudential disagreement,” requiring from judges who would abandon stare decisis “both reason giving on the merits and an explanation of why its view is so compelling as to warrant reversal.” If these very strong reasons and explanations do not exist, then “the preference for continuity trumps.” New coalitions of judges (and at the Supreme Court, it is groups of judges that count) who argue for new interpretations are put at “an institutional disadvantage” by stare decisis, but they are not categorically disabled by it. 

Judge Barrett’s “soft stare decisis” approach, in sum, accommodates the fact of methodological pluralism and deep substantive disagreement with the need for legal stability. The presumption favors existing doctrinal arrangements but permits challenges to them. To say that it is “soft,” therefore, is not at all to say that it encourages “constant upheaval” or wild unpredictability. To the contrary: Under a soft presumption of stare decisis force, “[t]he Court follows precedent far more often than it reverses precedent.” 

This view is very much in line with the Court’s current approach to the force of stare decisis. And it flows not so much from Judge Barrett’s originalism, but instead from her view that stare decisis poses a problem for all theories of constitutional interpretation. She is “soft” on stare decisis not because she is an originalist, but because people disagree in good faith about how to interpret the Constitution.

Traditionalist Originalism

Here is the latest over at the Liberty Fund in my small efforts to play with what a fusionist interpretive approach to constitutional interpretation–integrating originalism and what I have called traditionalism–might look like and require. The occasion is a reply to some fine essays by Professors Randy Barnett, Jesse Merriam, and Ilan Wurman, who were responding to this piece on stare decisis.

I find these more extended exchanges useful. You get a chance to really talk to people a bit more, so to speak. Here’s a little bit:

Originalists moved by Professor Barnett’s imperative [to align doctrine with original meaning] would be well-advised to attend to the difference between, on the one hand, an ancient and enduring cluster of precedents reflecting practices extending back to the founding (and even before it) and, on the other, a comparatively recent, one-off, “unmoored” (as Justice Thomas put it) decision that runs counter to such enduring practices. This distinction is important for at least two reasons, one theoretical and the other practical.

First, at least in cases where meaning is uncertain, old and enduring precedential lines carry greater epistemic weight about those meanings than do recent and isolated doctrinal innovations. Precedents proximate in time to the founding and repeatedly entrenched thereafter for centuries in subsequent doctrine and practice are more powerful evidence of permissible, even if not mandated, textual meanings, than precedents that do not share these qualities. True, they are not conclusive evidence. An ancient and enduring line of doctrine may have gotten it wrong, and wrong repeatedly, from the start. But for the many constitutional provisions where meaning is uncertain, and for situations in which there may be several interpretations that are not “demonstrably erroneous,” originalists concerned about epistemic warrant ought to grant such precedential lines a presumption of veracity.

Consider the bizarre and hubristic alternative: a world where early judicial interpretations, and the lasting and concentrated lines of precedent generated by them, are given no respect at all, or are even presumed to be wrong, and it is only the latest-arriving “knowledgeable scholars,” so much more distant in time and legal culture, who can see clearly and are owed epistemic deference. Judges evaluating practices close in time to the founding have access and insight that scholars who research original meaning today should acknowledge and respect. They are much more likely than we are to share in the political and cultural ethos of their own time. And where an early understanding has endured and been repeatedly reaffirmed for generations, thereby increasing its law-like properties, the respect we owe it likewise should increase.

Second, the justices whom originalists admire most do tend to invest ancient and enduring precedential lines with qualitatively different stare decisis force than recent, novel, and unmoored precedents. As I indicated in my first essay, this is something that judges inclined toward originalism have appreciated better than their scholar counterparts. I was therefore puzzled by Professor Barnett’s claim that “some justices” today may be eager to overrule D.C. v. Heller and Citizens United v. FEC, just as other justices of the Warren and Burger Court eras swept away ancient and longstanding precedents that obstructed their progressive political aims. That may be true, but I would not have thought that originalists would take these justices to be their models, let alone to vindicate Professor Barnett’s argument that Supreme Court justices “must be free” to vote as they like whenever they like, stare decisis notwithstanding.

Against Professor Barnett’s claim that Supreme Court justices “never have” treated stare decisis as especially powerful in the case of old and enduring precedents, I point back to my initial essay, where I described the considerable “buy-in” that already exists from the justices whom originalists admire and would like to win over—including Justice Thomas, Justice Gorsuch, and Justice Alito in their respective opinions in Gamble, Mesa, and Ramos. If the Chief Justice can be shown the error of his “insidious” conception of stare decisis in June Medical, as Professor Wurman puts it, then perhaps he, too, might be persuaded to buy in.

In highlighting age, deep roots in common practice, and enduring continuity—that is, in emphasizing the jurisprudential traditionalism of constitutional law—these justices are telling originalist scholars something important about the virtue of stability in constitutional law, and about its nature. As Judge Amy Coney Barrett has indicated, Justice Scalia likewise long defended the “stare decisis” of American political and cultural traditions against the doctrinal innovations of judges (and scholars) entirely disconnected from, and sometimes even disdainful of, those traditions. “In an important sense,” Judge Barrett argues, “originalism can be understood as a quintessentially precedent-based theory, albeit one that does not look primarily to judicial decisions as its guide.” Justice Scalia is no longer on the Court, of course. But others may come who have been influenced by his legacy. Originalists have reasons to listen to what these judges are telling them.

Professor Barnett is right, then, that integrating originalism and stare decisis will require accepting the “imperative” of gradual doctrinal alignment in accordance with original meaning. That will be stare decisis’ concession. But integration will require a concession from originalism, too—and something more than what Professor Barnett is offering at the moment. Originalists will need to acknowledge the traditionalism of constitutional law and that precedential age, endurance, and connection to common practice matter in constitutional law. They matter both for epistemic, interpretive reasons that ought to be of interest to originalists and for the stability that ought to be recognized by originalists and nonoriginalists alike as a legal virtue.

Merriam Responds on Originalism and Stare Decisis

The final response to my essay on integrating originalism and stare decisis, by Professor Jesse Merriam (Patrick Henry College), is up. I will have a reply to all three of my respondents in a few days. A bit from the end of Professor Merriam’s piece:

Any effort to restore the American legal tradition must engage the fact that our constitutional order has been revolutionized through a vast array of “individual liberty” decisions. As Bruce Frohnen describes this shift, the Supreme Court’s Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence has transformed American constitutional law from a mediating order (i.e., a constitutional order that “mediates among more primary social groups and institutions”) into a commanding order (i.e., a constitutional order that “shape[s] the conduct of individuals, groups, and political actors to produce a society that has a specific character”).

In accord with this commanding order, the federal judiciary has emancipated the individual from the strictures of the past, including the traditional institutions of family, church, and community. This has had the effect of also emancipating us from one another, thus denying the “social bond individualism” that Richard Weaver found to be a critical part of a stable liberal order. And our emancipation from the past has severed us from the world we are creating. Traditions, as Burke described them, create “a partnership” not only among the living, but also among “those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” For this reason, Burke concluded that a people “who never look backward to their ancestors . . . will not look forward to posterity.”

How ironic, then, that Chief Justice Roberts would invoke Burke in his June Medical opinion, a case that, in striking down restrictions on abortion clinics, reaffirmed the Roe line of cases creating a constitutional right to abortion—in other words, the right to be emancipated from one’s posterity. June Medical is wrong, not because it got stare decisis wrong (as DeGirolami alleges), but because it got the meaning of tradition—and the meaning of personhood—wrong.

None of this is to say that DeGirolami’s effort is not worthwhile. But it does seem out of tenor with our current predicament. The task for a traditionalist is not to find a place for originalism and stare decisis in the American legal landscape, but rather to find a place for tradition in a political and legal culture that exalts emancipation as the highest good.

Faced with this task, DeGirolami may find that preserving the American tradition does not simply mean picking up a legal thread. It may, instead, mean picking up the needle and starting a new one.