“Tradition and the Judicial Talent”

Playing on TS Eliot’s famous essay, that is the title of the third entry in my Law and TP BannerTradition series at the Liberty Fund’s blog. In the post, I discuss the very interesting plurality opinion in Burhnam v. Superior Court, one of the Court’s highly traditionalist opinions (and one perhaps not so commonly known outside civil procedure circles).

From the end:

Burnham involved the…question whether the state of California could assert personal jurisdiction in a divorce action over a defendant who was physically present within the state. The defendant had entered California on business and to visit his children, and he claimed that the more flexible approach for defendants without physical presence should apply in his case as well. The Court disagreed:

The distinction between what is needed to support novel procedures and what is needed to sustain traditional ones is fundamental….The short of the matter is that jurisdiction based on physical presence alone constitutes due process because it is one of the continuing traditions of our legal system that define the due process standard of “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” That standard was developed by analogy to “physical presence,” and it would be perverse to say it could now be turned against that touchstone of jurisdiction.

In so holding, the Burnham plurality denied that a state’s exercise of personal jurisdiction over a defendant depends solely on measuring the extent of his contacts with the state against abstract, evolving, and ultimately subjective tests of fairness or justice.

The plurality also noted that its methodology differed significantly from Shaffer v. Heitner, in which the Court had stated that “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice” may be “readily offended by the perpetuation of ancient forms that are no longer justified.” Justice Brennan’s concurrence in Burnham likewise urged the Court to apply “contemporary notions of due process.”

The Burnham plurality responded that it was doing just that, for “contemporary notions of due process” just exactly are the “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice” that “are applied and have always been applied in the United States.” These notions are not the playthings of the justices. They are not judicially evolving notions. Neither are they merely historical notions. They are traditional notions. Personal jurisdiction over a defendant physically present within a state may be reformulated as “fair” (as Justice Brennan urged) because the defendant could “reasonably” have expected it. But his expectation would have been reasonable only because personal jurisdiction in such circumstances is traditional: “fairness,” the plurality said, “exists here because there is a continuing tradition.” The tradition can change, of course, if a state wishes to change it. But the overwhelming majority of states had not, and it was not the justices’ proper role to do so.

The plurality opinion in Burnham is, in sum, one of the Court’s most traditional decisions. And in its response to Justice Brennan’s progressive understanding of the judicial role, one is reminded of Eliot’s famous essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent: “Someone said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”

Want to Understand the Possible Implications of the Legislative Prayer Case?

Then you should read these two posts by Kevin Walsh.

In the first post, Kevin explains the way in which Justice Kagan’s dissent lines up in important ways with the views of Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson in his opinion for the Fourth Circuit in Joyner v. Forsyth County (Justice Kagan explicitly relies on some language in Joyner, but the similarities in outlook run deep).

The second post discusses a pending cert. petition–the Elmbrook School District case out of the Seventh Circuit in which Judges Easterbrook, Posner, and Ripple authored dissents from the court’s en banc opinion–and what might happen to it in light of the Court’s holding in Greece.

Both issues are discussed at length in the article that Kevin and I wrote together–Judge Posner, Judge Wilkinson, and Judicial Critique of Constitutional Theory (see in particular Parts I(B) and II(C)). You should read that too!

Barzilai on Law, Politics, and the Adjudication of Religious Issues

Gad Barzilai (University of Washington – Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies) has posted Law is Politics. The abstract follows.

In his essay, “Law or Politics: Israeli Constitutional Adjudication as a Case Study,” Gideon Sapir is coping with some problems concerning adjudication of religious issues. He presumes that there is a certain dichotomy that differentiates “law” from “politics,” since the first deals with norms and the second with regulating and balancing political branches. Sapir’s article, in my opinion, proves that law is politics in a sense that law generates and embodies political and socioeconomic interests, identities, and consciousness. I argue below that politics cannot be differentiated from law, and therefore cannot respond to Sapir’s aspiration to de-politicize adjudication and to monitor and hamper the effects of personal backgrounds and worldviews on judicial rulings. I analyze some of Sapir’s findings and arguments from a critical perspective that law is politics.

The subject matter of religious justices in supreme courts are particularly relevant in countries where almost no institutional and constitutional separation between state and religion prevails. In countries like Israel that have not separated state from religion, and have used religion as part of state nationality and legal ideology, the background of the justices and their basic worldviews will most often be a reflection and articulation of interactions between religion, state power foci, and state ideology. The Israeli Jewish political elite has used Orthodox religion to legitimize the state, and hence has used the non-separation of nationality and religion embedded in Zionism, for political purposes.

Equality and (Religious) Liberty

An interesting story in The Guardian about Oxford professor Roger Trigg, whose new book we noted here.  The story discusses Professor Trigg’s views about the state of religious liberty in Great Britain and, in his view, the trumping power of the value of equality, as well as the sorts of inquiries courts are making about religious centrality and sincerity.  Indeed, there seem to be two themes in the story — the need to balance conflicting values and the question of who should be charged to balance them.  A bit from the story:

In his latest book, Equality, Freedom and Religion, Roger Trigg, who runs the Centre for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Kellogg College, argues: “There has been a clear trend for courts in Europe and North America to prioritise equality and non-discrimination above religion, placing the right to religious freedom in danger.”

He cites a number of recent cases, including that of Lillian Ladele, the Islington registrar who refused to conduct civil partnerships because of her religious beliefs. In that case, he says, “the need to respect the right to equality trumped the freedom of religious convictions”.

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Classic Revisited: Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”

This one will be familiar to many CLR Forum readers, but I was reminded of Alexis de Tocqueville’s wonderful work of comparative political science, Democracy in America (1835 & 1840) (readable in its entirety for free, people, for free!)  as I was preparing for my constitutional law class this spring.  Rather than reproducing the well-known tracts about American “democratic” religion, here’s a fragment from Tocqueville’s superb discussion of the unique position of the American federal judiciary.  Note in particular Tocqueville’s emphasis toward the end of the section I’ve reproduced on the fact that the American judge does not deal in “theoretical generalities,” but in very discrete factual particulars.  A proto-minimalist passage, perhaps.  From Volume I:

The first characteristic of judicial power in all nations is the duty of arbitration. But rights must be contested in order to warrant the interference of a tribunal; and an action must be brought before the decision of a judge can be had. As long, therefore, as a law is uncontested, the judicial authority is not called upon to discuss it, and it may exist without being perceived. When a judge in a given case attacks a law relating to that case, he extends the circle of his customary duties, without, however, stepping beyond it, since he is in some measure obliged to decide upon the law in order to decide the case. But if he pronounces upon a law without proceeding from a case, he clearly steps beyond his sphere and invades that of the legislative authority.

The second characteristic of judicial power is that it pronounces on special cases, and not upon general principles. If a judge, in deciding a particular point, destroys a general principle by passing a judgment which tends to reject all the inferences from that principle, and consequently to annul it, he remains within the ordinary limits of his functions. But if he directly attacks a general principle without having a particular case in view, he leaves the circle in which all nations have agreed to confine his authority; he assumes a more important and perhaps a more useful influence than that of the magistrate, but he ceases to represent the judicial power.

The third characteristic of the judicial power is that it can act only when it is called upon, or when, in legal phrase, it has taken cognizance of an affair. This characteristic is less general than the other two; but, notwithstanding the exceptions, I think it may be regarded as essential. The judicial power is, by its nature, devoid of action; it must be put in motion in order to produce a result. When it is called upon to repress a crime, it punishes the criminal; when a wrong is to be redressed, it is ready to redress it; when an act requires interpretation, it is prepared to interpret it; but it does not pursue criminals, hunt out wrongs, or examine evidence of its own accord. A judicial functionary who should take the initiative and usurp the censureship of the laws would in some measure do violence to the passive nature of his authority.

The Americans have retained these three distinguishing characteristics of the judicial power: an American judge can pronounce a decision only when litigation has arisen, he is conversant only with special cases, and he cannot act until the cause has been duly brought before the court. His position is therefore exactly the same as that of the magistrates of other nations, and yet he is invested with immense political power. How does this come about? If the sphere of his authority and his means of action are the same as those of other judges, whence does he derive a power which they do not possess? The cause of this difference lies in the simple fact that the Americans have acknowledged the right of judges to found their decisions on the Constitution rather than on the laws. In other words, they have permitted them not to apply such laws as may appear to them to be unconstitutional.

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