The past few days have seen many criticisms from academic quarters of the Supreme Court’s reliance on historical evidence and practice to reconstruct the tradition of legislative prayer in reaching the conclusion that it did in Town of Greece v. Galloway. I have argued at length elsewhere that recurrence to long-standing and unbroken traditions of practice as themselves constitutional justifications is a sensible way to give presumptive meaning to open-ended provisions in the Constitution like the religion clauses. This is particularly so in the face of the tragically clashing values of religious freedom, where the elevation of one value as paramount will result in the loss of others.
True, other considerations of sufficient weight can and should supervene on the presumptive deference accorded to traditional practices. True also, the nature of a tradition may itself be contested and subject to different interpretations. The past speaks with many voices, as Martin Krygier has put it. So that the reconstruction and reconstitution of a tradition by a court will often smooth away rough edges; it must do so, as this is what law invariably and necessarily does—skeletonize fact, in Clifford Geertz’s phrase. The court’s reconstruction will not be the historian’s reconstruction because it cannot be. It will be a legal reconstruction—a judicial historiography. In this, tradition is hardly to be distinguished from the sorts of abstractions that courts and others often prefer to debate in this area of the law—equality, neutrality, and human dignity, to name only a few. But the reality of contestation does not mean that the idea of tradition or the substance of specific traditions are empty or somehow a fraud—any more than contestation about the idea of equality or neutrality or their specific applications mean that equality and neutrality are empty or a fraud. Because, like Rick Garnett, I believe that the core function of constitutional interpretation is not to resolve political division and disagreement, but to ascertain the meaning of words in a text (if that is what is meant by textualism, then I subscribe to it), the facts of a practice’s historical roots and duration are evidence of its consistency with the words of a law. Moral or political argumentation can, in unusual circumstances, trump such evidence. But those situations are, for me, exceptional. As I say, these are not extremely popular views in the legal academy. But they were controlling in Town of Greece. While legislative prayer may often be unwise as a political matter (and I believe that it is), the case was, in my view, correctly decided as a constitutional matter.
Yet in the balance of this post, I want to consider another feature of the case. What Town of Greece also shows is that the academy and the courts view the import of traditional analysis in legal interpretation in wildly different ways, assigning very different value to it. And the divide between the legal academy and the Supreme Court when it comes to the issue of the weight of tradition is not confined to the law of the religion clauses, or even to constitutional law proper.
In a superb new paper, The Supreme Court and the New Equity, Samuel Bray (UCLA) explains that what is “new” about the Supreme Court’s approach to remedies is that its methodology appeals to history and tradition. In a series of about ten cases in which the Court has been confronted in statutes with the words “equitable relief” or “equitable remedies,” it has reconstructed and re-entrenched the division of law and equity by relying on history and traditional practice. These statutes are authorizing courts to give certain specific kinds of remedies, not recommending that they do whatever they believe is politically or morally best in the name of equity. Bray writes that the Court has rejected the conventional academic wisdom of the past four decades and beyond—that there is no longer any viable distinction between equitable and legal remedies (this is seen most clearly in the difference between academic and judicial views about the continuing vitality of the irreparable injury rule). Here is Sam from the introduction to the piece:
[S]omething remarkable has happened at the Supreme Court. Over the last decade and a half, the Court has been slowly, perhaps even accidentally, laying the foundation for a very different future for the law of remedies. In ten different cases in nearly as many substantive areas, the Court has deeply entrenched the “no adequate remedy at law” requirement for equitable relief, and it has repeatedly underscored the distinction between legal and equitable remedies. The Court has shown no appetite, however, for reviving old distinctions between legal and equitable courts, procedures, or substantive areas of the law. Only in remedies—but there, with vigor—has the Court insisted on the historic division between law and equity.
The Court has not given a defense of perpetuating the division between legal and equitable remedies. Instead, at every point, the Court has supported its new equity jurisprudence by appealing to history and tradition. For example, in one of the new equity cases—a mere eight pages in the U.S. Reports—the word tradition or a cognate appears fourteen times.
The Court’s reconstructed tradition of equity is not fixed at any given moment. But neither does it recognize evolution or development. Rather, it looks, as Justice Kagan put it in U.S. Airways, Inc. v. McCutcheon, to “the kinds of relief ‘typically available in equity’ in the days of ‘the divided bench’ before law and equity merged.”
In relying on the history of equity to reconstruct a tradition of the division between equitable and legal remedies, sometimes the Court has gotten it quite wrong. It has made errors, and these have been rightly pointed out by legal historians. Sometimes these errors have been corrected by the Court; sometimes they still await correction. And yet, Sam writes that while the legal academic critique of the jurisprudence of tradition has been “stinging,” it has also been “incomplete.” As the jurisprudence of tradition was employed in an increasing number of cases, the historical errors decreased, the Court developed consensus about the boundaries of equitable remedies and about its own methodology, and the appeal to tradition sometimes restricted but also sometimes expanded the reach of equitable remedies. The jurisprudence of tradition matured.
Some legal academics have gone further in their criticisms. They have claimed that the “tradition” of equity is a fabrication—a fraud constructed by the Court—and that no such sharp-edged historical referent is even conceivable just exactly because the tradition is so ancient and so varied. But Sam resists this criticism, and quite rightly in my own view. The judge’s imperative is to interpret language and to decide cases, and it is in the shadow of this imperative that he looks to history. Here is Sam again, in a telling passage:
Judges are looking to history, but not for historical purposes. They must force unruly historical events through a decisionmaking process that will have binary results, such as liability or no liability, damages or no damages, guilt or acquittal, a jury trial or no jury trial, the availability of laches or no availability of laches, contempt or no contempt. Judges have no leisure for prolonged investigation, a series of monographs, a revise-and-resubmit. They do have some grounds for abstaining from making a decision, but there is no such thing as Incomplete Historical Record Abstention. Pressed to use history and pressed to decide, judges tend to emphasize the continuity of past and present. In this way, too, their use of history differs sharply from historical scholarship, in which the characteristic theme is discontinuity.
And yet this does not mean that the idealized tradition that judges reconstruct is empty or a phantom or a fraud. The tradition of remedies typically available in equity is not meaningless. Naturally there will be disputed questions at the borders, as there always are. But there are many questions that will be clearly settled by such an approach—indeed, this is what will make it possible for legal historians to criticize courts for clear mistakes (as when the Supreme Court misdescribed the writ of mandamus as an equitable remedy). As time goes on, the jurisprudence of the tradition of remedies typically available in equity will settle. It will mature.
The jurisprudence of tradition’s project to reconstruct an idealized history of equity is, in fact, a plausible middle course between the options of freezing equity at a distant historical moment, on the one hand, and imbuing it with amorphous exhortations to courts to be “flexible” or “adaptable” or to do “what is right,” on the other. These are the options available to a court confronted with the necessity to interpret and decide. Even more than that, however, the methodology of the jurisprudence of tradition highlights—helpfully—the perennial separation between academic and judicial functions, purposes, and roles. Perhaps there are lessons here for the religion clauses as well.