The Judicial Ethics Forum (JEF)

An Academic Discussion of Judicial Ethics, Discipline & Disqualification

Adjudicatory Theory

Posted by judicialethicsforum on Sunday, August, 4, 2013

For those interested in theoretical inquiries of adjudication, three interesting works follow:

(1) Larry Solum on a virtue-centered theory of judging.  This work happens to be the most-downloaded-ever article relating to judicial ethics on the Social Science Research Network:

“Virtue jurisprudence” is a normative and explanatory theory of law that utilizes the resources of virtue ethics to answer the central questions of legal theory. The main focus of this essay is the development of a virtue-centered theory of judging. The exposition of the theory begins with exploration of defects in judicial character, such as corruption and incompetence. Next, an account of judicial virtue is introduced. This includes judicial wisdom, a form of phronesis, or sound practical judgment. A virtue-centered account of justice is defended against the argument that theories of fairness are prior to theories of justice. The centrality of virtue as a character trait can be drawn out by analyzing the virtue of justice into constituent elements. These include judicial impartiality (even-handed sympathy for those affected by adjudication) and judicial integrity (respect for the law and concern for its coherence). The essay argues that a virtue-centered theory accounts for the role that virtuous practical judgment plays in the application of rules to particular fact situations. Moreover, it contends that a virtue-centered theory of judging can best account for the phenomenon of lawful judicial disagreement. Finally, a virtue-centered approach best accounts for the practice of equity, departure from the rules based on the judge’s appreciation of the particular characteristics of individual fact situations.

(2) Brad Wendel on Jurisprudence and Judicial Ethics:

The fundamental value in judicial ethics is impartiality. This means that a judge is duty-bound to decide cases on their merits, be open to persuasion, and not influenced by improper considerations. The paradigm case of unethical behavior by a judge is taking a bribe to decide a case in favor of one of the parties. This kind of corruption, which is fortunately rare in many developed countries, is also relatively uninteresting from an intellectual point of view. A more difficult case of failure of impartiality, conceptually speaking, involves a judge who relies on extra-legal factors as the basis for a judicial decision. Making sense of judicial ethics therefore requires a distinction between factors a judge may take into account when rendering a decision, and those which are excluded from consideration. In American legal discourse, this distinction is often stated in terms of law vs. politics, where politics is used to mean any normative view that is not incorporated into the law. In contrast with legal decisions made by actors within the executive branch of government, in which policy and ideological factors may play a role, judicial decisions are supposed to be justified solely on the basis of legal reasons. . . .

More specifically, the paper will discuss two aspects of the law-politics distinction. First, principles of judicial impartiality must take a position on the existence of judicial discretion and the problem of legal interpretation. The second area of discussion is the justification for certain restrictions imposed on judges by positive law (rules of judicial conduct, statutes, and court rules) often misleadingly referred to as rules of judicial ethics. At least in the United States, many of these restrictions purport to regulate bias and the risk that judges will not be impartial. Courts applying the rules governing judicial conduct often regulate prophylactically, by disqualifying judges from presiding over certain types of cases, based on conduct that is taken to be evidence of bias. However, the discussion of the Hart/Dworkin debate shows that the political viewpoints of judges may necessarily influence the outcomes of cases. In Dworkin’s view, judging is inherently a political practice, because ascertaining the content of law is impossible without resort to normative political argument. In Hart’s view, by contrast, it is possible to ascertain the content of law empirically, but there may be a further normative question about the best way to prioritize or balance competing legal considerations.

I believe the right approach to judicial ethics is to focus on the application side of the distinction between the content of law (which may or may not be susceptible of determination on the basis of social facts) and standards for its application. Where there are multiple plausible interpretations of existing cases, statutes, and other applicable legal norms, all we can reasonably expect is that a judge deliberate in good faith and reach the conclusion she believes represents the best reading of the governing law. The subject of judicial ethics is essentially an attempt to flesh out the idea of judging in good faith. That, I suggest, is fundamentally about being prepared to give reasons in justification of a judicial decision.

(3) And Brennan-Marquez on Judging Pain:

Adjudication often stems from painful origins. Yet the process of interpreting pain has inspired virtually no commentary. By omitting pain-regard from their accounts of the “right-remedy gap”, scholars have been unable to account for cases that, (1) originate from an acute instance of suffering, and (2) involve a tension between competing legal principles, one militating in favor of redress, the other in favor of dismissal. The Article examines three such cases in detail: Snyder versus Phelps, Brown versus Plata, and Connick versus Thompson.

The cases are experientially upsetting. They force the Court to contend with the limitations of its remedial capacity at the very moment when redress seems, because of the severity of pain, most urgent. The Article profiles the way different Justices respond to this condition and, from there, develops an account of judicial pain-regard. It concludes by arguing that in our legal order, defined as it is by irreconcilable but independently virtuous commitments, pain-regard is not only wise; it is necessary.

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