Margulies on LSA: Ruminations on Law, Legal Realism, and Emotional Attachments

Following the 50th Anniversary Law & Society Conference in Minneapolis, we at NLR Conversations had the idea of sharing some reactions to the experience. I’ve been thinking about this a great deal, and wanted to set down some thoughts about the first and last panels I attended. Sorry for the shameful delay in putting this to paper, for which I can offer the usual, pedestrian excuses as well as the chaos associated with a move from Northwestern to Cornell.

The first panel I attended—in the wee hours of the first day—was on constitutional change, including a presentation by my former student, Amy Myrick, who summarized her very interesting doctoral research about congressional proposals to amend the Constitution. It was quintessential new legal realism—or at least, so it seemed to me.  Each paper not only acknowledged but actually emphasized the sometimes-wide gulf between law as it exists within the four corners of a case or statute, and law as it enters and alters the life of the community.

For example, Ken Kersch, who teaches political science at Boston College, presented an excellent paper about the modern conservative attachment to the myth of the common law, especially an idealized conception of 19th-century laissez-faire jurisprudence, which conservatives accept as an archetype and use to inform policy judgments about what 21st-century jurisprudence ought to be.[1]

It was obvious from all the papers, as well as from the comments both by the discussant (my Cornell colleague Aziz Rana) and the audience, that everyone in the room understood that “law” acquired meaning not simply from its production, but from its injection into the public square, where it becomes subject to continual contest and negotiation, and that there was almost no point in talking about “law” as an abstract, fixed thing except to mark the distance between such a notion and reality, which is immeasurably more complex.

Contrast this with so much of the writing that we find in modern law reviews. For example, as I was writing this little missive, I scrolled down the archives of the Cornell Law Review and plucked, at random, Volume 97, Issue 4, and pulled up the lead article, Alexander Tsesis, Self-Government and the Declaration of Independence, 97(4) Cornell L. Rev. 693 (2012).

Over the course of 60 pages and 273 footnotes, Professor Tsesis argues that the Declaration should be read as a legally binding text that “sets constitutional obligations to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that it imposes on all three branches of government a duty “to protect inalienable rights on an equal basis.” Id. at 695. Tsesis then uses this argument to critique City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997), and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 130 S. Ct. 876 (2010).

The Declaration, in other words, is an 18th century super-case, the four corners of which not only can but must control the resolution of legal controversies 250 years later, without reference to historical, political, or intellectual context. In fact, the only context Tsesis provides comes when he catalogs nearly every mention of the Declaration by judges, legislators, and scholars over the course of two-plus centuries, all of which combine to show that We the People have more or less always revered it.

I certainly do not mean to criticize Professor Tsesis, whom I do not know. As far as I can judge, he wrote an excellent article, as articles of this sort go, and he seems to be a perfectly competent legal academic. But this is not the sort of scholarship one would expect from New Legal Realists. The Declaration was a document written by a particular person with a particular set of biases and objectives at a particular moment in time for quite particular purposes. It was injected into the colonial blood stream, where it acquired a complex cluster of meanings, the precise content of which may be difficult or impossible to reconstruct. In time, it acquired symbolic, mythical meaning, the content of which we worship (but also change) as much or more as we do the original understanding. Of course, the same can be (and has been) said of the Constitution.[2]  To speak of “the Declaration,” therefore, without reference to its symbolic life, to its many meanings, and to its particular creative history, is at best incomplete – and at worst, seriously misleading..

The last panel I attended was an author-meets-reader session. Three authors, of which I was one, discussed each other’s books, and were in turn critiqued by Jothie Rajah of the American Bar Foundation, Rick Abel of UCLA Law, and Maureen Duffy from Calgary Law. Broadly speaking, the topic was torture, and discussion naturally turned to the torture memo, written in 2002 by John Yoo. Here, unlike in the first panel, nearly everyone on the panel and in the audience seemed to want to treat the torture memo as “bad law” and the enhanced interrogations as indisputably illegal. Much more importantly, discussion about the torture scandal took place without regard for how the torture memo has in fact been used since it became public in 2004.

In fact, I would go further than this. The lesson that seemed self-evident at the first panel (viz., that this thing we call law is an odd compound which immediately changes its character upon exposure to the outside world) had been forgotten. People wanted to believe, contrary to what they know to be true, that we could pick up the torture memo, measure it against existing statutes by applying conventional tools of statutory interpretation and legal analysis, and conclude in some definitive way that George Bush was a crook. It reminded me of Larry Kramer’s observation about the Constitution, made in a very different context:

If the Constitution is law …, it is not (supposed to be) politics. It is, of course, political, in the sense that all law is political: it has political consequences, those who interpret and apply it cannot help but bring their politics with them into the interpretive process, and so forth. But modern recognition of the inherently political nature and structure of law still accepts the fundamental premise that law can and should be separated from politics. Law is, if you will, the part of politics that is supposed to be left to courts and judges.[3]

Yet this is precisely the idealized, mythologized view of law that realists reject, or so I had thought.[4]  Law is not, if you will, separate from politics. And this is true not simply for the reasons collected by Kramer. It is political not simply because interpreters have biases, but because the meaning of any text is inherently and inevitably constructed, torn down, and reconstructed again in an intensely social and never-ending process; it is political, in other words, in the very broadest sense, and so much so that there is really no point talking about law in the pure form envisioned by Kramer.

The upshot of all this, it seems to me, is clear enough. In the second panel, many of the participants were seduced by an emotional attachment to a particular understanding and followed it to a point that was intellectually indefensible. This of course is something we must guard against. We can condemn the enhanced interrogation program and its trappings without sacrificing intellectual convictions about the nature of law in American society. Even more importantly, we can condemn it for the horrors it produced without getting into sterile and unwinnable debates about whether the torture memo is faithful to that iconic but “essentially contested” symbol of all things good, ‘the rule of law.’[5]

And as scholars trying to devise a consistent and defensible vision of law in society, it behooves us to do so.

Joe Margulies
Cornell University
July 2014


[1] The paper was adapted from, Ken I. Kersch “Constitutive Stories About the Common Law in Modern American Conservatism,” in Sanford Levinson and Joel Parker, editors, NOMOS: American Conservatism (New York University Press, forthcoming) (to appear with comments by Lino Graglia).

[2] See, e.g., Michael Kammen, A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture (New York: Alfred Knopf 1986).

[3] Larry D. Kramer, The Supreme Court 2000 Term Forward: We the Court, 115 Harvard Law Review 4-169 (2001).

[4] Now is as good a place as any to disclose that I have been closely involved in these issues since late 2001. I was lead counsel in Rasul v. Bush, and now represent Abu Zubaydah, the person for whose interrogation the torture memo was written. I am one of the few people in the world who actually know what was done to Abu Zubaydah, and have no doubt in my mind that it was torture and morally repugnant.

[5] Jeremy Waldron, Is the Rule of Law an Essentially Contested Concept (in Florida)?, Law and Philosophy 21: 137-164 (2002). For a discussion of how the torture memo has been used in the public square, see Joseph Margulies, What Changed When Everything Changed: 9/11 and the Making of National Identity (Yale Univ. Press 2013).


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