Legal Realisms, Old and New

Author: 
Brian Leiter

“Legal Realism” now has sufficient cache that scholars from many different fields and countries compete to claim the mantle of the "Realist program": from political scientists who study judicial behavior, to the "law and society" scholars associated with the Wisconsin New Legal Realism project, to philosophers interested in a naturalized jurisprudence. But what does it mean to be a “legal realist”? What unites the two most famous “old” Legal Realisms — the American and the Scandinavian — with the “new legal realism” invoked, variously, by sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists, among others? There are, of course, other “legal realisms,” old and new, from the “free law” movement in Germany more than a century ago, to the Italian realism of the Genoa School today. My focus, however, shall be on the old and new Realisms that are probably most familiar. Is there anything they all share?

I argue that (1) American and Scandinavian Realism have almost nothing in common — indeed, that H.L.A. Hart misunderstood the latter as he did the former, and that the Scandinavians are closer to Hart and even Kelsen than they are to the Americans; (2) all Realists share skepticism about the causal efficacy of legal doctrine in explaining judicial decisions ("the Skeptical Doctrine") (though the Scandinavian skepticism on this score is not at all specific to the legal domain, encompassing all explanation in terms of norms); (3) American Realism almost entirely eschewed social-scientific methods in its defense of the Skeptical Doctrine, contrary to the impression given by much recent work by "new" legal realists; (4) the myth that the American Realists were seriously interested in social science derives mainly from two unrepresentative examples, Underhill Moore's behaviorism and Llewellyn's work with the Cheyenne Indians. Moore's case is a cautionary note in taking au courant social science too seriously; and Llewellyn's work was necessitated by the fact that the "primitive" peoples he wanted to study did not write their judicial opinions down. For any modern legal culture, such "field work" would be unnecessary on Llewellyn's view.