The distinguished legal scholar Ronald Dworkin, author of Law’s Empire, among many other books, and a frequent commentator for the New York Review of Books, died last week. An ingenious scholar, he made many important contributions to legal philosophy. Yet his most influential idea has produced a more questionable legacy. This is the idea that when judges decide constitutional cases, they should draw on moral principles as well as the legal materials at hand, like statutes and judicial precedents. This idea, abused by liberal and conservative judges alike, has harmed our democracy.
When judges are called upon to resolve disputes, they frequently face a pile of ambiguous texts. The Constitution, for example, overflows with vague, undefined phrases—“due process of law,” “equal protection,” “cruel and unusual punishment.” Statutes and earlier decided cases are often no better.
To resolve these ambiguities, judges may look for clues about the writers’ meanings, or follow canons of interpretation, like the rule that more specific legal commands prevail over more general commands. But it is tempting for judges also to rely on their moral beliefs, or ideological predispositions. If the Constitution bans “cruel and unusual punishment,” a judge who rejects the death penalty on moral grounds may want to conclude that the death penalty is cruel and unusual, and hence constitutionally barred. If the Constitution creates a “right to bear arms,” a judge who believes strongly in the right to self-defense may conclude that this right restricts gun control.
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