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Are courts our legislatures?

by James R. Maxeiner

The authors of The Invention of Courts, the latest volume from Dædalus, The Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, are fixated on courts as legislatures. They imagine that courts are where democracy should unfold and rules should be made. 

Co-editors of the volume are Linda Greenhouse, longtime Supreme Court correspondent at the New York Times and now lecturer at Yale Law School, and her Yale colleague, Professor Judith Resnik. They have brought together more than a dozen contributors—all thoughtful law reformers—to deal with the issue that "in our aspiration for ‘justice for all,’ we too often fall short." They correctly see the problem: "[W]e assign courts an astonishing range of tasks while lacking consensus on whether alternative mechanisms could do some jobs more efficiently, less expensively, and better than adjudication." But they hardly offer solutions beyond more judicial legislation.

Professor Resnik, in the volume's lead essay, "Reinventing Courts as Democratic Institutions," rejoices that judges are no longer "loyal servants of the state" and lauds the "transforming [of] adjudication into a democratic practice to which all persons have access." Courts are to endure, she says, as "democratic sites of norm contestation." In other words, she would have a litigation state and a rule of lawyers.

Professor Resnik has it wrong: courts should not be substitutes for the democratic process. In a government of laws, ordinarily courts should carry out laws, not make them.  Rebuilding justice is about governing and not about litigating.  It is about drawing lines in well-drafted statutes that allow people to use their common sense and live their lives without lawyers. It is about people and the people’s servants taking responsibility under law.

The volume presents as guiding metaphor William Clift’s 1976 "Reflection: Old St. Louis County Courthouse, Saint Louis Missouri," where the infamous Dred Scott case was decided in first instance. It shows the Old Courthouse in St. Louis in the mirror image of a new skyscraper. It’s an odd choice.

Reflection, Old St. Louis County Courthouse, St. Louis, Missouri (1976)

Real reform requires more than looking in the mirror. It requires that we see through the looking glass into another world, where laws govern and judges judge. Today, American exceptionalism won’t let us stop admiring ourselves in the mirror. Other systems do work better.

It’s an odd choice for another reason. Professor Resnik sees the Courthouse "as a testament to injustices promulgated there in the name of the law." But the injustice was not in the St. Louis Courthouse, where a jury applied law to set Scott free, but in Washington, in the Supreme Court’s quarters under the Senate, where the Court relied on judicial legislation to place Scott in bondage.

The Dred Scott decision should, at the very least, cause us to question our fixation on judges and judicial legislation and lead us to consider anew the "alternative mechanism" anticipated in our federal and state constitutions: legislatures. But that’s not the message of the volume. According to contributor Professor Jamal Greene, we should accept such bad judge-made law as "a chromosomal condition … as part of who we are."

The Invention of Courts, insofar as it challenges Americans to do better, is a positive contribution. Insofar, however, as it does not challenge us to reconsider the "modern" idea that lawmaking is for courts first, legislatures second, it makes matters worse. It is past time for reformers to look beyond the dysfunctional American world to any of the many civil law systems that do work.