What Makes a Judge Great?

Most students of law – not just law students – probably have a favourite judge, or judges. Someone whose judicial performance – his or her decisions and opinions – we regard as outstanding and exemplary. But what is it that makes a judge great? Or, more modestly, what makes a judge good?

There several ways to think about this, as Lawrence Solum argues in a number of papers, for example this one. An obvious one is to say that a judge is good because he happens to agree with you, or you with him or, to put the point more generally, to make adherence to some standard of substantive justice or to some decision-making procedure, whatever you happen to find most attractive. So if your preferred standard of substantive justice is a commitment to civil liberties, you will think that Justice Fish of the Supreme Court of Canada is great. If your favoured decision-making procedure is looking for original intent, you will be an admirer of Justice Scalia of the US Supreme Court.

Another way of thinking about judicial excellence, which Lawrence Solum advocates, is in terms of “judicial virtues” (and vices). A good judge is one who has the peculiar virtues the judicial office requires; an excellent judge is one who has these virtues to an exceptional degree. But what are these virtues? Solum lists quite a few in his various papers on the topic:

(1) incorruptibility and judicial sobriety; (2) civic courage; (3) judicial temperment and impartiality; (4) diligence and carefulness; (5) judicial intelligence and learnedness; (6) judicial craft and skill; (7) justice; and (8) practical wisdom.

(I am lifting the list from the abstract of an essay called “A Tournament of Virtue.”)

Richard Posner, in his book on How Judges Think, has a list of judicial vices, some (but perhaps not all) of which are the opposites of some of Solum’s virtues. Posner observes that

[o]ne cannot be regarded as a good judges if one takes bribes, decides cases by flipping a coin, falls asleep in the courtroom, ignores legal doctrine, cannot make up one’s mind, bases decisions on the personal attractiveness or unattractiveness of the litigants or their lawyers, or decides cases on the basis of “politics” (depending on how that slippery word is defined).

The problem, as Solum recognizes, is that many of these virtues are strongly contested.

Take one that might seem obvious: justice. For one thing, it has a range of meanings, from the very thin “natural justice” (consisting of two Latin maxims, audi alteram partem and nemo judex in causa sua), to Aristotelean equity (knowing when to make an exception to a too-general rule), to the always contested substantive visions of justice. But even justice’s being a judicial virtue is sometimes denied, perhaps most famously by Oliver Wendell Holmes who, according to Learned Hand, responded to the latter’s exhortation to “do justice” by sternly observing that that was not his job. And Justice Holmes would, I suspect, make anyone’s list of judicial greats. The one great stain on his name, his angry, heartless “[t]hree generations of imbeciles are enough” opinion for the majority in Buck v. Bell (upholding a law providing for forced sterilization of “mental defectives”) is, it seems to me, a failure not so much of justice as of empathy or of detachment from one’s ideological commitments.

There might be other ways of thinking about judicial greatness too, not captured by the theories I have so far discussed. For example, we might think that a great judge is an original thinker (one reason I admire Justice Beetz, for example), or a particularly good writer (one reason, though of course not the only one, Lord Denning is everybody’s favourite). I don’t think that either originality or literary talent are necessary to be a good (as opposed to excellent) judge, so I would hesitate to qualify them as judicial virtues.

The moral of the story, if there is indeed a story here and if it actually has a moral, is that judicial greatness, as greatness in anything else, is probably impossible to define in any way that would not generate serious disagreement. But that’s precisely what makes trying to define it, and coming up with lists of greats, so entertaining, isn’t it?

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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