WARNING: This post is an adapted version of a passage in my “candidacy paper,” which is meant eventually to be part of the first chapter of my dissertation. Caveat lector.
Explaining their decisions is an important part of the judges’ work. It is valuable for all sorts of reasons. It forces judges to be honest – not just with the parties and their colleagues, but also, and perhaps most importantly, with themselves – about the issues at stake and the reasons that lead them to resolve the issues this way or that. It reassures the parties that the court has listened to their arguments and given them some thought, even if it ultimately rejected them. It makes judicial decisions more public, more transparent, and more amenable to criticism (and eventually reform). In these different ways it also disciplines the judges – it forces them to produce decisions that are more legally sound, because they address the relevant legal issues and materials. But could it do even more?
Some theorists, notably Lon Fuller, have argued reason-giving can make judicial decisions not merely legally sounder, but also better on some substantive criterion. As Fuller wrote in the context of his famous debate with H.L.A. Hart, “when men are compelled to explain and justify their decisions, the effect will generally be to pull those decisions toward goodness.” (Lon L. Fuller, “Positivism and Fidelity to Law-A Reply to Professor Hart”, (1958) 71 Harv. L. Rev. 630, 636 .) In a similar vein, in an interesting (and/but incredibly romantic) essay on the role of the judge in relation to the corpus juris, especially in a common law system, Sarah M.R. Cravens contends that, as part of “virtuous judging,” reason-giving can help “take decision-making beyond simply the legally correct” and “is a component of a larger cycle that defines, develops, and achieves justice.” (1643)
Is that right? I am very skeptical, despite my sympathy for the view of law, and especially the common law, as inherently valuable and good. Fuller might just be right that reason-giving cannot lead “toward a more perfect realization of iniquity,” (636) because iniquity dares not speak its name, although we know that it does sometimes, as for example in Justice Holmes’ opinion in Buck v. Bell, which I described as “angry [and] heartless” here. But there is a great deal of disagreement about what iniquity is, and even more about what goodness or justice are, making it impossible to say whether reason-giving, or any other practice, actually helps realizing them. One way around this problem is to say, as Prof. Cravens seems to, that goodness or justice are to be found within the four corners of the legal system itself, so that reason-giving helps achieve them merely by situating judicial decisions within the system, but surely many will dispute that the our legal system, as it currently exists, is substantively good or just.
The most that can be said is that the existence of a legal system, or more specifically of a body of law comprising and connecting individual judicial decisions, is itself valuable and good, as for example Jeremy Waldron argues in his essay on “The Concept and the Rule of Law.” Fuller (and probably prof. Cravens) would agree with that claim, but his (and her) view goes rather beyond it and, much as I admire him, I cannot follow him there.