The Best and the Rest

A friend has drawn my attention to what seems like an interesting book, Laughing at the Gods: Great Judges and How They Made the Common Law by Allan C. Huntchinson, a professor at Osgoode Hall. I haven’t had a chance to start reading it yet but I will eventually, because prof. Hutchinson’s topic is directly relevant to my doctoral dissertation’s topic – judges and the way in which they shape the law. But while my idea is that such a study has to start with systemic factors – the ways in which the environment in which judges work (generally accepted ideas of what a judge ought to do, the institution of courts, rules of procedure) constrain them and influence their work, the sources of the rules judges apply, the differences of the judges’ approaches to various areas of the law – prof. Hutchinson’s study is about individuals.

As the blurb on the publisher’s website says, “[a]ny effort to understand how law works has to take seriously its main players – judges. Like any performance, judging should be evaluated by reference to those who are its best exponents.” The book is about “candidates for a judicial hall of fame,” “game changers who oblige us to rethink what it is to be a good judge” – starting with Lord Mansfield, and on to mostly predictable greats such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Lord Atkin, and Lord Denning. The only Canadian in the list is Justice Bertha Wilson.

As I wrote here a while ago, “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.” So I’m sure that a book trying to understand judicial work by defining and selecting case studies of judicial greatness was good fun to work on, and has the potential of being good fun to read. And yet I wonder if it is a profitable way of achieving its stated aim of understanding how the law works.

That’s because I doubt that “any performance …  should be evaluated by” looking at the best performers. For one thing, understanding any human activity is, arguably, a study in mediocrity more than in greatness. If you want to understand tennis, it is not enough to watch Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal. That will teach you how it ought to be done, but tells you nothing at all about how tennis is in fact played by everyone else on the planet. And the point is starker still if we leave the realm of activities that are pursued primarily for the sake of excellence, such as competitive sports and performing arts. Other activities – think of cooking for example – are mostly pursued not for the sake of excellence, but in order to satisfy some practical need. By studying examples of excellence in such activities, one does not even learn what people who undertake them typically aim for, even in their dreams, still less what they usually achieve.  Judging is like that. Its primary purpose is not to achieve greatness, but simply to settle disputes, many of them quite trivial. A lot of it happens every day, most of it good enough to do the job, but by no means remarkable. Studying great judges tells you little descriptively about what judging usually is, and perhaps not much normatively about what it ought to be.

The other point that any study of a human activity through the examination of its outstanding representatives misses is the rule-bound nature of most human undertakings. To return to my tennis example again, a book about it surely has got to start with a description of the rules of the game, not with the biographies of great players. Of course you might be able to figure out some (in the case of tennis, probably most) of the rules by watching great matches, but understanding the rules of the game first will help you appreciate and understand what is going on and what is so great about it. You will also need some understanding of the means at the players’ disposal  – their equipment, say, or even the human body. Suppose you’re an alien with teleportation abilities who doesn’t understand how human beings move around. Chances are you won’t admire Rafa Nadal’s running – you’ll think he’s an idiot. It is a rather convoluted example, but when it comes to judging, we are to some extent in the position of that alien. Most legal thinkers seem not to have much of an appreciation for the rules of the judicial game or for the limits the judges’ position imposes on what they can do. Of course these rules are controversial and these limits are uncertain. But it seems to me that a truly informative study of judging has to begin by discussing them.

There is of course a danger in methodological critiques such as this one. Instead of engaging with the story a scholar tells, the critic in effect tells him that he ought to have written a different kind of story, which (almost) invariably happens to be just the kind of story the critic himself is working on. That’s exactly what I’ve done here. Yet if that caveat is right, then perhaps there us substantive value in my criticism, despite its dubious and self-serving methodology!

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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