Saturday, January 16, 2021
I enjoyed speaking about the relationship of substantive and procedural ideas of justice to the rule of law and stare decisis on this panel, part of The International Forum on the Future of Constitutionalism's "Global Summit" organized by Professor Richard Albert. In my remarks, I argued against a thin, purely proceduralist view of the rule of law and stare decisis, and also against a morally thick, substantive view of the rule of law and stare decisis. I urged an intermediate possibility. As the rule of law seems to be in the air, so to speak, I thought I would reproduce my remarks. They are below.
I want to reflect on the relationship of substantive political morality to the rule of law and stare decisis. On some accounts, the virtues of both the rule of law and stare decisis are purely procedural. On other accounts, the rule of law incorporates thick, substantive conceptions of political morality. For example, a set of substantive human rights as defined by an international body or other community. Or some thick, substantive ideal of equality or justice. Interestingly, people do not take this second view about stare decisis, the obligation of courts as a general matter to stand by a prior precedent even when they disagree with it. So far as I know, nobody thinks stare decisis contains an ideal of human rights, for example.
So, which account is right? There are a few possibilities. One possibility is that the rule of law *and* stare decisis both embody purely procedural ideals, and that those arguing for a substantive political morality within the rule of law are wrong. A second possibility is that the rule of law embodies substantive political morality while stare decisis does not. That is, the rule of law and stare decisis are relevantly different on this score. And a third possibility is that both the rule of law and stare decisis incorporate procedural and moral values. Now, even though as I indicated, nobody takes this view as to stare decisis (though some do as to the rule of law), I actually think this is the correct position.
But the type of substantive political morality incorporated within the rule of law and stare decisis is not the sort of thick view of the second possibility—equality or human rights or liberty or antidiscrimination, for example. It is instead a kind of political morality related to the procedural virtues of both.
Let me briefly describe the first two views. I’ll then take on the third view, sketching Lon Fuller’s position and extending it in ways that thicken it somewhat, but not all the way, so to speak. Not to oatmeal or gruel thickness, but more like to lobster bisque or vichyssoise thickness.
First, the purely procedural view. This is the view that the rule of law and stare decisis incorporate nothing of substantive political morality. Rather, the rule of law is about the law’s generality, its equal application, its predictability, consistency, and prospectivity. In societies governed by the rule of law, the rules are supposed to rule, not the people making and implementing those rules. Stare decisis’ procedural virtues are similarly generally conceived as including legal stability, consistency, and predictability. Notice the overlap of procedural virtues here. In fact, we might say that stare decisis incorporates many, though not all, the procedural virtues of the rule of law, but it does so in a particular context—judicial decisionmaking. That’s the first view.
The second view is that in addition to these procedural virtues, the rule of law incorporates thick substantive ideals of political morality like human rights, sexual equality, whatever. This position has become more popular of late, perhaps in part because of the felt need to anchor contested substantive political ideals in a comparatively uncontested procedural ideal like the rule of law.
Still, I think this second view is wrong. To believe in the law’s predictability and stability has nothing necessarily to do with believing in human rights or equality or nondiscrimination. Let me give three reasons, which should be familiar.
First, legal regimes with unjust or repressive laws can be committed to the rule of law. Now you might say—well, even in morally unjust regimes, consistency in legal application is a virtue and a kind of justice. And that’s true, but then we’ve reduced the idea of justice to equality of legal application. That is at least a very thin understanding of justice.
Second, someone might say, well, we have to affirm the procedural virtues of the rule of law because we can only achieve thick, substantive political and moral ideals like human rights and human dignity if we affirm the rule of law. We have to affirm the rule of law for instrumental reasons. But I think that’s wrong too. Procedural rule of law virtues actually may be *in tension* with achieving some of these thick political-moral ideals. A person committed to, say, a particular conception of sexual equality might think it important, or even required, to reject some procedural rule of law virtue that is perceived to obstruct that substantive vision of the good.
Third, as for the rule of law as a rule of rules, rather than people, here again, various thick, substantive political or moral ideals might just as easily clash with the rule of law as be promoted by it. As Lon Fuller, to whom I will return in a moment, puts it: “From the standpoint of the inner morality of law, it is desirable that laws remain stable through time. But it is obvious that changes in circumstances, or changes in men’s consciences, may demand changes in the substantive aims of law, and sometimes disturbingly frequent ones.” 44 So much for what I’ve described as the second view—that the rule of law incorporates or somehow necessarily subserves a thick version, an oatmeal or pea soup version, of substantive political morality—liberalism, human rights, distributive justice, and so on.
Does this mean that the first view—the purely procedural view of the rule of law (and, for that matter, of stare decisis)—is the correct one? I do not think so. I think there is an intermediate conceptual possibility between the purely procedural and the thickest political-moral conception of the rule of law. It’s a conception of the morality of the rule of law that also applies, I think, to the morality of stare decisis. What is that conception?
Here I think it’s helpful to return to Fuller’s book, The Morality of Law. Fuller described what he called the “internal morality of law” and its “neutrality” toward substantive aims. The internal morality of law, Fuller claimed in Chapter 2, consists of several virtues of a legal system that sound proceduralist: (1) generality—the requirement that there actually be rules rather than patternless commands; (2) promulgation—to ensure to some degree that those subject to the law know what it is; (3) prospectivity—to be ruled by law is to be ruled by existing law, not non-existing law; (4) clarity; (5) avoiding contradictory laws; (6) avoiding laws that require the impossible; (7) constancy or stability of the law through time; and (8) congruence between law and official action enforcing it.
And in chapter 4, Fuller is explicit that law’s internal morality comprised of these 8 virtues is “indifferent toward the substantive aims of law and ready to serve a variety of such aims with equal efficiency.” The example Fuller uses is contraception—which can be legally protected or prohibited without affecting the law’s internal integrity at all.
Nevertheless, Fuller maintains that the inner morality of law, while neutral over a wide range of moral issues, “is not neutral in its view of man himself.” Adhering to the inner morality of law, Fuller claimed, is committing oneself to the view that people can be “responsible agents, capable of understanding and following rules, and answerable for their defaults.” So for Fuller, commitment to certain concepts of moral agency and responsibility follows from commitment to the procedural values of law—to law’s inner morality.
I want to suggest some other moral commitments that follow from commitment to the inner morality of law, but that Fuller did not raise. Moral commitments that are not of the thickest sort—not a particular conception of human rights, for example, or a contested view of equality. Rather, these are thinner moral commitments that are still thicker than the proceduralist’s virtues. Vichyssoise rather oatmeal.
Take what Fuller says about Clarity as part of the inner morality of law: “Sometimes the best way to achieve clarity is to take advantage of, and to incorporate into law, common sense standards of judgment that have grown up in the ordinary life lived outside legislative halls.” Good faith, due care, due process, cruel and unusual punishment, and so on. Or take instead his view that Constancy/stability of the law through time is part of the inner morality of law. Can we say something more in reflecting on clarity, and constancy or stability, about the connection between the rule of law and political morality. Or between stare decisis and political morality?
I think we can. Clarity and constancy depend upon the longevity and endurance of law. For the law to be clear, it must often depend upon shared assumptions, shared cultural ways of thinking and knowing that have developed over time, sometimes a very long time, and extend well before the simple text of the law itself. There are very few, if any, self-evident truths in law and politics. The truths that we have are largely truths because they have been cultivated and transmitted over time.
For the law to be constant and stable, it has to have endured. It has to have lasted. The longer the better, the older the more stable and the more constant. So that to favor law’s constancy and stability as a part of the rule of law is to make a necessary claim about law’s traditionalism. The importance of its age and its endurance. Endurance implies durability—the capacity to withstand sudden or rapid changes in the law that are deeply unsettling to the law’s internal morality.
What about stare decisis? Well, stare decisis is a concept derived from the common law. What made the law “common” was that it reflected the substantive and long-enduring habits, practices, and traditions of the people. Legal stability of the sort promoted by stare decisis allows people to coordinate their lives and their common projects now and intergenerationally. So it’s not just the satisfaction of reliance interests that is at stake. The stability promoted by both stare decisis and the rule of law enables the law to connect and align a people’s past, present, and future. It creates roots—rooting present law to “precedent” law and subsequent law.
The value of the rule of law and stare decisis, therefore, must incorporate an orientation toward preserving law’s traditionalism, its age, durability, and intergenerational transmission. Law’s traditionalism as a feature of the rule of law and stare decisis, I think, is a thicker sort of political morality than the strictly procedural view. But it is a thinner sort of political morality than the thickly substantive view.
One more thought. This intermediate possibility I am describing is not only different from the thicker substantive possibility. The two views of the rule of law are in tension. The rule of law and stare decisis conceived as incorporating this intermediate thickness political morality—this traditionalism connected to law’s clarity and its stability—may well conflict with rule of law conceptions that incorporate substantive positions on distributive justice, human rights, equality.
That conflict will occur, I think, when the thicker conceptions of political morality simply are not part of law’s traditionalism but instead run counter to it. In those circumstances, to favor the rule of law and stare decisis may well be to favor moral visions of law at odds with those thicker understandings that blend procedure and substantive morality.