What do you mean Posner and Wilkinson have no legal theory?

February 24th, 2014

In a new article, titled “Judge Posner, Judge Wilkinson, and Judicial Critique of Constitutional Theory,” Marc DeGirolami and Kevin Walsh take aim at Judges Posner and Wilkinson, who eschew applying any constitutional theory, even though this approach to constitutional law is a theory itself! Here is the abstract:

Judge Richard Posner’s well-known view is that constitutional theory is useless. And Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III has lambasted constitutional theory for the way in which its “cosmic” aspirations threaten democratic self-governance. Many other judges hold similar views. And yet both Posner and Wilkinson — in the popular press, in law review articles, and in books — have advocated what appear to be their own theories of how to judge in constitutional cases. Judicial pragmatism for Posner and judicial restraint for Wilkinson seem to be substitutes for originalism, living constitutionalism, political process theory, and so on. But both Posner and Wilkinson also deny that they are offering a theory at all. This is puzzling. How do these judges simultaneously reject constitutional theory yet seemingly replace it with theories of their own?

This Article answers that question — a question that must be answered in order to understand the present-day relationship between constitutional theory and constitutional adjudication. The perspectives of Judge Posner and Judge Wilkinson are particularly valuable because they have not only decided hundreds of constitutional cases but have also written extensively about constitutional theory. Drawing on a close reading of revealing slices of both their extrajudicial writing and their judicial opinions in constitutional cases, this Article makes three contributions. First, it brings to light agreements between Posner and Wilkinson that run far deeper than the heralded differences between them and that stem from their situated understanding of their judicial role. Second, it exposes the limited influence of judicial pragmatism and judicial restraint on these judges’ own constitutional jurisprudence even in those cases where one might expect constitutional theory to exert maximal influence. Third, it explains how judicial pragmatism and judicial restraint are best understood not as constitutional theories but as descriptions of judicial dispositions — character traits that pertain to judicial excellence — that can and should be criticized on their own terms.

I addressed this point in a review of Wilkinson’s book I wrote a few years ago. Judicial restraint is a theory.

The sine qua non of Judge Wilkinson’s view of the judicial power is to permit the people, through self-determination and the democratic process, to rule for themselves. This very rejection of a constitutional theory is, in essence, a theory in and of itself. His anti-theory, one could call it, fails to address a number of curious constitutional counterfactuals the book raises, but does not resolve. What if other judges, applying Judge Wilkinson’s non-philosophy, had to decide divisive cases, where the will of the people was at odds with individual liberty? Think of cases involving segregation, eugenics, disenfranchisement, or criminal rights.

A belief in judicial restraint must come from somewhere. It is not in the text of the Constitution. It must be from somewhere in the cosmos.

More pressing, is from what, or more precisely, from where Judge Wilkinson would derive these “foundational principles essential to the functioning of our nation.” Indeed, it is quite debatable what the foundational principles of our nation are, and what makes them essential to the functioning of our nation. Originalists would say that the foundation of our nation is the Constitution as understood by the founding generation. Living Constitutionalists would say that the foundation of our nation is evolving principles that reflect present circumstances.

And what are these principles to Judge Wilkinson? Addressed almost in passing, he notes that “[o]ne foundational premise of the American experiment is that self-determination is a valuable good.” Judge Wilkinson assumes—almost as if it is incontrovertible—that the foundational principle that separates a bad (read activist) opinion from a good (read restrained) opinion is one that promotes self-governance. But he does not show why this is so, nor does he prove why this is Article III’s ideal explication of “the judicial power.”

Cosmic Constitutional Theory serves as a worthy embodiment of Judge Wilkinson’s quarter-century of minimalist jurisprudence on the Fourth Circuit, and offers salient and vigorous critiques of today’s most popular schools of constitutional thought. However, where the book falters is by failing to come to grips with the foundation of Judge Wilkinson’s own anti-jurisprudence.

In a debate between Randy Barnett and Wilkinson at the last Federalist Society convention, the weakness of Wilkinson’s position became evident. Both his discussion, and book, were very much under-developed.