In 1975, Ronald Dworkin wrote Hard Cases (88 Harvard Law Review 1057 (1975) reprinted in Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously ch 4 (Harvard University Press, 1977)). This is one of the most famous and influential articles in contemporary legal theory, and I would put it very high on my recommended legal-theory reading list. Lot's of Dworkin's ideas are very controversial, but one of his claims has become part of the way that many and perhaps most legal academics think about the law in general and the enterprise of judging in particular. I am referring to Dworkin's distinction between "fit" and justification" and his claim that when judges decide hard cases, they choose the interpretation of the law that best fits and justifies the existing legal landscape--the constitution, statutes, regulations, and common law.
As always, the Legal Theory Lexicon is aimed at law students (especially first year law students) with an interest in legal theory. I know you are all very busy at this time of year, so I will do my best to be concise.
The Basic Idea
Suppose a judge is deciding a hard case. It could be a common law case or a constitutional case or a statutory case. How do judges approach this task when they are confronted with a case in which the law is up for grabs? That is, how do judges decide cases where there is an unsettled question of law? Dworkin's basic idea is that the process of deciding a hard case has two dimensions--fit and justification. First, the judge might ask herself, "Of all the possible interpretations of the law that I could adopt as the basis for my decision, which one is consistent with the theory that best fits the existing legal landscape. Of all the rules I could adopt in this case, which ones are consistent with the relevant constitutional and statutory provisions and with the precedent." When the judge had identified the alternatives that meet the criterion of fit, it is possible that there will be more than one possibility that fits. If so, then the judge can go on to ask the question, "Of the interpretations of the existing law that fit the constitution, statutes, and case law, which is the best interpretation? Which of the possible legal rules that I could adopt is most consistent with the normative theory that provides the best justification for the law as a whole.
What does it mean to say that a given rule fits the legal landscape? Suppose you are a judge deciding whether your jurisdiction will adopt the rule of contributory negligence or will choose instead to follow the comparative negligence approach. It is possible that only one of these two rules fits the existing law in your jurisdiction. For example, if the legislature has mandated the contributory negligence rule by statute, then as a judge (even a Supreme Court judge), you would be obliged to follow the statute and decide the case before you on the basis of contributory negligence. On the other hand, suppose you are in a newly created jurisdiction. No statute or binding precedent requires either comparative or contributory negligence. Both rules fit the existing legal landscape. In that case, Dworkin argues, you would need to decide a question of justification.
What does it mean to say that a judge might prefer one rule over another on the basis of the criterion of justication? Let's continue with our example of the choice between contributory and comparative negligence. Since there is no statute or precedent that compels (or strongly guides) the choice, the judge must turn to some other basis in order to make her decision. She will need to get normative, i.e., to consider the normative justifications for tort law. Simplifying greatly, let's suppose our judge decides that the tort of negligence is best understood as a system of compensation and "risk spreading." She might then reason that the comparative negligence rule does a better job of serving this purpose than does a contributory negligence rule. Contributory negligence allows losses to go uncompensated when the plaintiff (victim) caused any of her own loss; comparative negligence does a better job of spreading the risk of accidents. [I know that this is a very crude argument, and I'm sure all of you can do better.]
In other words, the judge asks the question, "What normative theory best justifies the existing law and negligence?" And then proceeds to the question, "Given that justification of tort law, which of the alternative rules that I could apply to the case before me best serves the purposes of tort law?"
Two Kinds of Justification: Principle and Policy
In Hard Cases, Dworkin identified two different kinds of arguments that can be used to justify the law. He called these two different types arguments of "principle" and "policy." As understood by Dworkin, arguments of principle are arguments that appeal to ideas about fairness and rights. If you would like to know more about arguments of principle, a good place to begin is with the Legal Theory Lexicon entry on Deontlogy.
Arguments of policy, on the other hand, appeal to consequences. For example, if you argued that a comparative negligence rule is better than a contributory negligence rule because it provides optimal incentives for taking precautions against accidents, you would have made an argument of policy in Dworkin's sense.
If you are interested in the theoretical basis for arguments of policy, you could take a look at the Legal Theory Lexicon entry on Utilitarianism.
Dworkin himself argued that judges should consider arguments of principle and should not decide cases on the basis of arguments of policy. That feature of his theory is hugely controversial--as you could guess if, like most law students, you've heard endless discussion of policy in the classroom. But Dworkin could be right about "fit and justification," even if he is wrong that the dimension of justification is limited to principle and excludes policy.
It is very difficult to generalize about law school exams; they vary enormously. But many standard issue spotting essay questions have built into them a "hard case," an aspect of the fact pattern that is intended to trigger your discussion of the question, "What should the rule be?," with respect to some controversial legal issue. If you try to answer the question, "What should the rule be?," by telling your instructor, "Here is the majority rule," or "Here are two alternative rules; I don't know which one is the law, you will have missed the point of the question!
And that's where Dworkin comes in. You can use "fit and justification" as the basis for organizing your answer to a "What should the law be?" question. Begin with fit. Which possible rules are consistent with the settled law? Then move to justification. Of the rules that fit, which is the best rule? Now list the arguments of principle and policy for and against each of the plausible candidates. Be sure to come to a conclusion. That is, end with something like, "Adopting a rule of comparative negligence is required by the theory that best fits and justifies the existing law of torts."
Related Lexicon Entries
- Legal Theory Lexicon 055: Principles in Constitutional Theory
- Legal Theory Lexicon 059: The Law Is A Seamless Web
- Legal Theory Lexicon 065: The Nature of Law
- Legal Theory Lexicon 069: Reflective Equilibrium
- Ronald Dworkin, Law's Empire (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press 1986).
- Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1977).
Other Resources on the Web
- Nicos Stavropoulos, Interpretivist Theories of Law, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2003).
(Last revised on July 10, 2016.)