It all depends on your first year section, but many law students begin to get a sinking feeling about the law early in their first year. Does the law actually make any difference to the way cases are decided? Before law school, most of us would answer "Yes, of course." And many law students start law school with the assumption that they will "learn the rules." But in contemporary American legal education, many students encounter a thesis that goes something like this:
The laws have nothing to do with how cases come out. They are just window dressing that skillful lawyers and judges can manipulate to justify any decision they please.
This counterintuitive position is a version of the claim that law is indeterminate, or what we might call the indeterminacy thesis.
The Indeterminacy Debate
The indeterminacy thesis is associated with legal realism, but in its most strident form, it is most strongly identified with the Critical Legal Studies movement--a loose and multifaceted cluster of legal scholars that became very prominent in the 1980s.
The indeterminacy debate is itself complicated. One version of the debate is about the claim that the law does not constrain judicial decisions. Put differently, a strong version of the claim is that all cases are hard cases and that there are no easy cases. The strongest version of the claim is the notion that any result in any legal dispute can be justified as the legally correct outcome, but the thesis can be modified or weakened in various ways. Of course, the thesis can be weakened in various ways; we will examine some of the modified versions of the indeterminacy thesis in this post.
What does the indeterminacy thesis mean?
Let's call the claim that the laws (broadly defined to include cases, regulations, statutes, constitutional provisions, and other legal materials) do not determine legal outcomes the indeterminacy thesis. Because there are many different versions of the indeterminacy thesis, our approach will be to identify clearly the distinct versions of the indeterminacy thesis and then to consider each version of the thesis on its own merits.
Indeterminacy versus Underdeterminacy
The next step in clarifying the indeterminacy debate is to distinguish between "indeterminacy" and "underdeterminacy" of law. Thus far, we have accepted the implicit assumption that indeterminacy and determinacy are exhaustive categories, i.e. that the decision of a case is either determined by the law or it is indeterminate. This assumption is not correct. A legal dispute may be constrained by the law, but not determined by it.
Roughly, an case is underdetermined by the law if the outcome (including the formal mandate and the content of the opinion) can vary within limits that are defined by the legal materials. This approximation can be made more precise by considering the relationship between two sets of outcomes of a given case. The first set consists of all possible results — all the imaginable variations in the mandate (affirmance, reversal, remand, etc.) and in the reasoning of the opinion. The second set consists of the outcomes that can be squared with the law — the set or legally acceptable outcomes. The distinctions between indeterminacy, underdeterminacy and determinacy of the law with respect to a given case may be marked with the following definitions:
- The law is determinate with respect to a given case if and only if the set of legally acceptable outcomes contains one and only one member.
- The law is underdeterminate with respect to a given case if and only if the set of legally acceptable outcomes is a nonidentical subset of the set of all possible results.
- The law is indeterminate with respect to a given case if the set of legally acceptable outcomes is identical with the set of all possible results.
The notion of a "hard case" can now be explicated with reference to the idea of underdeterminacy. A case is a "hard case" if the outcome is underdetermined by the law in a manner such that the judge must choose among legally acceptable outcomes in a way that changes who will be perceived as the "winner" and who the "loser." The point is that the outcomes of an case need not be completely indeterminate in order for it to be a hard case; a case in which the results are underdetermined by the law will be "hard" if the legally acceptable variation makes the difference between loss or victory for the litigants. The distinction between indeterminacy and underdeterminacy is rarely observed in the indeterminacy debate, but it is nonetheless important to assessing the debate. Claims that the law is radically indeterminate are implausible, but more modest claims about underdeterminacy may both be defensible and play a role in a radical critique of liberal legal theory.
Is the law radically indeterminate?
The strongest (the most ambitious) claim about the indeterminacy of law is the claim that in every possible case, any possible outcome is legally correct. In other words, the strong indeterminacy thesis is the claim that the law is radically indeterminate:
The Strong Indeterminacy Thesis: In any set of facts about actions and events that could be processed as a legal case, any possible outcome — consisting of a decision, order, and opinion — will be legally correct.
To falsify the strong indeterminacy thesis one needs to establish that there is at least one possible case in which at least one possible outcome is legally incorrect. This refutation would disprove the strong indeterminacy thesis only in the sense stipulated here; it would not establish that the law is always, usually, or even frequently determinate.
The Argument from Easy Cases
One way to establish that there is at least one possible case in which at least one outcome is legally incorrect has been called "the argument from easy cases" by Fred Schauer. In its simplest form, the argument from easy cases points to a hypothetical case in which at least one outcome is legally incorrect. The following discussion attempts to formulate one such easy case:
Consider the following case, consisting of facts, a legal rule, and a legal event. First, postulate the following set of events and actions: Ben visited Point Magu State Beach in Ventura County, California between the hours of 12:30 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 14, 2004. Second, consider the following legal rule: Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act states, "Every person who shall monopolize or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, shall be deemed guilty of a felony . . ." (26 Stat. 209 (1890)). Third, consider the following claim about a possible case: Ben's visit to the beach on the date and time specified would not constitute a violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act.
In order fully to convince you of the claim that there was no violation of the Sherman Act, I would need to tell you more about what went on at the beach on that day. The details will include Ben's looking at the ocean, speaking with friends about politics, reading a book, and so forth. Children flew kites; a friend grilled chicken and hot dogs. You might want to know whether Ben discussed any business dealings at the beach: he did not. But no matter how many questions you asked, no matter how hard you tried, you would not be able to make out a legally valid case that the Sherman Act was violated. If a prosecution were filed against Ben based only on the events specified, a verdict of guilty would be legally incorrect.
This claim about legal correctness does not to deny that it is possible that things would go wrong in some way. Perjury might be committed; the judge assigned to the case might be deranged. Our system of justice is hardly foolproof, but that does not entail the further conclusion that any result is legally correct.
The upshot of this example of an easy case is this: there is at least one possible case in which at least one possible outcome is legally incorrect. Therefore, the strong indeterminacy thesis (as I have defined it) is false. Notice my argument is not that the outcome of an antitrust prosecution based on the facts I outline is predictable. Rather, my claim is that one possible outcome, i.e. conviction, would be legally incorrect. If the law is correctly applied and the witnesses testify truthfully, the prosecution should fail.
Changing the Hypothetical
Of course, we can easily change the hypothetical so that the legally correct outcome would change. Just add a conspiratorial conversation at the beach that does violate the Sherman Act. But the fact that the hypothetical can be changed so as to change the legally correct outcome is not responsive to the argument from easy cases. Let us stipulate for the sake of argument that it is always be possible to add facts to an easy case such that the addition of the new facts will change the legally correct outcome of the case. This does not demonstrate that there are no easy cases.
Quite the contrary, the fact that the advocate of the strong indeterminacy thesis needed to add facts to the easy case in order to change the legally correct outcome shows that as originally stated the easy case was not indeterminate. If the strong indeterminacy thesis were true, then a reasonable legal argument should be available on the facts as originally stated in the hypothetical. The additional facts should not be necessary. That facts must be added to transform an easy case into a hard one demonstrates that the law does constrain the set of legally correct outcomes.
Is a modest version of the indeterminacy thesis defensible?
If the strong indeterminacy thesis cannot be supported, is there a more modest claim about indeterminacy that is defensible and has critical bite? One modest version of the indeterminacy thesis might be the following: in most (or almost all) of the cases that are actually litigated, the outcome is underdetermined by the law. This claim about indeterminacy is not refuted by the argument from hypothetical easy cases. Confirmation of the actually-litigated underdeterminacy thesis would require empirical investigation, but there are some good reasons to believe that cases which actually proceed to filing, trial, or appeal will frequently be underdetermined by the law. Litigants will rarely have an incentive to settle easy cases. For example, in a civil dispute where the law gives a determinate answer to the question of who will win and what the amount of their judgment will be, the parties to litigation will usually prefer to settle, rather than incur the expenses of litigation. Uncertainty about the law is one of the factors that selects which cases will be filed, go to trial, and be appealed. This point should not be exaggerated, however: litigation may proceed for any number of reasons, including an irrational overconfidence in a hopeless case, uncertainty about facts in a case in which the law is clear, and so forth.
Another modest version of the indeterminacy thesis claims that while many ordinary cases are roughly determinate, all the really important cases are indeterminate. Put more precisely, the claim might be that the important issues in important cases are underdetermined by the law. If true, this claim might preserve almost all of the critical force of the strong indeterminacy thesis. Yes, there are easy cases, but those cases are unimportant.
One difficulty with the important case version of the indeterminacy thesis is its potential circularity. Our concept of what counts as an important case may have indeterminacy as a component. Part of what makes a case important is that the result is not certain or predictable; if we all knew how the case would come out, we would not be interested. Likewise, the Supreme Court may select cases in part on the basis of their legal indeterminacy.
I have just begun to scratch the surface of the indeterminacy debate, but I hope that I've provided enough perspective so that you can begin to think about this important question on your own. As I'm sure you know by now, I am not a fan of the radical indeterminacy thesis, but I also think it is important to recognize that the law is underdeterminate in important ways.
Related Lexicon Entries
- Legal Theory Lexicon 051: Vagueness and Ambiguity
- Legal Theory Lexicon 057: Realist Deconstruction of Formal Legal Categories
- Kenneth J. Kress, “Legal Indeterminacy, 77 California Law Review 283 (1989).
- Lorenz Kaehler, Indeterminacy in the law: Types and problems, IVR encyclopedie
- Lawrence B. Solum, On the Indeterminacy Crisis: Critiquing Critical Dogma, 54 University of Chicago Law Review 462 (1987).
(This entry was last revised on August 7, 2016.)