Category Archives: Commentary

Gratitude for Legal Traditions

I completed my law and tradition cycle of posts today at Liberty Law with this one,TP Banner Gratitude for Legal Traditions. Here is the rest of the cycle in one place:

And here’s a little bit from the beginning of the most recent post, which responds in part to Mark’s post on the subject:

The prospects for law and tradition are difficult to discern. This is in no small measure because the most frequent predictions about tradition’s future have little time for any traditions other than those of science and technology. And these generally are not presented as traditions but instead as repudiations of tradition—as simply rational responses to changing circumstances in the service of progress and present need. The prophets of the traditionless society never go quite so far as to strike out the traditions of science from their predictions.

Recently, my friends John McGinnis and Mark Movsesian engaged in an interesting exchange on the subject of tradition and contemporary politics and society. John argued that technology creates a culture and a politics relentlessly oriented to the future and deracinated from the past. Mark responded that traditions and traditional institutions survive, even today, because they speak to basic human nature and “most of us need the stability the past provides, the guidance of received wisdom.”

Each man makes his points. It is certainly true that substantive traditions—particularly substantive religious traditions—have been severely shaken by various contemporary tremors. They have been attacked directly and they have been weakened from within. And yet they have not been destroyed. Perhaps they cannot be destroyed so long as human beings are born to human beings. So long as parental care is necessary for the raising of children. So long as people seek to find meaning in an infinitely mysterious universe. So long as they depend upon rules, categories, and institutions which they cannot create ab ovo and for that occasion alone whenever changing circumstances demand it. So long as the autonomous acts of autonomous actors cannot achieve all of the ends that render life worth living. Just so long will people seek and find traditions, cling to them, and be grateful to them. Though they may become dissatisfied with them, human beings need traditions to live.

Comparing Traditionalism and Originalism II

Here’s the second of my two posts on traditionalism and originalism in constitutional interpretation. This post discusses the TP BannerNoel Canning decision, and one of its main points concerns the institutional pluralism (legal, political, social, and cultural) of the traditionalist method. A bit:

First, a quick recapitulation of traditionalism in constitutional interpretation. Traditionalist interpretation is concerned with perpetuating and maintaining longstanding legal practices—not only those of the Supreme Court but also of other legal and political institutions (Congress and the Executive, for example) as well as social and cultural institutions (as in the case of legislative prayer). Especially in the many cases of vague constitutional text, traditionalist interpretation takes these practices not as evidence of meaning but as constituents of meaning.

Traditionalist interpretation consequently values the practices of many different sorts of institutions. It is institutionally pluralist in this way, and certainly not focused exclusively on the Supreme Court. In fact, a traditionalist Supreme Court opinion will be deferential to the constitutional views of the coordinate branches where those views have endured for very long periods of time. It will be interested in maintaining and re-cementing those views. There is therefore a democratic component of traditionalist interpretation, though it is the democratic sensibility of the authority of long-standing practice as the accumulated wisdom of the people over time, not that of present majority inclination.

Like originalist interpretation, traditionalism is historically rather than normatively oriented, but it does not focus single-mindedly on the moment of ratification. Institutional practices before, during, and after ratification are significant. Continuity is the crucial feature. The longer those practices have endured, the less likely the Court will be, in the ordinary case, to upset them—indeed, the less likely that the practices may be to be brought before the Court at all.

Noel Canning concerned the meaning of the Recess Appointments Clause in Article II, Section 2, Clause 3, and in specific whether the phrase “during the recess” authorized the President to make appointments within congressional sessions or only between the formal sessions of Congress. The originalist arguments for the latter interpretation were powerful, but in a 5-4 majority opinion authored by Justice Breyer, the Court concluded that the President may make recess appointments while Congress is in session.

The influence of traditional institutional practice on the Court’s decision was massive. Relying on Chief Justice Marshall’s statement in McCulloch v. Maryland that the “longstanding practice of government” must inform the Court’s role to “say what the law is,” the Court emphasized that “long standing and established practice is a consideration of great weight in a proper interpretation of constitutional provisions.” In this, the Court’s first foray into interpreting Recess Appointments Clause in more than 200 years, “we must hesitate to upset the compromises and working arrangements that the elected branches of government themselves have reached”….

But the particular nature of that “broader interpretation” in Noel Canning is of great interest. What makes a practice long-standing? How long and continuous is long and continuous enough? Which political virtues are supported by the traditionalist method? And how does the longstanding practice or traditionalist approach differ from living constitutionalism?

The Court did not answer any of these questions directly. But it did say that “three quarters of a century of settled practice” in which Presidents had overwhelmingly favored the broader construction and the Senate had largely acquiesced in that construction “is long enough to entitle a practice” to “great” interpretive weight. In truth, three quarters of a century does not seem a particularly long period as the traditionalist measures time, particularly when compared, for example, with the duration of the practice of legislative prayer in Town of Greece v. Galloway. Yet what seems to matter is not only temporal duration but also the preponderance or uniformity of the interpretive preference within that span.

It was also critical to the majority’s approach that though the founding-era view was not directly probative of the Court’s broader interpretation of the clause, the Court found it to be consistent with that interpretation. That finding permitted the incorporation of founding-era understandings to support the longstanding practice on which the majority relied (again, this was a point vigorously and acutely disputed by Justice Scalia). Finally, institutional dynamics and historical patterns also figure prominently in the majority opinion. It was the enduring practices of the coordinate political and more directly democratically accountable branches, not those of the Court, that demanded acknowledgment and deference.

As for the differences between traditionalism and living constitutionalism, one of the most significant is that for the former, long-standing and continuous practice fixes meaning. And it fixes it with a durable presumption, refusing to deviate from it unless there are overwhelmingly good reasons for doing so. Living constitutionalism is committed to no such thing. It prizes the evolution of meaning. A practice’s endurance or traditionalism is never a reason to perpetuate it. To the contrary: it is if anything a reason to change it.

I should add that the DC Circuit’s opinion draws a much sharper divide between founding-era practice and subsequent practice. In some ways, this makes the Supreme Court’s opinion even more interesting from a traditionalist perspective: Justice Breyer’s opinion did not acknowledge this division. It worked the difference into a continuity. I suppose one could be cynical about this and say that traditionalist methods are manipulable. But Breyer could not have incorporated the founding period into the tradition if there had been a more marked divergence from later practice (thanks to Adam White for help in thinking through some of this).

Welcome to the Blogosphere “Religion Going Public”!

Professor Helge Årsheim (University of Oslo) writes to me with news of a very good new blog, Religion Going Public. The blog’s focus is primarily on religion, culture, and politics in Norway, Scandinavia, and Europe, with a very interesting group of contributors.

Welcome to the blogosphere, and check it out!

Tradition’s Future

TP BannerAt the First Things site today, I have  post about why the future of tradition, and traditional institutions, may be brighter than we imagine. Notwithstanding the power of markets and technology to weaken tradition, I argue, the human need for stability and continuity with the past remain:

Moreover, traditions and traditional institutions have survived, and will continue to survive, because they speak to human nature. They fulfill basic human needs: family; community; a sense of belonging; an attachment to place; a link to the transcendent. Perhaps some people can do without these things, or can invent them for themselves. The Nones, I gather, think they can fashion their own religions. But most of us cannot. Most of us need the stability the past provides, the guidance of received wisdom. Some very smart people think technology is on the brink of altering human nature forever—that we are about to create a new sort of being, a transhuman hybrid of man and computer, that will inherit the future. Well, it hasn’t happened yet. For the moment, old-fashioned human nature endures; and tradition, however much we neglect or try to erase it, endures too.

Read the whole thing here.

Comparing Traditionalism and Originalism

I have the first of two posts up at the Liberty Law blog comparing originalism and traditionalism in constitutional TP Bannerinterpretation. The first post uses Town of Greece v. Galloway while in the second I’ll talk about the NLRB v. Noel Canning. The point of the posts is not to defend these decisions, but merely to distinguish them as traditionalist in interpretive method. Here’s a bit from the end:

How is [traditionalism] different from originalism? Here things quickly become complicated because of the broad variety of originalist interpretive approaches. Shortly after the decision [in Town of Greece] was issued, Professor Michael Ramsey had an excellent and useful post on the degree to which Kennedy’s opinion was originalist, in which Ramsey concluded that it reflected a species of original expected applications originalism:

It’s not (typically for Kennedy) an exclusively originalist opinion, but there is a strong originalist element….Kennedy’s principal contention (following Marsh) is that the people who proposed the First Amendment also authorized sectarian legislative prayer, so the Amendment must permit it.

In academic terms, this is a version of “original expected application” – that is, how did the framers of a provision anticipate it affecting existing practices? It is fashionable in academic circles to look down on original expected applications. Under original meaning originalism, the question is: what did the text mean? It’s not, what did some people at the time think it would mean (or, worse, how did some people at the time apply it in practice once it was enacted)? If that’s right, Kennedy is looking in the wrong place – it shouldn’t matter what people thought would happen to legislative prayer, but rather what the text actually meant for legislative prayer.

And yet for the traditionalist it should and does matter that many people, including the drafters (but certainly not only they), did not believe there to be any inconsistency between the practice of legislative prayer and the meaning of disestablishment in the First Amendment. It furthermore matters for the traditionalist (as it does not for many originalists) that the practice was widely accepted in the colonial period as well as for long periods after the ratification of the Establishment Clause. That is because the traditionalist is more focused on practices than meanings when it comes to constitutional interpretation. Or perhaps it is better to say that the traditionalist believes that the meaning of text—particularly as to text that is itself abstract—is far better determined and understood by recourse to concrete practices than by recourse to still other abstract principles.

Here there may be some further overlap between traditionalism and those sub-varieties of public meaning originalism that are receptive to discerning meaning from practices and customs. Professors John McGinnis and Michael Rappaport have written favorably about this interpretive approach in this paper. Professor Ramsey puts the point well from the originalist perspective: “If a very broad consensus at the time of enactment (or shortly after) thought that provision X did not ban activity Y, that is surely strong evidence that the original public meaning of X did not ban activity Y.” For the traditionalist, practices (not principles) are not “merely evidence” or “some evidence” or even “strong evidence” of meaning. Meaning is constituted by practices. The endurance of those practices and the degree of their social acceptance—before, during, and after textual ratification—are also constituents of meaning. None of this implies that these are the only constituents. Neither does it imply that new practices cannot be enfolded into existing meanings. That the founders did not know about email or the Internet, for example, does not mean, on the traditionalist view, that the Fourth Amendment cannot apply to those new media today. But practices that were familiar; widespread; continuous before, during and after the founding; and constitutionally unobjectionable offer more than “evidence” of the meaning of the Establishment Clause. For the traditionalist, they are themselves part of that meaning.

Magna Carta’s Votaries, Skeptics, and Traditionalists

I have this new post on the subject of law and tradition at the Library of Law and Liberty, the fourth in my Tradition ProjectTP Banner series. In it I discuss a recent essay by Professor Martin Krygier, whose reflections on law and tradition I have noted in several previous posts here. A bit from the post:

Lawyers speak and think within a particular idiom, and that idiom is transmitted across long periods of time. What is called “thinking like a lawyer” is in reality learning the idiom of law within a particular legal tradition. As Krygier argues that idiom is specially—perhaps uniquely—dependent upon the past:

Law is one of the most self-consciously traditional of practices, and lawyers have a distinctive preoccupation with the legal pasts. They are always mining the past for authorities they can deploy in the present; that is something engineers, for example, don’t do in the same way – their tradition has a thinner presently active past than does law—and it is characteristic of the profession. They are not expected to recommend a result simply because it would be a great idea, they recommend it because they claim it flows from the existing law, some of it—particularly in the common law—very long-existing law. That law has authority, and it also contains ideas, arguments, resources for thought. Lawyers are expected to take the legal past seriously.

All of this relates directly to the meaning of Magna Carta. That meaning is both changing and profoundly connected to the past. One of the most common mistakes about traditionalism in law (and elsewhere) is the view that it is static. But a language, or an idiom, is not static. As Alistair MacIntyre has put it, “A living tradition then is an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition. Within a tradition the pursuit of goods extends through generations, sometimes through many generations.”

The traditionalist view of Magna Carta, in Krygier’s view, can accommodate both these features of historical continuity and change in a way that neither the votary nor the skeptic can. In this way, the traditionalist view is particularly well suited to law which, unlike history, is not principally interested in establishing what happened so much as drawing “on the present-past of law to deal with present legal problems.”

“Tradition and the Judicial Talent”

Playing on TS Eliot’s famous essay, that is the title of the third entry in my Law and TP BannerTradition series at the Liberty Fund’s blog. In the post, I discuss the very interesting plurality opinion in Burhnam v. Superior Court, one of the Court’s highly traditionalist opinions (and one perhaps not so commonly known outside civil procedure circles).

From the end:

Burnham involved the…question whether the state of California could assert personal jurisdiction in a divorce action over a defendant who was physically present within the state. The defendant had entered California on business and to visit his children, and he claimed that the more flexible approach for defendants without physical presence should apply in his case as well. The Court disagreed:

The distinction between what is needed to support novel procedures and what is needed to sustain traditional ones is fundamental….The short of the matter is that jurisdiction based on physical presence alone constitutes due process because it is one of the continuing traditions of our legal system that define the due process standard of “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.” That standard was developed by analogy to “physical presence,” and it would be perverse to say it could now be turned against that touchstone of jurisdiction.

In so holding, the Burnham plurality denied that a state’s exercise of personal jurisdiction over a defendant depends solely on measuring the extent of his contacts with the state against abstract, evolving, and ultimately subjective tests of fairness or justice.

The plurality also noted that its methodology differed significantly from Shaffer v. Heitner, in which the Court had stated that “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice” may be “readily offended by the perpetuation of ancient forms that are no longer justified.” Justice Brennan’s concurrence in Burnham likewise urged the Court to apply “contemporary notions of due process.”

The Burnham plurality responded that it was doing just that, for “contemporary notions of due process” just exactly are the “traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice” that “are applied and have always been applied in the United States.” These notions are not the playthings of the justices. They are not judicially evolving notions. Neither are they merely historical notions. They are traditional notions. Personal jurisdiction over a defendant physically present within a state may be reformulated as “fair” (as Justice Brennan urged) because the defendant could “reasonably” have expected it. But his expectation would have been reasonable only because personal jurisdiction in such circumstances is traditional: “fairness,” the plurality said, “exists here because there is a continuing tradition.” The tradition can change, of course, if a state wishes to change it. But the overwhelming majority of states had not, and it was not the justices’ proper role to do so.

The plurality opinion in Burnham is, in sum, one of the Court’s most traditional decisions. And in its response to Justice Brennan’s progressive understanding of the judicial role, one is reminded of Eliot’s famous essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent: “Someone said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”

Law and Tradition: A Tradition Project Blog Series

Over at the Library of Law and Liberty, I am guest blogging for the month of TP Banner
January and writing a series of posts that I’m calling collectively “Law and Tradition,” a set of reflections on the relationship of tradition and traditional legal methods and approaches to judicial decision making. My hope is that these posts will offer an introductory set of questions, thoughts, and provocations that can serve as a prologue for further study and reflection for our Center’s Tradition Project (more details about this shortly).

Here is my first post, Tradition and the Constitutional Curator. A bit from the beginning:

It is uncommon today for people to argue for the retrieval of the beliefs and institutions of prior periods once they have been set aside. Even those few who do are not usually sanguine about the odds of retrieval. Particularly in intellectual circles, it takes a certain degree of rash temerity to make such arguments—and to risk the label of traditionalism or even reaction—in light of the overwhelming intellectual prejudices in favor of progress. Even the view that things ought to be maintained as they are, or as they have been until the very recent past, is generally discounted as benighted. Things ought to be changed—tinkered with or even substituted, but always improved.

In law, the normative force of traditionality is supremely out of vogue. It is generally believed to offer almost no resistance to arguments proceeding on the assumptions of the prevailing intellectual movements—those inclined toward efficiency, autonomy, equality, identity, rationality, and technocracy, for example. But the moral and cultural power of a past practice, arrangement, or belief, just in virtue of its endurance and past-ness, has dwindled to the vanishing point.

Can these statements be defended at a time when, in constitutional law, originalism has achieved an unprecedented degree of legitimacy? It is true that interest in history seems to be as high as it ever has been in constitutional law and scholarship. Yet here it may be helpful to distinguish between the desire to contemplate an ancient text in search of an abstract value or principle which can be applied in pure form to contemporary circumstances, and the commitment to tend and maintain the institutions of the past as an enduring continuity and a sustained reflection of a society’s legal customs and dispositions. The tradition-minded constitutionalist will be interested not only, and not primarily, in the fixed meaning of words at the period of their writing, but also, and much more, in the coherence and continuity of those meanings with the patterns, dispositions, and customs long before and after the writing. And he will want to apply the insight that Edward Shils once articulated about moral character to constitutional character: “Stable, well-formed characters are not their own creation, however large the part of deliberate self-discipline in their conduct. Their stability is the unshaken dominion of the pattern acquired in the past.”

Annicchino on the Paradigm Shift in Human Rights

In the Italian journal, Il Foglio, our friend and sometime guest contributor Pasquale Annicchino (European University Institute) has a provocative essay, “Now America waters down religious freedom and prefers rainbow colors. Why is that?” Annicchino sees a paradigm shift in American human rights policy. Where the US once favored religious liberty, it now gives priority to personal autonomy, especially LGBT rights:

What seems to have permanently changed is the cornerstone of the American projection in its narrative on rights around the world. The White House lights up with rainbow colors in the day of the Supreme Court ruling that recognizes the right to gay marriage. There is a decline in action for religious freedom, a right that refers to groups and individuals, while a vision linked to individualism and the principle of personal autonomy is on the rise, and the rights of LGBTI people are probably the clearest example of that.

An interesting take. You can read Annicchino’s essay here.

The Play of Daniel

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James Ruff as Daniel in the Trinity Production (NYT)

Earlier this month, I had a chance to see the Gotham Early Music Scene’s production of The Play of Daniel, a medieval Christmas pageant, performed as part of the annual Twelfth Night Festival at New York’s Trinity Church. The festival, which the church started several years ago, revives the idea of Christmas as a twelve-day holiday beginning on December 25 and running until Epiphany, January 6. It includes concerts and plays at Trinity and nearby St. Paul’s. I hope the organizers include this production of Daniel every year.

Students at Beauvais Cathedral in the north of France wrote Daniel, a drama based on episodes in the Old Testament book, around the year 1200. The text is a mix of Latin and Old French. The music, without rhythmical notation, survives in a manuscript at the British Library; the Trinity production rendered many of the numbers as dances. Interpolated within the biblical story are non-biblical texts, including songs that foretell the coming of Christ and even a Christmas carol of sorts, Congaudemus celebremus natalis sollempnia—“Let us together joyfully celebrate the Feast of the Nativity.” The presence of these songs, as well as some other internal evidence, suggests Daniel is meant to be performed at Christmastime.

The Trinity production was a lot of fun—the music; the costumes, inspired by pictures at the Cloisters in upper Manhattan; the acting, everything. Trinity’s Gothic Revival setting worked perfectly. Early music isn’t everyone’s thing, I know, but I think everyone would enjoy this production, including kids. There are even some laughs.

For people interested in church and state, the play has additional meaning. In the Old Testament book, King Darius’s courtiers urge him to issue an order providing that “whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions.” Darius issues the order, but Daniel refuses to comply. “He continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously.” The courtiers find out and haul Daniel before Darius, who cannot take back his order, as the laws of the Medes and Persians, once proclaimed, are irrevocable. Daniel goes off to the lions, but God sends an angel to protect him. Moved, Darius frees Daniel and orders the courtiers thrown to the lions instead. They don’t fare as well.

The story of Daniel in the lion’s den is pretty well known, even in our age of biblical illiteracy. But there is another church and state allusion in Daniel, more obscure today, but which contemporary audiences would surely have recognized. Daniel was written at the height of the investiture crisis, a centuries-long struggle for control of the Catholic Church that pitted the Holy Roman Emperor and other sovereigns against the papacy. Harold Berman famously dated the origins of the Western legal system, particularly legal pluralism, to the investiture crisis and what he called “the papal revolution” of the late Middle Ages. When Daniel was written, Becket’s murder was still in living memory, and the outcome of the investiture crisis was far from certain. Surely those students of Beauvais had current events in mind when they staged a drama showing what happens to courtiers who try to impose the power of the state against believers.

If you can, go and see Daniel next Christmas. Meanwhile, to tide you over, here is a video of this year’s performance from Trinity’s website.