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On retraining myself

I had always thought that the common-law approach had at least one thing to be said for it: it was the course of judicial restraint, “making” as little law as possible in order to decide the case at hand. I have come to doubt whether that is true. For when, in writing for the majority of the Court, I adopt a general rule, and say, “This is the basis of our decision,” I not only constrain lower courts, I constrain myself as well. If the next case should have such different facts that my political or policy preferences regarding the outcome are quite the opposite, I will be unable to indulge those preferences; I have committed myself to the governing principle. In the real world of appellate judging, it displays more judicial restraint to adopt such a course than to announce that, “on balance,” we think the law was violated here – leaving ourselves free to say in the next case that, “on balance,” it was not. It is a commonplace that the one effective check upon arbitrary judges is criticism by the bar and the academy. But it is no more possible to demonstrate the inconsistency of two opinions based upon a “totality of the circumstances” test than it is to demonstrate the inconsistency of two jury verdicts. Only by announcing rules do we hedge ourselves in.

While announcing a firm rule of decision can thus inhibit courts, strangely enough it can embolden them as well. Judges are sometimes called upon to be courageous, because they must sometimes stand up to what is generally supreme in a democracy: the popular will. Their most significant roles, in our system, are to protect the individual criminal defendant against the occasional excesses of that popular will, and to preserve the checks and balances within our constitutional system that are precisely designed to inhibit swift and complete accomplishment of that popular will. Those are tasks which, properly performed, may earn widespread respect and admiration in the long run, but-almost by definition-never in the particular case. The chances that frail men and women will stand up to their unpleasant duty are greatly increased if they can stand behind the solid shield of a firm, clear principle enunciated in earlier cases. It is very difficult to say that a particular convicted felon who is the object of widespread hatred must go free because, on balance, we think that excluding the defense attorney from the line-up process in this case may have prevented a fair trial. It is easier to say that our cases plainly hold that, absent exigent circumstances, such exclusion is a per se denial of due process.’ Or to take an example involving the other principal judicial role: When the people are greatly exercised about “overregulation” by the “nameless, faceless bureaucracy” in a particular agency, and Congress responds to this concern by enacting a popular scheme for legislative veto of that agency’s regulations-warmly endorsed by all the best newspapers-it is very difficult to say that, on balance, this takes away too much power from the Executive. It is easier to say that our cases plainly hold that Congress can formally control Executive action only by law. – from “The Rule of Law a Law of Rules” (1989)