On Judicial Plagiarism

It is an open secret that judges sometimes plagiarize from submissions by the lawyers before them, and even from articles and books by academics.   With respect to the latter, they are often aided and abetted by their clerks—law students working with them as research assistants.

Unlike scholarly or literary cheaters, the worry about judicial plagiarists is not that they undermine the research process, violate authors’ ‘moral rights’, or steal someone’s intellectual property. Judicial plagiarism is worse than any of these. It undermines the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. A judge who knowingly or recklessly reproduces words or arguments of others as if they were his own may not be making his own decisions. If discovered, this undermines public confidence that the judiciary can be relied on to think for itself.

Still, we know judicial plagiarism occurs. We also know why. Courts are underfunded and under-staffed; there is far too much work; many judges struggle with an impossible docket.   So the temptations to silently lift others’ work can be powerful.   Some lifting will be obvious.   A claimant will not fail to notice if a judge copies out page after page of the respondent’s pleadings, interspersing phrases like, ‘as we can clearly see’, or ‘ surely the better view is….’ But unacknowledged material that a clerk, or judge, copies without attribution from sources on Westlaw or Google is harder to spot, and can silently infiltrate judicial decisions.

This is why we should be concerned by reports of plagiarism on the part of Trump’s nominee to the US Supreme Court.  Judge Neil Gorsuch’s 2006 book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia , has been shown to contain passages and descriptions offered, without citation or acknowledgement, as if they were his own, but which were taken from other authors. That book was in turn based on Gorsuch’s 2004 thesis, submitted for a degree at the law school where I teach. It can only be a matter of time before someone downloads the thesis from the Oxford University Research Archive, to see whether it also contained the passages impugned in the press reports on his book.

If it did, and if Gorsuch were still an Oxford law student, he would be subject to the jurisdiction of University, which unambiguously prohibits plagiarism.  It does not matter whether silently copying others’ work is intentional or not; it does not matter whether it is done with the tolerance of those copied; it does not matter whether the passages copied are central to an argument or peripheral.  At Oxford, as at most other universities, the wrong is in the misrepresentation. It is an offence of academic dishonesty.

There is, of course, an important question of degree to attend to.  There is much worse plagiarism around, even in our universities.  And plagiarism in Gorsuch’s book has only been alleged in a few passages, though one of them is fairly extensive. But why is there any at all?  These passages seem to have survived an awful lot of scrutiny. In writing a thesis, submitting it for examination, revising it for publication, responding to editorial comments, and correcting texts and proofs there are many opportunities to spot, and correct, honest mistakes or omissions.  Indeed, it is not too late to do so even now.  So why the silence from Gorsuch and all the loud denials from his apologists?

Here at Oxford, our chief disciplinary officers, the Proctors, do not merely have a reactive role. They have broad powers they must use, not only to enforce our regulations, but to prevent future breaches of them. Why is this important? Gorsuch is no longer a member of Oxford University, so the Proctors have no enforcement jurisdiction over him. But they can and must act to prevent misconduct on the part of current students or faculty.

They should be concerned, then, that Gorsuch’s former Oxford supervisor has provided a statement to the ‘Gorsuch team’ denying any plagiarism in the book:

Having reviewed the examples provided by BuzzFeed News to the Gorsuch team, the professor who supervised Gorsuch dissertation, Emeritus Professor John Finnis of Oxford University, provided a statement to the Gorsuch team, concluding, “[I]n my opinion, none of the allegations has any substance or justification. In all the instances mentioned, Neil Gorsuch’s writing and citing was easily and well within the proper and accepted standards of scholarly research and writing in the field of study in which he and I work.”

This opinion has been widely republished and read, not only by the politicians for whom it was written, but by law students around the world.  And this opinion, coming from such an influential scholar, sends the wrong message to young lawyers and scholars.

If by ‘the field of study in which [Gorsuch] and I work,’ Professor Finnis means university research in law or legal philosophy, then his claim is unfounded. Oxford University’s regulations and guidance to students, and years of interpretation of  them by the Proctors and others, put this beyond doubt.   But perhaps Finnis means that lower standards of integrity apply to law books than to law theses? I do not think that is true either; but it is in any case it is the standards of our University that our students need to comply with, now and in the future.

For my own part, if ever I encountered plagiarism in work by one of my own students I would insist they revise their thesis to include full acknowledgement and citation, using it as a ‘teaching moment’ to explain why it is critical to get this right, especially for lawyers. Legal citation is, as they say, not exactly rocket science: misattributions or non-attributions, if not accidental, suggest a cheater seeking to gain advantage from the work of others, or someone who has contempt for academic culture.

Good judges are sensitive to the further issues at stake. In a British Columbia appeal against a trial judge’s decision that lifted wholesale from one the parties’ submissions, Mr Justice Smith wrote,

Trial judges are busy, and there can be cases… where a party’s submissions so accurately reflect the trial judge’s reasoning that nothing would be gained by postponing other pressing work in order to rewrite the reasoning and conclusions in the judge’s own words. However, judges who are tempted to prepare reasons for judgment in this way should be acutely aware they may create a perception that they did not reach their decisions independently. Such a perception would tend to undermine public confidence in the impartiality and independence of the judiciary generally and would bring the administration of justice into disrepute:

Of course, an academic book or article is not a party’s submission, but for a judge to rely on it without citation would raise similar worries.   Indeed, that case would be worse for, as I mentioned above, judicial plagiarism of that sort will be a lot harder for the parties and others to detect. Given that it can always be avoided by a mere footnote–by a moment’s attention–failure to provide one is wrong.   That is why we demand it of our students, our judges, and ourselves.

When writing as an academic, Neil Gorsuch did not have a trial judge’s excuse of the extraordinary pressures of work. He was not copying from submissions others had read, but from authors most readers would not even know. With the leisure of the ivory tower, and with no one but scholars depending on his writing, Gorsuch failed an easy, elementary test we demand of every student: acknowledge all your sources–every single one–truthfully and fully. How should we expect him to behave when the stakes, and temptations, are higher?

Should Parliamentary Sovereignty Trump Popular Sovereignty?

On June 23rd the UK referendum on membership in the European Union delivered a clear, if narrow, result: the country should leave. Much still remains open, but as far as that issue is concerned, the matter is decided. I’m sure that British voters had no view about which mechanism would transfer their decision into law; but they understood that something would. No one supposed that a clear result might be treated as a helpful hint to politicians, or as a preliminary comment in a national seminar on the constitution.

Today’s judgment in the High Court repudiates that understanding. (R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union). Lord Thomas of Cymgiedd CJ, Sir Terence Etherton MR, and Lord Sales decided that the UK executive lacks any power to transmit the will of the people into law by triggering the notification procedure for exit that is outlined in the EU Treaty. The court holds that the absolute sovereignty of Parliament must be respected, and that such prerogative power as the executive has to act in international affairs, including  treaties, can never repeal rights in domestic law. So Parliament must still decide whether to leave the EU. The matter remains open.

The breadth of the doctrine is breathtaking. The court does not merely say that Parliament is not, in this case, strictly bound by the referendum result; it declares that any popular vote is of zero legal relevance until Parliament expressly chooses otherwise. It is not even legally persuasive: ‘a referendum on any topic can only be advisory for the lawmakers in Parliament unless very clear language to the contrary is used in the referendum legislation in question.’ [emphasis added]

If the Supreme Court confirms this decision, the entire national debate on the EU can begin over: in the House of Commons, in the (unelected) House of Lords, then possibly back again to the courts, or maybe even the electorate. And that is what the claimants want: delay and time for second thoughts and further lobbying–not on the ground that the referendum result was unclear or the procedure unfair, but on the ground that the question was wrongly decided.

I agree that the question was wrongly decided. I also think that referendums are a very poor instrument of ordinary governance. But when what is at stake is the boundary of a constitutional people, we have no better procedure than a referendum, and courts should use their powers to uphold, rather than undermine, the result. Those who regret the result (as I do) should spend less time trying to overturn or forestall it, and more time trying to rally opinion around one of the better options that it has left open. Lawyers shouldn’t feel sidelined: whatever happens there will be work for them.

Democracy is government by the people. But the definition of ‘the people’ is not a matter solely for Parliament. It is matter prior to parliamentary democracy, and the legitimacy of Parliament depends on settling it correctly. The people have a right to decide for themselves the most basic terms of their constitution, including the people who will empowered by that constitution. That is why it is for Scots to decide whether to remain in the UK—and not for the UK as a whole; and why it is for the British to decide whether to remain in the EU—and not for the other member states.

What we might call English Constitutional Theory has long distrusted popular sovereignty.  An influential line of thought running from Hobbes, through Blackstone and Bentham, to Dicey and Jennings, equates popular sovereignty with Parliamentary sovereignty. Even today, the High Court repeats with approval Dicey’s words : ‘The judges know nothing about any will of the people except in so far as that will is expressed by an Act of Parliament’. Of course, it is plausible to think that the ‘will of the people’ needs practical expression. But when we have—as Dicey did not—lawfully organized and fair referendum procedures, it is implausible that only an Act of Parliament can ever speak for the people.

The UK has a fluid, informal constitution, and when disputes about its basic ground rules reach our courts, they generally lie in a penumbral zone where, whatever judges pretend, their decisions not only have political consequences but are made, and can only be properly made, on grounds of political morality. There are no ‘purely legal’ decisions at this level.

Today’s decision sidelines an important principle of political morality. It is not inexorably driven to do so by law or by logic. The judgment depends on two propositions that remain as debatable after the decision as they were before: (1) that the UK’s notification to withdraw from the EU cannot be made conditional on anything, and (2) that the European Communities Act 1972 not only gives EU law direct effect in UK courts, but also makes it part of UK law. Since the parties all accepted (1), the court did not test it. On (2), the court rejected the government’s argument that rights of British citizens under EU law result from an interaction of domestic and European law, and do not rest in domestic law alone.  Legal philosophers have struggled with the general issue at stake in (2).  Compare:  if conflict-of-laws rules sometimes require English courts to give effect to French law, does that make French law part of domestic English law?  It is a delicate question.  The Court makes short shrift of it.  Oddly, given its enthusiasm for Dicey’s doctrine that Parliament is omnicompetent, and its insistence that it only addresses ‘purely legal’ questions, the court  declares  (2) wrong because it is unrealistic: ‘In a highly formalistic sense this may be accurate. But in our view it is a submission which is divorced from reality.’

I wish the court’s desire to shape the law with an eye to reality had gripped it in some more helpful way. Since the UK is a union of peoples, not just one people, the declaration that any referendum, on any matter at all, can only ever be advisory will not go down well in Scotland, or in Northern Ireland. Nor will the conclusion, which follows inexorably, that Westminster can by explicit legislation repeal the Scotland Act 2016, notwithstanding what ‘a decision of the people of Scotland voting in a referendum’ (s 63 A) might have to say about the matter.  Does the Act itself give such a referendum legal force?  If so, it only takes a simple majority, which might consist only of English MPs, to amend or repeal it.

Contrast the more sensitive, and sensible, approach of the Supreme Court of Canada when addressing the constitutional significance of a possible referendum result in favour of Québec independence:

The continued existence and operation of the Canadian constitutional order cannot remain indifferent to the clear expression of a clear majority of Quebecers that they no longer wish to remain in Canada.  This would amount to the assertion that other constitutionally recognized principles necessarily trump the clearly expressed democratic will of the people of Quebec.’ (Reference re Secession of Quebec, [1998] 2 S.C.R. 217)

The formulation is inexact, but the idea is sound. The idea that ‘other constitutionally recognized principles’ necessarily trump any clear expression of popular sovereignty is a danger to the continued existence and operation of any constitutional order. The Canadian Court knew that to endorse that idea could risk national calamity. By their judgment they changed, if only marginally, the basic ground rules of the Canadian legal system. It was a wise move.  Perhaps our Supreme Court will follow it?

Popular sovereignty is a moral ideal. Parliamentary sovereignty is an institutional device, helpful where it secures important values, but a hindrance when it does not.

 

What ‘Brexit’ Really Means–Explained

My part-time colleague, Bo Rothstein, argues for a second referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union–if and when the government comes up with ‘a deal’.

Fair enough.  But is his second referendum supposed to be able to reverse the decision of the first one?  Strangely, Rothstein doesn’t tell us.   In light of his examples of referendums of which he disapproves, it is natural to think that he means not merely a second referendum on an independent issue (e.g. the UK’s membership of the European Economic Area–yes or no?) but a second referendum capable of undoing the first, that is, of leading to the UK remaining in the EU–the very option that was so clearly rejected in June.  No referendum result (or election result, or judicial decision) has absolute authority.  But does this one really have zero authority?  Is it liable to be annulled on the ground that it was wrongly settled?

I am not surprised that Rothstein is coy about all this, for offering any definite view would require at least a sketch of the conditions under which a government should comply with the result of a (legally) advisory plebiscite.  He gives us none.  Rothstein does not notice, let alone refute, Richard Wollheim’s old but important resolution of the so-called ‘paradox of voting‘, namely, the fact that one can consistently think that one ought to support X against Y, yet also think that, if the majority supports Y against X, then one should support that. (Within limits.)  Wollheim said there is a difference between our ‘direct’ and our ‘oblique’ policies, and that it is  reasonable to have different policies about what we should ‘directly’ favour (were it up to us alone) and what we should ‘obliquely’ favour when called on to consider which policies should settle differences in what people ‘directly’ favour. So it does not follow from the fact that there was ample reason for me to vote Remain that, after a clear majority voted Leave, I should now insist on discounting their advice, relying instead on the grounds that justified my own initial vote.  The actual, positive, fact of a majority vote matters, and before we decide to ignore it, we need a better reason than that the majority was wrong to vote that way.

Wollheim’s labels never caught on, but his idea did, and it was put to work by writers like HLA Hart, John Rawls, Joseph Raz, John Finnis, Jeremy Waldron, me, and lots of others.  Nowadays we talk about the authority of ‘content-independent’ reasons, or of procedures. I’m not sure that ‘content-independent’ is any catchier than ‘oblique’, but it is the thing we need to consider when we weigh the moral authority of a referendum result, or an election result, or a court decision.  We don’t hear about this from Rothstein, who never tells us when he thinks it is right (if ever?) to give weight to content-independent considerations.  Of course, in a short journalistic piece one doesn’t expect a detailed argument.  But not even a hint?   Not a gesture?  The silence suggests that he thinks positive facts  have no authority at all to set against what is (in ‘truth’) right and proper.

Like most sensible people, he sees that the referendum result is a disaster for the UK–especially for those of us who teach in its universities; but for many others as well, including many who were duped into voting Leave.  But a second referendum?  What about best three out of five? And why not the same for general elections: the law of large numbers may help iron out the wrinkles caused by deliberate deception, voter ignorance, blindness to expertise, and so on. No MP should be elected without winning, say, 3 out of 5 elections.  Or 5 of 7.   There is an internet; it could be done.  But we will need to settle on the number of elections (or referendums) that need to be won in order to produce a settlement.  People will disagree about that, too.  Should we  hold a referendum on that question?  Or ask the philosophers to decide?

Rothstein also says ‘The slogan “Brexit means Brexit” is … meaningless because no one knows what a Brexit alternative will look like.’  That is just false.  I agree that we do not know what the feasible alternatives will be.  I know that Theresa May’s ‘Brexit means Brexit’ was a silly slogan to buy peace among warring factions of her Conservative Party.  But none of that comes close to showing that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is meaningless.  For starters, everything is what it is and not another thing, so the sentence, if  uninformative, is meaningful.   Taken literally, it is also (trivially) true.  Of course, everyone also knows that it was not intended literally.  It was intended to tell us not to get our hopes up that Brexit will prove to be something other than what it said on the tin.  And what did it say on the tin?  Since so many now claim to be mystified by that, I am going to tell you, for I know what ‘Brexit’ means.

‘Brexit’ means a BRitish EXIT from the European Union. And that means that those who favoured Brexit wanted the United Kingdom to cease being a member state of the EU. May’s slogan assures her colleagues that that will eventually happen. (‘Eventually’ is a very big problem: I may come back to that another time.)

Now, member-statehood in the EU is fairly crisp, well-defined concept. There are no hard cases of EU membership; it is even pretty easy to find out which states are in and which ones are out.  Admittedly, Leave voters may not have known what they wanted instead of EU membership. But that is a different question, and it was not, as far as I recall, on the ballot paper. What’s more, there is nothing suspect about not wanting X while having no idea of what one would want if not X. People can rationally leave destructive marriages or jobs without settling what they might do next or instead.  I think that those who voted Leave were tragically and terribly mistaken. I even think that many of those Leavers who were literate were culpably mistaken, as they  refused to bear what John Rawls called ‘burdens of judgment.’ They negligently failed to inform themselves about highly pertinent, non-controversial, matters of fact; they refused to confront evidence that ran contrary to their prejudices.  Be that as it may, to suggest that neither Leave voters nor anyone else knows what Brexit means is plain dishonest. For a serious academic to repeat that tired, journalistic lie is close to professional malpractice.

Finally, Rothstein–like most other commentators–says nothing at all about one real, politically serious, ambiguity in the referendum result.  It isn’t helpful to talk about what ‘Britain’ decided, unless that is a casual way of talking about what the member state, the United Kingdom, decided.  That is the relevant entity as far as the referendum, and the EU treaties, are concerned.  And don’t say that ‘Britain means the United Kingdom’, as that is worse than ‘Brexit means Brexit’, inasmuch as the former is false and the latter is at least true.  Most of the Northern Irish voted Remain, as did most Scots, whose relation to ‘Britishness’ is more complex than the English imagine.  The referendum decided that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union. So that means that all of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will probably be given what only England and Wales voted for.  About that, there is a reasonable complaint to be made.  Admittedly, in the eyes of most English lawyers, Scotland’s and Northern Ireland’s rejection of Brexit is a detail of no constitutional significance, or no more constitutional significance than London’s.  But the opinions of English lawyers are not as important to Scottish or Irish politics as the English suppose them to be.

As for Brexit, the Scots and Irish, like the English, understood perfectly well what was being asked in the referendum.  They knew that ‘Brexit means Brexit.‘  That is why they opposed it.

Are there any ‘theoretical disgreements’ about law?

In this illuminating new article, Brian Leiter amplifies his criticism of Ronald Dworkin’s treatment of so-called ‘theoretical disagreements’ in law.

http://leiterreports.typepad.com/…/theoretical-disagreement…

Why ‘so-called’? Well, Dworkin made up not only the term but the thing. He was the most inventive legal philosopher of our time. (Also, and contrary to a common belief, he could be a very nice guy. Another day, I will tell you about his kindness to me when my mother was dying and, unknown to me, so was Ronnie.)

Here is is a conjecture that suggests an explanation different from, but not incompatible with, Leiter’s:

A theoretical disagreement is a disagreement about what the law actually is (to the extent that there is actually law) in a case where most competent lawyers agree on *all* the ordinary historical and other empirical facts about what relevant people have thought, said and done. These lawyers are said to disagree *only* about how these agreed, empirical facts ‘make law’–that is, on the *bearing* of all ordinary facts on the law.

Now, the standard(s) that determine the bearing of ordinary facts on the law are usually called ‘recognition rules’, or, to be more precise ‘ultimate recognition rules’.  (Some subordinate recognition rules are themselves matters of law.  That is why neither the US Constitution, nor any part of it, is ‘the rule of recognition’ in US law.)  The existence and content of these ultimate standards are matters of (ordinary) facts, a bit like the facts that determine the existence and content of the rules that provide the criteria for grammaticality in a natural language. (To the extent that there are facts about that: some sentences in a language are neither clearly grammatical nor clearly ungrammatical.)

So there are theoretical disagreements only if there are cases in which (a) there is law, (b) the existence or content of which is subject to disagreement among most competent lawyers, (c) who nonetheless agree on *all* the ordinary facts.  But that set is empty:

Suppose the contrary. Then it must be the case that some disagreeing, competent lawyers are correct in their claim about what the law actually is, and others incorrect. (They might be incorrect in thinking it is the law that not-p, while it is actually p; but they might also be incorrect in thinking that the law is indeterminate, that it requires neither p nor not-p.)  It follows that there are at least at least some ordinary facts about which those very lawyers disagree: to wit, what are the recognition rules of the legal system in question? Any legal disagreement that turns on an ordinary disagreement is not a ‘theoretical disagreement’, as Dworkin defines that term.

Suppose, now, that our Dworkinian  replies: ‘this begs this question. There *are* no ‘”recognition rules” that determine the bearing of facts on law.’ This is no help. Whether or not *there are* any recognition rules is a matter of ordinary fact. A recognition rule is a matter of social custom and practice.  Lawyers who disagree about whether they exist disagree about a matter of ordinary fact. So these lawyers do not have a ‘theoretical disagreement’ either.

Some philosophers never see a ditch they wouldn’t mind dying in.  So they go on to reply, ‘You’ve misunderstood. My claim is that what *you* call ‘recognition rules’ are not exhausted by what *you* call ‘ordinary facts’.  I say they include what I call “moral facts”.’  (Sidebar comment: a lot of legal philosophy–well, a lot of philosophy actually–works by the selective deployment of skepticism.  For example, a roll of eyes over ‘recognition rules’  combined with a fond batting of lashes towards ‘moral facts’ that somehow fix the law.)  But this isn’t a matter of verbal legislation, surely.  One person who says that the ultimate standards determining what counts as law are exhausted by ordinary facts, and another who says they are not, disagree about the nature and content of those very standards, whatever we call them.  One side is  presumably not saying that it is a bad idea, or regrettable, that the ultimate standards  in law should be (what most call) recognition rules.  They are saying that the ultimate standards are not recognition rules at all.   If other competent lawyers deny *that* then they do deny a certain matter of ordinary fact: that there are what most people call recognition rules.  They deny what others assert–that in every legal system there are at least some rules whose existence is a matter of ordinary human thought, speech and action and which determine the existence and content of law  So, again, they do not agree on all matters of fact while disagreeing on the content of the law.

But then how should we characterise their disagreements?  Leiter, in the above piece, sets out some plausible alternatives. None of them requires that we acknowledge the existence of ‘theoretical disagreements’ about the law.

 

 

 

 

Israel’s Bar Ilan University: letting the side down yet again

Professor Hanoch Sheinman is one of Israel’s most distinguished legal philosophers. Like many thoughtful Israelis, he deplores the illegal and oppressive aspects of Israel’s foreign policy.  He is not shy about this. During the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza, Sheinman introduced a bland housekeeping email to his law students by saying he hoped it,

‘finds you in a safe place, and that you, your families and those dear to you are not among the hundreds of people that were killed, the thousands wounded, or the tens of thousands whose homes were destroyed or were forced to leave their homes during, or as a direct result of, the violent confrontation in the Gaza Strip and its environs.’

Many of Sheinman’s right wing students were enraged. How dare a professor express political views in a work email? How dare a Jewish law faculty employ such a person? How dare anyone suggest the moral equivalence of innocent Israeli and innocent Palestinian lives?

Bar Ilan University’s Dean of Law, Shahar Lifshitz, sided with the outraged students, announcing that their complaints were justifiable: ‘[The] Letter from Professor Sheinman – both content and style – is contrary to the values ​​of the University and the Faculty of Law.’ He continued, ‘This is abuse of power by a lecturer who exploits his position as a jurisprudence teacher to send messages reflecting his views, which are highly offensive to the feelings of students and their families. ‘ Lifshitz promised to deal with Sheinman in due course: ‘I assure you that the matter will be handled with the appropriate seriousness.’

Now one might debate whether a politically charged email is protected by academic freedom. Still, it seems to me that I should be permitted to introduce an email by writing, for example, ‘I hope this finds you healthy and well, and that you have not been driven to food banks as a result of the Government’s policies on student loans.’ That might be gauche or inappropriate—I imagine that my Conservative students and colleagues might think so—but it would be ludicrous to say it amounts to an ‘abuse of power’ or the ‘exploitation’ of a professor’s position.

In any case, even if Professor Sheinman’s comment was not protected by academic freedom, Dean Lifshitz’s threat was condemned by it. For it is clear that by ‘appropriate seriousness’ Lifshitz did not mean ‘the degree of seriousness appropriate to an otherwise innocent, one-off comment that gravely offends some students’ (viz: a degree of about zero). No; Lifshitz plainly meant a degree of seriousness that might warrant formal reprimand, or worse.   When Deans make threats like that, they do not need to carry them out in order restrict the academic freedoms on which teaching, learning and scholarship depend. That they show themselves ready to do so is enough. If there was any ‘abuse of power’ or ‘exploitation’ of one’s position in this matter, it was on the part of Dean Lifshitz.

As is common in cases like this, everyone could see that except the victim’s own colleagues. They mostly went scurrying for cover. (Advice to junior faculty: never get between your senior colleagues and their own self-image.) It fell to outsiders to defend Sheinman. Bad press, the intervention of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, pressure from hundreds of foreign academics, and threats of lawsuit eventually induced Lifshitz to think again. On reflection, he acknowledged that he had mis-spoken in promising the students that Sheinman ‘will be handled’.

A story at The Leiter Reports now suggests that Lifshitz has been having second thoughts all over again.  A poisonous atmosphere, angry students, and a truculent administration have paved the way for an  ‘interim review’ being imposed on the as-yet-untenured Sheinman.   His lawyers claim that this procedure has been set up without proper university authority, that it is imposed retroactively, and that Sheinman has not been given reasonable opportunity to prepare for it. I have been told by sources close to the Bar Ilan administration that they expect Sheinman to be in trouble on the teaching side. (It is inconceivable that Sheinman’s research could be found wanting; he is more able, and already much more distinguished, than all but a few of Bar Ilan’s tenured law faculty.) Given that outraged students led the charge against Sheinman in the first place, and that the Dean encouraged them, nothing would be less surprising than for Sheinman to be confronted with bad student evaluations. It is amazing that he even manages to continue his research in such a poisonous atmosphere.

You may be tempted to roll your eyes and say, as Rick does to Ilsa in Casablanca, ‘the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.’ But it is precisely because academic life in Israel has become so crazy that this matters so much. Bar Ilan’s image problem is nothing new. After all, its law faculty is the alma mater of Itzakh Rabin’s murderer; it is a university where male students can be kicked out of lectures for refusing to wear a kippa, where the administration can demand that faculty defend the contents of their books, and where gay students are prohibited from holding events on campus. Life in the bush league, you say? Maybe; but put this in the national context. Israel’s universities are all struggling to resist the academic boycott movement. Bar Ilan is, shall we say, not exactly helping the cause. Many Israeli academics feel under intense pressure to show that they are not just lackeys of Brand Israel. The Bar Ilan law faculty are doing nothing to help them either.

The latest criticism has now elicited a ‘reply’ from nine of Bar Ilan’s tenured law professors.   Their letter is embarrassingly irrelevant.   Were it a first year student’s answer to a statement of claim it would get a failing grade. It does not even notice, let alone answer, the gravity of the charge: that, as applied, this particular review is unfair and is motivated by Bar Ilan’s desire to silence faculty who, like Sheinman, infuriate their right-wing students. Instead, they irrelevantly say that other law faculties have interim reviews, and they reaffirm their touching faith that ‘Prof. Sheinman’s political views will have no bearing on the committee’s evaluation of his performance. Neither will the letter that Prof. Sheinman sent to students during the 2014 war in Gaza.’

Clap your hands if you believe.

 

 

 

Wednesday’s Child: The New vs The True

A paper by a junior scholar greatly impressed me. I thought it should be published. A distinguished philosopher did not share my view: ‘It’s warmed-over Rawls,’ he wrote, in a curt letter of rejection.

Now, I could see for myself that the central claim of the paper wasn’t completely new. But it was, I thought, completely true. And its case for a familiar truth was different from—though not inconsistent with—other arguments to the same conclusion.  So why the obsession with the new?

This misery has company elsewhere, including in the social sciences.   I do not only mean that, when others try to replicate famous ‘findings’, they cannot get the same results. I mean that hardly anyone tries to replicate anything.   You can see why. Replication is expensive and unoriginal. Editors do not fight over a paper that argues that the findings of an earlier paper are all correct. Hence, there is a high prior probability that a lot of what finds its way into print is rubbish. (And then that rubbish is cited, and the citations re-cited, by philosophers who want their work to be ‘continuous with’ the advanced social sciences.)

In the humanities we do not have the excuse that originality is cheaper than replication. Admittedly, some of our work is not truth-apt, and some that is truth-apt is not truth-oriented (for instance, because it is bullshit). But I imagine that most of us hope that our claims about things like justice or law are, if not true, then true-ish.   Yet our collective behaviour reveals a strong preference for the new over the (merely) true.

In my own fields, the pursuit of novelty has bad effects: one can be pretty sure that the next general theory of law will be more daft than the last one. And in moral and political philosophy writers continually ‘discover’ principles that no one in the history of humanity ever heard of.

The novelty-fetish has further  knock-on effects.   It isn’t enough for ideas to be new; others need to acknowledge that they are new, so small novelties get over-emphasised, and the errors of past writers exaggerated. No longer are others merely mistaken, misguided, or muddled—their claims must be ‘ridiculous’, ‘disgraceful’, or ‘ludicrous’. These epithets have various meanings, but they have a common use. They are all ways of pleading, ‘Don’t read him! Read me, me, ME!’

Though not excusable, this is understandable. Most of us write for a serious audience of a few hundred, of whom maybe a couple of dozen actually engage our work. (Legal and political theorists who imagine they have ‘impact’ in the halls of power, or even literature, mostly live in a hall of mirrors.) To lose a few precious readers to the judgment that our work is warmed-over Rawls (or Mill, or Marx…) feels like an amputation without anaesthetic.

We need to get over that.   David Hume exaggerated when he wrote of political philosophy that, ‘New discoveries are not to be expected in these matters.’ But he was not ridiculously, ludicrously, or disgracefully mistaken.   Here as elsewhere, Hume was mostly right—though with some one-sided over-emphasis.   And there was nothing new in that either.

Top-25 US Philosophy Placements by PGR Rankings

There is an informative table here showing where the 2015-16 tenure-track  appointees to the top 25 US Philosophy departments did their doctoral work.  (This is interim data; I’ll do this again later.)

I excluded foreign graduate schools (which are ranked in their home jurisdictions, not against US programmes) and then did a multiple regression of placement numbers against inverse 2006 and 2014 PGR ranks  (recklessly treating these, I know, as cardinal variables).

As expected, the line slopes down slightly to the right–the lower-ranked a programme, the fewer people it placed in top departments.  But not by much.Version 2The  coefficient for the 2014 rankings is -0.15, and for 2006 it is -0.07, which you can pretty much see with your own eyeballs.  And none of this is  significant at p=.05, except the intercept (0bviously).

A couple of  comments. There are few data points.  They are placement numbers; not success rates. This does not test the predictive power of PGR rankings: we would need to know about lower-ranked departments and about rejected candidates.  We would want to add more independent variables.

Still, this does not suggest that well-informed departments, when hiring to the tenure-stream, are in the thrall of the PGR.  Apart from the very top-ranked departments–which, on anyone’s account are stellar and, whether by selection effect or treatment effect, turn out stellar candidates–lots of other places are about equally successful in elite placements.  Not that elite job placements are the only thing, or even the main thing, to think about in life.

You knew that already, right?

 

 

 

 

Wednesday’s Child: When ‘Normative’ becomes Normal

I read in the BBC News Magazine that ‘Nightly dreaming is a feature of the normatively-functioning brain – it is therefore part of our biological inheritance…’ Ignore the glaring non sequitur. What about ‘the normatively-functioning brain’? Is that a thing? Does the author, Shane McCorristine, ask his doctor if he has normative blood pressure?

Language changes, and the normalization of pompo-verbosity is a vector of change. That is also what gives us ‘gender discrimination’ in the place of ‘sex discrimination.’ Generally speaking, this usage is harmless. No one thinks that appointing four male drag queens to the UK Supreme Court is going to fix its current ‘gender imbalance.’

The tendency to avoid ‘normal’ in favour of ‘normative’ has two sources. One is the disreputable desire to make a banal point sound fancy or academic. The other is the reputable desire to distinguish the typical from the desirable.  But we don’t need ‘normative’ for that. Your gran knew what ‘normal sex’ means and, like Dorothy Parker, she also knew that ‘Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.’   Of course, Gran would have been able to master the phrase ‘heterosexuality is not normative…’ and even, ‘heteronormative sexuality is not normatively normative’.   It’s not complicated, once you know the code.

During a period of flux, however, we need to disambiguate. In contemporary jurisprudence, pervasive ambiguities have made the terms ‘normative’ and ‘normativity’ practically unusable. An article entitled, ‘Explaining the Normativity of Law’ could be about almost anything: there is no way of knowing in advance, and often no way of knowing in retrospect either. Here are some of  questions you might find addressed under that title, together what seem to me the right answers, in telegraphic form.

  • Q: What is the relationship between laws and norms? A: Some laws are norms.
  • Q: What motivates people to conform to the law? A: There is no interesting general answer.
  • Q: How does the mere existence of law give people reason to conform to it? A: It doesn’t.
  • Q: How is it possible that the existence of a law could give people reason to conform to it? A: It depends on what kind of reasons you have in mind.
  • Q: What explains the fact law provides a general moral justification for coercing people? A: There is no such fact.
  • Q: What warrants the use of normative terms in stating rules of law? A: The same kind of things that warrant the use of normative terms in stating rules of football or grammar.

As you can see, questions about the ‘normativity’ of law could be about the character of laws, about motivational psychology, about semantics, about practical reasoning, or about political morality. (I address some of the moral questions here.)  There are probably other possibilities too.

This makes it difficult, especially for beginners, to find a safe path into contemporary legal philosophy. Pitfalls that have always been there are now obscured. In 1957, Lon Fuller asked how there could be ‘an amoral datum called law, which has the peculiar quality of creating a moral duty to obey it’. The question-begging was so obvious that any undergraduate could step around it. But today, a begger of Fuller’s sort might ask, ‘How is the facticity of law consistent with its normativity’? Would you blame a student for thinking that there is a deep problem here? Or for hating jurisprudence?

I’m afraid it is probably too late for ‘normative’; it is going the way of ‘gender’. The best we can now hope for is logic-chopping to keep the path as clear as we can. It is so normal to use ‘normative’ for ‘normal’—and a bunch of other things—that that has become ‘the new normative’.  You ‘could care less’? I hope so.

Gender and the Analytical Jurisprudential Mind

Nietzsche said that when ‘marching against the enemy’ both bad music and bad reasons sound good.

Joanne Conaghan’s book, Law and Gender, marches against several enemies, one of which is ‘the analytical jurisprudential mind’. I am offered as a case study of that psychopathology. Her discussion of my work on marriage reveals the ‘methodological limitations which characterize [such] jurisprudential analysis,’ namely:

the abstraction of legal concepts from the framework in which they operate and the tendency to treat them as having a fairly fixed content over time and space; the unarticulated normative prioritization of some features… over others…, evidencing the presence of evaluative choices which problematize any claim to be rendering a descriptive or value-neutral account; the overlooking, or at least unexplained disregard, of contra-indicative evidence…. “(Law and Gender 176)

Conaghan says that it is because of such ‘limitations’ that books of analytical jurisprudence—books like The Concept of Law, The Pure Theory of Law, The Authority of Law—fail to see the pervasive relevance of gender to theories of the nature of law.

Her arguments are embarrassingly weak, for reasons I explain in this new paper.  Her errors would matter little were it not for the possibility that law students might think that to be feminists they need to join in the march, singing along to bad music and repeating bad reasons. My paper concludes:

“In the end, jibes about the ‘analytical jurisprudential mind’, like jibes about ‘the criminal mind’—or for that matter the ‘female mind’—express little more than prejudice.   As vices go, an intellectual prejudice is a minor thing. Still, it will have victims. Its main casualties will be beginning students, especially young lawyers curious about things like the social construction of gender, the evaluative character of jurisprudence, the subordination and silencing of women, or social inclusion and legal equality. Will they learn that some of the best contemporary thinking on these themes includes work by analytic philosophers, and even analytic legal philosophers? Will they discover that this work is sensitive to context where relevant, that it is alert to the ways values enter analysis, and that it is literate about social facts? Not if they accept Conaghan’s caricature. Students taught what the ‘analytical jurisprudential mind’ must think about some issue may not feel inclined to spend time discovering what any particular writer actually does think. They are as likely to set about building separation walls, to guard against intrusions by gender-excluding abstractions, smuggled-in values, and empirical biases—unlawful migrants to the empire of law and gender, disguised in nit-picking arguments.“

Feminist philosophy has long since given up the idea that ‘analytical’ methods are alien or hostile to feminism. The excellent work of philosophers like Elizabeth Anderson, Sally Haslanger, Rae Langton, or Mary Kate McGowan demonstrate the power of these methods and their importance to feminism. Why is feminist legal scholarship of Conaghan’s sort stuck in a time-warp of the 1980s,  repeating the old jingles of post-modernism and chanting the dull chorus of ‘social context’?

It is time for feminists in law to reconsider their need for an enemy, or at least find a new one. They will be astonished at how bad was the music they used to march to, how poor the reasons.

Jurisprudence: stop that right now!

The reader who slogs through the 52 pages of Dan Priel’s latest critique of legal philosophy will get a good survey of some of the (fairly casual) remarks its practitioners have made about the ‘methodology’ of jurisprudence.  Spoiler alert:  but they won’t learn anything about how the subject might be done.

Once again, Priel tells everyone else their subject is empty or question-begging.  He seems to flirt with the idea that there is a sociological jurisprudence that is not only a sociology of law, but a sociology of the nature of law (to the extent that law has a nature).  In any event, we are all to stop ‘conceptual analysis’.  What we are to start is not clear, though it seems to have something to do with measuring and counting–but without any preliminary worries about what counts as what.

The best defense of this proposal would simply produce the goods. We should be given access to Priel’s  measures, data, models, and calculations that explain what law is.  We can then check the validity of his measures, replicate his analyses, verify his calculations, and so on.  (It has been a long time since I calculated a chi-square, but give me an afternoon and I’m sure I can get back up to speed.)

But while scolding analytical jurisprudence for not following the lead of the ‘many philosophers’ who find illumination in things like cognitive science and psychology, Priel coyly keeps whatever findings he has to himself.  Or is his work–and its demand for empirical evidence–a failure by its own standards?

Perhaps not.  When we arrive, finally, at p 52 we discover that it has all been an introduction to a prolegomenon to a preliminary to a research programme.  Its only positive offering is that we should stop reading HLA Hart’s book The Concept of Law 

A good first step would be to stop the unprofessional practice of reading with veneration, and perhaps at all, the book most responsible for the misguided conceptualist orientation that dominates contemporary jurisprudence.’

I admit to having hoped for more than a ‘first step’ in fifty pages. In any case, Priel’s step has been taken many times over.

Many academic lawyers, and most legal sociologists, show no signs of having read Hart’s book at all  (or of having understood it if they have).  The first step has been taken. So what’s holding up progress?  It isn’t as if there is a  licensing board in Oxford’s High Street, or in New York’s Washington Square, that must approve all research in legal sociology.  Just do it!

There is a good piece of sociology of knowledge waiting to be written about why some academic lawyers feel so strongly that the only thing stopping them from doing what needs to be done is that other people are doing something else.  I’m not sure what explains this, though I do have some conjectures.