Back to Prindle Institute

On Judicial Philosophy: A Reflection on Judge Jackson’s Hearing

photograph of Ketanji Brown Jackson with law books behind

Judge Jackson’s recent confirmation hearing raises a variety of questions about the nature of judicial philosophy and what relationship it has with judicial “methodology.” In her opening statement, Judge Jackson outlines a three-step methodology to how she approaches each case: to clear her head, to examine the data, and to apply the relevant laws if it is her job. When pressed and questioned about what her philosophy is, she candidly maintained her judicial philosophy is her judicial methodology.

This has received a variety of attention. Some think her response is indicative of her defying being labeled by others. Others think she is required to give us her judicial philosophy, that her methodology is the bare minimum of what to expect from a judge. Indeed, some were analyzing and predicting what the judicial philosophy would be based on her previous remarks and experience.

While Judge Jackson’s response has been a highlight of Republican criticism, it would be rash to infer this question is pointless, a divisive tactic asked for the sake of moral grandstanding. It is worth addressing the nature of one’s judicial philosophy, its importance, and asking whether it is equivalent to a methodology.

Let us presume that a judicial philosophy comprises the values and stance from which one sees and evaluates judicial cases. In this way, a judicial philosophy is value-laden and often prescriptive of how to interpret the law and act. In contrast, a methodology is often only descriptive. This gives the impression that a methodology is fair, insofar as it does not necessarily subscribe to values and prescribe responses.

This distinction maps onto our standard use of the terms and some intuitive examples. Consider how an ethical philosophy not only describes but evaluates as well as prescribes certain actions. For instance, deontology describes and evaluates actions according to the well-known categorical imperatives, the rule of universalization, and the intrinsic value of rational agents. When the deontologist maintains “Don’t lie,” it is based on a value of rational agency and is universal in its scope and demand.

A methodology, in contrast, is procedural. Much like the surgeon who must conduct several steps to perform surgery, a methodology describes the steps of parsing data and conducting certain actions. Moreover, while a methodology evaluates appropriate actions according to the issue at hand, a methodology does not have certain prescriptions built-in (aside from, perhaps, the general prescription to act in accord with the role one stands in; consider how the Hippocratic Oath is an imperative to do no harm). Where a scalpel is required in some situations, an IV is required in others — it depends on the patient’s need.

If this distinction is plausible, then it follows that a judicial methodology and judicial philosophy are not equivalent. This is not to say, however, that the two cannot overlap. For every judicial philosophy can avail itself of a methodology, and vice versa. So, we need some clarity on what Judge Jackson means when she maintains her philosophy just is her methodology.

Would it be a problem to only maintain a judicial methodology without a judicial philosophy? At first blush, it would seem like a fortunate state of affairs if the judge were to be impartial like the surgeon with a methodology. One might argue by analogy that the judge collects the relevant data with a clear mind and applies the relevant tools according to the need. If the brain surgeon is not trained and equipped to conduct heart surgery, one would hope he denies the request to operate and calls his colleague! So too with the judge. Impartiality, after all, is necessary for a judge to be just.

Indeed, this cleanly depicts how Judge Jackson describes her own three-step judicial methodology in more detail:

  1. Remain neutral: to proceed “without fear or favor.” Before approaching any case, she clears her head of biases and prejudices.
  2. Evaluate the data: to receive all of the appropriate inputs for the case (e.g., hearings, factual records, etc.)
  3. Apply the law: to exercise the “Interpretation and application of the law to the facts in the case, and this is where I am really observing the constraints on my judicial authority.”

Regarding this last step, she may look at her jurisdiction to see if it is her place to hear the case. Like the surgeon who coolly evaluates cases and responses, one might think Judge Jackson’s methodology is sufficient for her role as a judge.

However, the surgical analogy fails on precisely the points it should help. On the one hand, it is questionable that both the surgeon and judge may coolly evaluate data. Does not collection of data require an evaluation of the case’s salient features? It would seem so, though perhaps this is a common problem. If so, it would be what I like to call a ‘work hazard’ for simply engaging in this activity and thus not uniquely problematic to this particular issue. On the other hand, the respective standards which the surgeon and judge consult and the corpus to which they apply these decisions are different. For the Constitution is not self-interpreting and is far from clear at many points. For example, whose right is it to bear arms? Moreover, the application is also an issue. For example, does the prohibition of ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment preclude the death penalty today? Both of these issues of interpretation and application require values to guide the judge.

To illuminate how a judge might offer different sentences based on different judicial philosophies, consider two prominent philosophies:

Originalism: Interpreting the legal text(s) according to the words and original context, most prominently the original author’s meaning and public understanding of the text.

Prudentialism (also known as pragmatism): Interpreting the legal text(s) according to the respective values and interests at play at the time of the case (Justice Breyer, whom Judge Jackson is to replace, exercised this methodology).

Based on the philosophy, one will have different answers to the above questions. According to originalism, “cruel and unusual” punishment might not preclude the death penalty. In other words, this could lead a judge be open to giving a sentence of the death penalty. Based on prudentialism, “cruel and unusual” may very well preclude the death penalty. Individuals’ sensibilities of what counts as cruel may differ from the original authors (e.g. are there really any “humane” methods of executing a human?) In other words, this could lead a judge to avoid such a sentencing. Indeed, based on the sharp decrease in numbers of executions since ‘99, there is good reason to think that sentimentality has shifted for what classifies as “cruel.”

I would suggest, then, that a judge not only ought to have a judicial philosophy but is required to have a judicial philosophy. A judge ought to have a judicial philosophy because it is both an obligation of the role and prudent to make explicit one’s values and interpretive methodology. A judge is required to have a judicial philosophy if only out of operational necessity. The Constitution and law must be interpreted and applied, and to take a stance on ‘no judicial philosophy’ is perhaps to take a stance on a nascent philosophy.

We could, of course, attempt to deduce Judge Jackson’s judicial philosophy. Some have pursued this route – she clearly maintains that “adherence to text is a constraint on my authority. I’m trying to figure out what those words mean as they were intended by the people who wrote them.” While such comments as this may be indicative of an originalist position, I find it more helpful to see how Judge Jackson’s minimal position is prudent and not unprecedented.

Judicial philosophies can unnecessarily be understood to signal a political philosophy. If offered in this forum, her position could very well be misunderstood and utilized to characterize her in different ways. This would not be unlikely, given some of the grandstanding and loaded questions from many senators. And Judge Jackson was admirably keen to avoid these issues and “stay in her lane.” So, regardless of whether a candidate is obliged to inform the committee or public of her position, it seems to be cautious in some respects.

Such a brief response is also not unprecedented. Consider, for example, Justice Sotomayor’s opening statement for her hearing before the Judicial Committee. When describing her judicial philosophy, Sotomayor stated that it’s

Simple: fidelity to the law. The task of a judge is not to make law, it is to apply the law. And it is clear, I believe, that my record in two courts reflects my rigorous commitment to interpreting the Constitution according to its terms, interpreting statutes according to their terms and Congress’ intent, and hewing faithfully to precedents established by the Supreme Court and by my Circuit Court.

Justice Sonya Sotomayor

It could very well be that this is a stock and trade answer for such a forum. Moreover, it is an intentionally minimal answer and thus, a cautious maneuver.

For all the prudence and precedence, however, the point stands: a judicial philosophy is distinct from methodology, and the former is necessary for a judge. While a judicial philosophy is perhaps part of a judicial methodology, it will not be the whole parcel.

Does Australia Need a Bill of Rights?

photograph of Australia High Court building

Rights are one of the most recognizable ethical tools of the modern world. They have increasingly dominated the way we think about our moral lives – as individuals, as nations and in international relations. Nearly every mature, liberal democracy has a constitutional bill or a charter of rights to which lawmakers and keepers must defer. 

Rights language has become entrenched in the way we speak, that it is often taken as fundamental. A claim that “I have a right to X” will often trump other arguments. A right is an entitlement. A right entails a duty – the right to freedom of expression entails the duty not to impede expression. In theory, if not always in practice, rights have been very important in guaranteeing the dignity, self-determination of persons. They are important because they promote those conditions necessary for well being, for humans to flourish and for society to promote that flourishing. 

But there can be a dark side to rights claims – for example a claim to the right of free speech can be used to protect racism and lies, the right to freedom of religion can be used to protect discriminatory practices and the right to bear arms, enshrined in the US constitution, has made it nearly impossible to tackle the scourge of gun violence in America. 

Some important philosophical questions about rights – what they are grounded in, what things should be considered rights, how they are protected and what to do when rights appear to clash with one another – remain a challenge. Some of these questions are central to the current national debate in Australia over whether a bill or charter of rights should be instituted. 

Australia is the only mature liberal democracy that does not have a charter or a bill of rights. Many feel that the introduction of constitutional rights is long overdue, yet others do not believe that a bill of rights is needed. In fact, many feel that such a bill might even be a hindrance to the administration of justice.  

This has manifested as a tension between ‘old constitutionalists’ who believe that the combined functions of the parliamentary and judicial system provide the best, most flexible and most democratic protections for Australians, versus those who think that the system is failing in some key areas which a bill of rights would help to rectify. 

At the time Australia’s constitution was written, early in the twentieth century, having a bill of rights as part of the constitution was rejected. It was argued that, in the words of former High Court Justice Michael Kirby, “a due process provision in such a bill of rights would undermine some of the discriminatory provisions of the law at that time.”

Some constitutional provisions function as rights provisions– such as freedom of religion. But it is the government’s legislative power which has expanded federal legislation and protected fundamental rights by creating specific statutes dealing with human rights questions or the removal of various kinds of discrimination. Many of these have been based upon Australia’s ratification of international treaties. 

Various parties feel this process has worked well because it gives flexibility to the system, where charters of pre-existing, inalienable rights can make the system inflexible. Up to now, whenever this debate has arisen, the general sense has been that Australia’s parliamentary democracy usually works reasonably well, and its citizens have usually had a high degree of trust in legislators. If they do not act justly, particularly if they act oppressively, they will be dismissed from office at the next election. 

A further objection to the introduction of a bill of rights, that such a bill would lead to a kind of ‘judicial imperialism’ by way of transferring power currently held by the legislative body, to the courts – unelected (usually white, middle-aged, male) judges. The worry is that, a bill of rights could result in the entrenchment of values of said judges into law, in a way that would prevail even over Parliamentary statutes. 

However, the argument that it would politicize the courts and allow too much power in the hands of judges, who are unelected and therefore not as accountable in the democratic system, may be losing ground. One contributing factor is this era of increased populism, from which Australia, following the results of the most recent election, is certainly not immune. In that vein, one could also add the growing  sense that people’s trust in democracy has been eroded through the influence of many different, powerful forces from corporate lobby groups to misinformation spread on social media. 

Nevertheless, the issue of flexibility is still present. As the example of the right to bear arms in the US illustrates, things which may be important fundamental rights at one time, may not be appropriate in another. Having protections enshrined as rights can make them very difficult to amend later. The Australian constitution, like the US constitution, is very difficult to alter, so the worry is that the community could be stuck with rights that end up resulting in more harm than good. 

A bill of rights drawn up now may not have the capacity to deal with problems of the future. We live in an age of such exponential technological change, we may not yet know what problems internet technology, biotechnology, genetics or artificial intelligence may pose. It is not likely that a bill of rights drawn up now would be able to predict or manage all of the issues that these advances might bring. The argument is that it is better to leave rights and responsibilities associated with these issues to be dealt with as they arise by the parliament of the day through the enactment of specific legislation. Such legislation can typically be expressed in far greater detail and specificity. 

On the other hand, the democratic system may have its own flaws when it comes to equal protections for every person. It does, of course favor the majority, and for this reason it is felt by some that a bill of rights is necessary to ensure the interests of minorities and other vulnerable individuals are equally protected. As Justice Michael Kirby, a strong advocate for a bill of rights in Australia, said in a recent address on the subject:  

Democracies look after majorities. Democracies are good in looking after majorities… In America, if President Trump does something which is considered unjust, there is provision for the appeal to the federal courts and ultimately the Supreme Court. But in Australia we have very few weapons if politicians in the majority don’t feel it is a matter they are interested in or that there are no votes in it. 

Though it is true that rights can sometimes be inflexible, and that there are difficulties in deciding what rights to enshrine, how to enforce them, and how to manage situations where they may come into conflict with one another, from the perspective of the question of how a society can best protect minorities or vulnerable individuals it is prudent to remind ourselves about the philosophical case for rights. 

The notion of inalienable rights is based on an ethical principle of equality and dignity. It is a deontological principle which has at its core the imperative to treat persons with respect, as ends in themselves but never as means to an end. This fundamental tenet is at the center of the notion of human rights. 

There have been cases in Australia over recent years in which the government, for largely political reasons, has failed in its duty to treat all people with respect and dignity. A prominent example is Australia’s treatment of refugees, holding them in indefinite detention in substandard conditions for basically political reasons. Justice Kirby argues that: 

Basically, the idea of finding the fundamental principles that bind us together and that our rules for a fair society are principles that should be bipartisan and not consigned to one side of politics.

A bill of rights would ensure that basic protections, like the right to freedom from discrimination and freedom of expression, would be guaranteed for all Australians, and all those under Australia’s protection. Minorities and the vulnerable would be protected from the possibility of legislation which would undermine these things. These protections communicate our convictions about principles like equality, justice and kindness, which is the essence of a good and free society.