Sunday, September 28, 2008

Judges as scholars

Who are top of the heap, judges or academics?

Should academics be allowed to slap down judges for their indulgence in scholarship when they should be simply deciding cases? Do judges have a responsibility to bring realism to the dreamy theorising of academics?

The senior judges write much of their decisions for the benefit of law students and lawyers. Who else is going to read them, especially when there is no right of appeal? Legal education does not stop at the end of the final classroom session. Indeed, the learning of the law barely starts at law school, even though significant skills and knowledge may be acquired there.

Academics learn the law primarily from judges. To the limited extent that they can bring anything new to the law, academics may be able to point to ways of resolving the contradictions that can arise in case law, by devoting time to research. Research in law usually means looking at the way the same problem has been addressed or avoided by courts in other jurisdictions. If academics expect judges to pay attention to their research, can they criticise judges for doing research of their own? There is no monopoly on the application of legal skills.

Thoughts such as these are prompted by the recently published study by Professor James Allan, Professor Grant Huscroft, and PhD candidate Nessa Lynch, "The Citation of Overseas Authority in Rights Litigation in New Zealand: How Much Bark? How Much Bite?" (2007) Otago Law Review Vol 11 No 3, downloadable here. See also this article in the New York Times, which refers to that article and to several other studies.

A spectacular example of judicial scholarship, which some might say was at the expense of judgment (I don't know whether it was or was not), occurred last week in the New Zealand Court of Appeal: Lab Tests Ltd v Auckland District Health Board [2008] NZCA 385. This is not a criminal case, but don't be alarmed. Just look at the judgment of Hammond J, which starts at para 348. The approach here is cheerful, learned, and above all interesting. Hammond J, a former Dean of the Auckland University Law School, mentions - without condescension - the conflicting views of academic commentators. This is apparently effortless scholarship, and will surely be the envy of academics. It demonstrates that legal learning can be great fun.

A cynical view of judicial scholarship seems to underlie the Otago study cited above :

"Increasingly judges act as academics, giving speeches, participating in conferences, writing law review articles, and contributing to books – if not writing them... Like academics, they are keen to expand their influence, and that of their courts. Rights are a language that is spoken internationally, and judges are writing not simply for domestic but also for overseas audiences – especially other judges and academics, all of whom may promote and further disseminate their decisions. It is not only individual judges who are keen to promote their decisions internationally. Courts are keen to promote and disseminate their decisions internationally as well...."[footnotes omitted] (p 11).

This seems to be a human failing (p 12):

"In all likelihood, personal relationships also play an important role; friendships between judges from different countries – perhaps formed through meetings at academic and judicial conferences – may lead them to cite the decisions of their respective courts. Growth in the use of court clerks is another contributing factor. Left on their own, many judges would have little time or inclination for the sort of research that rights-based internationalism demands. Increasingly, however, courts utilize clerks and executive-type legal officers, many of whom are recent law school graduates and, as a result, likely to be conversant in overseas case law, if not enthusiastic proponents of it."

On this appraisal, the motives for judicial scholarliness are influence-seeking, and friendship-forging, assisted by subservience to law clerks. Winning friends and influencing people might be by-products, but I doubt that anything other than the joy of scholarship is the real motivation for doing what academics would like to think academics do best.

And why shouldn’t judges be scholars? They have plenty of time for it, as do lawyers. At least Dr Johnson thought they did, as noted by Boswell (Life of Johnson, narrative for Thursday 6th April 1775):

“No, Sir, there is no profession to which a man gives a very great proportion of his time. It is wonderful, when a calculation is made, how little the mind is actually employed in the discharge of any profession. No man would be a judge, upon the condition of being totally a judge. The best employed lawyer has his mind at work but for a small proportion of his time; a great deal of his occupation is merely mechanical.”

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