Wednesday, January 20, 2010

When fallacies don’t matter

The United States Supreme Court has discussed the prosecutor's fallacy in McDaniel v Brown [2010] USSC No 08-559, 11 January 2010. After several different explanations of what this fallacy is, the Court held that in this particular case the probabilities were such that even on the numbers most favourable to the accused (Mr Brown) the jury had not been wrong to convict him. The case concerned DNA so of course – to put it in Bayesean (or, if you like, Bayesian) terms which are clearer than those used by the Court - in the absence of an innocent explanation for his DNA being at the scene the denominator of the likelihood ratio was small, the ratio large, and the probative value of the evidence large.

This illustrates the point that errors in reasoning do not always matter. Hopefully this will not encourage expert witnesses to avoid accurate thinking.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Overview (4) – Reasoning with uncertainty

We can be sure about very little.

"'We reason rashly and at random,' says Timaeus in Plato, 'because our judgements, like ourselves, have in them a large element of chance.'"

Montaigne, Essays, Book One: Chapter 50, above p 130.

Uncertainty can increase the closer something is scrutinised. Our quotidian lives would be impossibly disrupted if we indulged in a Plato-like thoughtfulness, so we normally come relatively untroubled to our settled beliefs. Forensic fact-finding is fraught with difficulties that it is necessary to ignore if decisions are to be reached. There are even studies that suggest that the demeanour of a witness is not a reliable guide to his truthfulness; you may as well toss a coin. Is the only instruction a judge can sensibly give a jury the familiar exhortation to "decide what evidence you accept and what you reject" and "use your common sense"?

Some efforts to increase the accuracy of judicial fact-finding have called in aid mathematics. This approach can be given a label of convenience, but the danger is that doing so will suggest that these efforts are just passing fads. Peter Tillers, an academic from the USA, calls them the New Evidence Scholarship, and identifies three generations of this:

"The first generation of the New Evidence Scholarship emphasized the heuristic uses of mathematical analysis of evidence; it emphasized that numbers (especially as used in probability theory) could illuminate the logic and structure of factual inference in general and of particular problems of factual inference.

"The second generation of the New Evidence Scholarship focused on mathematically-laden problems of scientific evidence (e.g., DNA evidence) and on problems of factual inference that seem tractable to statistical analysis.

"The third generation of the New Evidence Scholarship (NES) also uses mathematical argument and analysis. But this variant of NES does not require or expect consumers of mathematical analysis to do computations. Instead, NES-3rd uses mathematics and computations to develop tools for deliberation about inference, tools that do not require or expect the user of the tool to do computations."

The growing recognition of the pitfalls of ignoring the logic of mathematics, and particularly the logic of probabilities, coupled with appreciation of the impracticality of requiring judges and jurors to apply complex formulae in their deliberations, is the unifying theme of this scholarship.

Each of these applications of mathematical reasoning is exemplified by cases discussed here. Sometimes mathematics is ignored when it would have been of assistance, as in Brown v Attorney-General 6 March 2005 and also Wi v R mentioned in update to note for 4 July 2008. Refinement of DNA techniques has been accompanied by recognition of increased risks of contamination and of falsely positive results: R v Hoey 2 January 2008. Applications of Bayes' Theorem have pointed to the correct way for probabilistic evidence to be given, and also to how reasoning with conditional probabilities can be fallacious: R v Bain 8 June 2009. I have collected some observations on reasoning with probabilities in a draft paper available here.

Some criticism of the use of mathematical reasoning is advanced on the basis that, since the values of the variables are a matter for dispute, the equation containing them is of no use. More moderate criticism, of the same kind, acknowledges that the equations may have limited use, although it makes too much of claimed difficulties in calculating the probability values. The latest developments in this branch of evidence are directed at meeting the points made by such critics.

I give the last words to clever old Montaigne:

" The uncertainty of my judgement is so evenly balanced in most cases that I would willingly refer the decision to a throw of the dice; and, after giving much thought to our human weakness, I observe that even sacred history has left us examples of this custom of leaving chance and fortune to make the decision in matters of doubt: 'and the lot fell upon Matthias' [Acts I, 26]."

Montaigne, Essays, Book Two: Chapter 17, above p 216.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Overview (3) - Balancing

Application of rules is the least interesting part of judicial decision making. Vastly more intellectually absorbing is the process of reaching a decision by balancing of conflicting rights, values or interests.

"... balancing introduces order into legal thought. It requires the judge to identify the relevant values; it requires the judge to address the problem of the relative social importance; it requires judges to reveal their way of thinking to themselves, as well as to others. It facilitates self-criticism and criticism from the outside. As Judge Coffin wrote:

"Open balancing restrains the judge and minimises hidden or improper personal preference by revealing every step in the thought process; it maximises the possibility of attaining collegial consensus by responding to every relevant concern of disagreeing colleagues; and it offers a full account of the decision-making process for subsequent professional assessment and public appraisal. [See Frank M Coffin, "Judicial Balancing: The Protean Scales of Justice," 63 NYULRev 16, 25 (1988).]

" Indeed, balancing is a way of thinking; it is a conceptual mentality; it is a process that leads to decision. It requires dealing with how genuinely problematic is the situation created by conflicting values. [See Frank Michelman, "The Supreme Court 1985 Term – Foreward: Traces of Self Government," 100 Harv L Rev 4, 34 (1986).]"

Aharon Barak, The Judge in a Democracy (2006), p 173.

Relatively simple balancing can occur where one person's interest is weighed against another's. An example is the determination of whether the actus reus of disorderly behaviour includes the act of singing outside the complainant's house, on the street, in daytime, and intentionally causing the complainant, a night shift worker, to lose sleep: Brooker v R 4 May 2007. Balancing here was controversial: two judges applied balancing and two applied rights limitation; see further my note dated 4 May 2007. Balancing also occurs where the issue is media access to court proceedings: Rogers v TVNZ 19 November 2007.

A more orthodox environment for balancing is the decision whether evidence should be ruled inadmissible because it was obtained improperly. A case may require two balancing exercises: one to determine whether there had been an impropriety in the obtaining of the evidence, and, if there had, the other to determine whether that evidence is admissible: R v Singh 2 November 2007.

The exercise of anticipating the result of an admissibility decision can be approached by lawyers in different ways: by studying how judges have arrived at such decisions, or by studying the results of those decisions and identifying the pattern of precedents. A statute may tell judges what factors to take into account, and what the criterion for decision is (for example, whether exclusion of the evidence is proportionate to the impropriety (s 30(2)(b) Evidence Act 2006[NZ]). Anticipating the weight that will be given to each factor and where the balance will rest is not easy without reference to precedent, and for this reason lawyers may more easily focus on the results in similar cases.

The Supreme Court of Canada has offered an explanation of the way judges should reach their decisions in balancing cases involving improperly obtained evidence: R v Grant 18 July 2009, and has illustrated it in R v Harrison 19 July 2009. The conceptual model of the decision was described by the Chief Justice as a "decision tree". It has difficulties which are reflected in its three-dimensional structure. In New Zealand there has been a transition from the pre-Bill of Rights Act 1990 spectrum model to a period of rule application during the early days of the Bill of Rights, to a discretionary approach now enacted as the abovementioned s 30 Evidence Act 2006. The current balancing is two dimensional and precedents can easily be placed on a diagram which makes predictions of results a relatively simple task. At least, it's a simple task for people who are not afraid of diagrams.

Another form of judicial balancing occurs where a decision has to be made about whether the probative value of evidence is outweighed by the risk that the evidence will have an unfairly prejudicial effect on the proceeding. This balancing is familiar throughout the jurisdictions that have laws of evidence (not including, for example, the civil law countries of continental Europe, although a similar balancing is seen in Germany: Gafgen v Germany 3 July 2008). It is not an easy weighing exercise on which to construct a conceptual model as in each case the judge's perception of the risk of prejudice is very much a personal matter. There was unanimity that certain evidence should be excluded under this weighing exercise in the New Zealand Supreme Court in Bain v R 12 June 2009, but, before the case got to the five judges of that court, four judges had held the disputed evidence admissible. It is arguable that this weighing exercise is misconceived because it leaves room for significant risk of prejudice if the probative value is assessed as high. The decision could better be put as whether admission of the evidence would create an unacceptable risk of unfairness. That would avoid weighing altogether.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Overview (2) – Standards of proof

[I have seen that this is an oft-visited posting. For revision and updates, check the link to the introductory essay. Other entries this month are compiled there. Where a case is named with an associated date, that date refers to another posting on this site.]

The expression "standard" of proof refers to the level of proof required, and is not to be confused with the expression "burden" of proof, which refers to which side has to prove an issue. The usage is, who has the burden, and to what standard?

There are at least two standards of proof in criminal law: proof beyond reasonable doubt, and proof on the balance of probabilities. Sometimes more standards are recognised: the standard of a reasonable doubt, as where a presumption applies, rebuttable by proof to the contrary (this is sometimes called, confusingly in the light of the usage I have set out above, the evidential "burden"); and a flexible approach to the balance of probabilities, where many standards or levels of proof might be recognised as appropriate depending on the seriousness of the issue. As to proof of a reasonable doubt, this is not recognised as a standard in New Zealand (R v Hansen, 19 September 2005 and 20 February 2007) but it is in the United Kingdom (R v Lambert 19 September 2005, 12 December 2008, and s 2 Drugs Act 2005[UK] which is yet to be brought into force by a Commencement Order). Other standards are sometimes referred to on appeals, where the appellant must satisfy the court that in the absence of an error at trial there was a "real chance" of a more favourable verdict. This "real chance" is less than on the balance of probabilities (Chamberlains v Lai 11 September 2006).

How do we know when a standard has been reached? At this point Montaigne again intrudes his mischievous little pen:
"'As the scale of the balance must necessarily sink when weights are placed upon it, so must the mind yield to clear proof' [Cicero, Academica, II, 12]. The emptier a mind is, and the less counterpoise it has, the more easily it sinks under the weight of the first argument. That is why children, the common people, women, and the sick are particularly apt to be led by the ears."
Montaigne, Essays, Book One: Chapter 27, above pp 86 – 87.

Naughty Michel.

Courts are notoriously unwilling to assist juries by elaborating on the meaning of "beyond reasonable doubt". This is shameful. It is one of the law's little dishonesties that favour the prosecution. It is said that it is no use likening the standard to a given probability of proof, because people disagree on what the probabilities are. This is daft. The variation in what people think proof beyond reasonable doubt equates to in probabilities is astonishing (R v Wanhalla 25 August 2006). If people have not even a general idea of what beyond reasonable doubt means, how can they decide whether proof meets that standard?

Aversion to mathematical analogies is one of the law's shameful inadequacies. It reflects the stage in school when pupils, at age about 14, are divided into "arts" and "science" streams. Lawyers and judges are usually from an arts background, and have been brought up to think they cannot achieve an understanding of mathematics or science. At the same time, and ironically, lawyers and judges pride themselves on their logical reasoning. It will be interesting to see what moves are made in this area by the High Court of Australia now that it has a Chief Justice (Bob French) who has a science background. (Naturally Australian counsel are alert to the need for change: my thanks to Jeremy Gans for drawing my attention to Clarke v R [2009] HCA Trans 336 (11 December 2009) in which special leave to appeal was refused by Crennan and Bell JJ.)

Areas of uncertainty exist. There is some doubt as to whether a standard of proof applies to a "risk", such as the risk of danger to the public if a person is released on bail (O v Crown Court at Harrow 31 July 2006) or on parole (Re McClean 19 July 2005). There is also doubt as to what, if any, standard of proof applies to proof of similar facts (R v Perrier and R v Holtz 14 October 2004; HML v R 26 April 2008). Sometimes the choice of standard appears inappropriate, such as the application of only the balance of probabilities to proof that evidence tendered to the court was not obtained by torture in another country (A v Secretary of State for the Home Department 9 December 2005), and there is still work to be done on what if any standard applies to the likelihood of unfair trial or of inhumane treatment in a foreign jurisdiction if the person is extradited (Gomes v Trinidad and Tobago 1 May 2009).

It seems intuitive that serious issues should require proof to a higher standard than issues that are less serious. This leads to difficulties where the law insists that a standard, usually the balance of probabilities, is fixed. The Supreme Court of Canada does not acknowledge that the standard is flexible, and it maintains that the degree of caution with which proof is assessed is the same whether the issue is serious or less so: FH v McDougall 19 October 2008. The opposite position is taken in the Strasbourg court: Saadi v Italy 11 December 2006, and this is probably the same as that taken in New Zealand: Z v Dental Complaints Assessment Committee 25 July 2008.

Another area where discussion of standard of proof has occurred is the fundamental requirement for evidence to be "relevant" before it can be admissible. Relevance usually means having a tendency to prove a matter of consequence to the determination of the proceedings. Variations on that formula occur, but the essence is "a tendency to prove". Serious discussions occur in the academic literature about what this means. What if an item of evidence has a small tendency to prove one thing, but a greater tendency to prove another? Is it relevant as evidence of the first thing? What if the item of evidence has only a very slight tendency to prove a matter in issue? In Bain v R 12 June 2009 the Supreme Court of New Zealand split on whether indistinct sounds were relevant on a recorded telephone call, the majority holding that to establish relevance it is necessary that the interpretation of the evidence advanced by its proponent be "reasonably" open or available. Further thought was given to relevance in Wi v R (see update to note for 4 July 2008) where the accused sought to adduce evidence that he had no previous convictions. This sort of problem calls for statistical analysis, but the New Zealand Supreme Court did not take that opportunity.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Overview (1) – Interpreting the proviso

This introductory part continues with my overview of important topics that are often addressed by the appellate courts in criminal cases. Where I refer to cases with accompanying dates, those are dates of blog postings on the Blogger site; on the WordPress site the dates may be a day out due to clock settings on the servers.

First overview topic ...

Interpreting the proviso – what is a "substantial miscarriage of justice"?

For around 100 years courts have dealt with criminal appeals by determining whether an error in the trial court amounted to a "substantial miscarriage of justice", but very little of that time has been spent examining what that phrase means. It has been found to be a difficult concept. Some courts have tried to achieve clarity on a case-by-case basis, but the alternatives of legislative change (in the UK since 1995 the criterion has been whether the conviction is "unsafe"), and of ignoring the recent judicial efforts by going back to fundamental statutory interpretation, have also been taken.

Courts that continue to address the meaning of substantial miscarriage of justice identify one characteristic as whether the error could have affected the outcome of the trial in a way adverse to the accused. This leads to the further question: does the appellate court ask whether the jury at trial could have reached a different conclusion, or does it ask whether it – the appellate court – would have reached that different conclusion? There is a split between courts according to which answer they give to that question.

The Privy Council has remained faithful to the traditional view that the answer is that the appellate court asks whether the jury could have reached a different conclusion. The High Court of Australia has changed its approach (Weiss, noted 16 January 2006) and, scrapping the case law and returning to principles of statutory interpretation, it decided that the appellate court asks whether it itself could have reached a different conclusion. The Supreme Court of New Zealand has reacted against the Privy Council's traditional treatment of Bain (see, for example, note for 9 July 2009) by adopting (in Matenga 20 July 2009) much of the High Court of Australia's new approach. In turn, on a subsequent appeal from New Zealand (Barlow 9 July 2009), the Privy Council has felt itself obliged to follow the new line but has emphasised that under this new approach the result in Bain would have been the same. The lingering problem for subsequent would-be appellants is how to get the Supreme Court to hear an appeal if it is based only on advocating a different interpretation of the evidence from that taken by the Court of Appeal.

Independent of the effect on the outcome of the trial, another characteristic of a substantial miscarriage of justice is that the error at trial deprived the accused of a fair hearing. The Privy Council made the right to a fair hearing absolute, and that is uncontroversial now, although before then another approach, in which the accused's right to a fair hearing could have been balanced against the rights of victims and of society, was possible. It is one thing to hold that the right to a fair hearing is absolute, but what is a "fair" hearing?

The meaning of fair hearing will need to be consistent with the place of that concept in the "substantial miscarriage of justice" model. The model that has emerged – and which may well be unintended – in Matenga is that the first question is whether the hearing was fair; if it was, the second question is whether the result of the hearing may have been different in the absence of the error. At first glance this Matenga model sounds fine: it places fairness of hearing as the primary requirement, and that looks like being an appropriate reflection of its quality of absoluteness. It requires the appeal to be allowed if the trial may have been unfair. But the difficulty is, what does fair trial mean if the trial may have been fair but also may have contained an error that amounted to a substantial miscarriage of justice? Logically, it seems odd to make the set of fair trials intersect with the set of trials involving a substantial miscarriage of justice.

A clearer concept of a fair hearing would require a different relationship between fairness and substantial miscarriage of justice. Under this model, a fair trial would be one in which there was no substantial miscarriage of justice, and that means one in which the law was properly applied to facts that had been determined impartially. Here, an impartial determination of facts presupposes an unbiased tribunal and also a tribunal that is not deflected from impartiality by errors of law. There is thus room for some errors of law, and it is usual to recognise that perfection is not always attained, but errors of law that affect the impartial determination of facts are not permitted. Nor are errors of law in applying the substantive law to properly determined facts, if such errors may have affected the result in a way adverse to the appellant. A trial may seem to have been fair but afterwards fresh evidence may cast doubt on the correctness of the verdict; in such cases there would be a substantial miscarriage of justice, albeit with the trial only having been retrospectively unfair, and the appeal would have to be allowed.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Introduction (4) – the quest for clarity

How wonderful it would be if laws could be simple. The quest for simplicity struggles against the head wind of reality: life is complicated. Laws have to be applied in individual cases, often to facts that were never anticipated by legislators. It is inevitable that even simple laws will accrue complex shades of meaning as judges adapt them to meet the requirements of justice in particular cases in accordance with an imagined legislative intent.

"The truth is that a close knowledge of the facts is essential, not because of the precedent system, but as a prerequisite to doing justice in the particular case. The facts are the fount of individual justice."

EW Thomas, The Judicial Process (2005) p 321.

If simplicity is an impossible goal, clarity is not. Clear laws are essential, no matter how complicated they may have to be. There has to be a lot of law, so at least it should be clear law. Otherwise,

"As we once suffered from crimes, so now we are suffering from laws."

Tacitus, Annals, III, XXV, quoted by Montaigne, Essays, Book Three, Chapter 13.

There is a risk that

"Anything that is divided into minute grains becomes confused."

Seneca, Letters, LXXXIX, quoted by Montaigne, ibid.

The counter-measure is the quest for clarity.

Montaigne's opinion of laws could have been written, not in the sixteenth century, but today:

"Now the laws maintain their credit, not because they are just, but because they are laws. This is the mystical basis of their authority; they have no other. And this serves them well. They are often made by fools, and more often by men who, out of hatred for equality, are lacking in equity, but always by men: vain and unstable creators. There is nothing so grossly and widely, nor so ordinarily faulty as the laws."

Montaigne, ibid.

Schopenhauer's advice to writers needs to be borne in mind by law makers – legislators and judges - as well as by law teachers, students and law commentators:

"Obscurity and vagueness of expression is always and everywhere a very bad sign: for in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred it derives from vagueness of thought, which in turn comes from an original incongruity and inconsistency in the thought itself, and thus from its falsity. If a true thought arises in a head it will immediately strive after clarity and will soon achieve it: what is clearly thought, however, easily finds the expression appropriate to it. The thoughts a man is capable of always express themselves in clear, comprehensible and unambiguous words. Those who put together difficult, obscure, involved, ambiguous discourses do not really know what they want to say: they have no more than a vague consciousness of it which is only struggling towards a thought: often, however, they also want to conceal from themselves and others that they actually have nothing to say."

Schopenhauer, "On books and writing" in Essays and Aphorisms, above pp 204-205.

Much of legal discourse requires clarity about things that are not absolute. The exercise of discretion, judgment, requires a relinquishing of faith in absolutes. Petulant old (at 42 years) Nietzsche reminds us:

"Really, why should we be forced to assume that there is an essential difference between 'true' and 'false' in the first place? Isn't it enough to assume that there are degrees of apparency and, so to speak, lighter and darker shadows and hues of appearance – different valeurs
[values], to use the language of painters?"

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, above p 35.

So, don't be afraid of complexity, but strive for clarity.

"Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be put into words can be put clearly."

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, para 4.116.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Introduction (3) – The law teachers

Having described appellate judges as being happily regressed to studious habits, I should turn to consider the law teachers. Academic life has changed, probably rather a lot, since Benson, who was in 1906 a Fellow of Magdalene College at Cambridge, described his day:

"My own occupations, such as they are, fill the hours from breakfast to luncheon and from tea to dinner; men of sedentary lives, who do a good deal of brain-work, find an hour or two of exercise and fresh air a necessity in the afternoon."

AC Benson, From a College Window (1906), p 72.

I first read those bewitching words as an 18 year old undergraduate. A little impractical though they may be, they reflect the romantic ideal of the scholarly life. The reality is hugely different. Nietzsche was, as one would expect, scornful of scholars:

"Every age has invented its own divine type of naivete, which other periods may find enviable – and how much naivete, how much admirable, childlike, and endlessly foolish naivete lies in the scholar's faith in his own superiority, in his good conscience for being tolerant, in the simple clueless confidence with which he instinctively treats the religious person as an inferior and lower type, one that he himself has grown away from, grown beyond, grown above – he, the presumptuous little dwarf and vulgarian, the diligent darting headworker and handworker of 'ideas', of 'modern ideas'!"

F Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Trans. M Faber, Oxford World's Classics 1998, pp 52-53.

Well, Benson was certainly not that sort of scholar. Nietzsche did try to say some good things about scholars ...

"... what is a man of learning? A common sort of man, first of all, with a common man's virtues, that is to say, neither masterful nor authoritative nor even self-sufficient. He is industrious, patiently joining the rank and file, conforming and moderate in his abilities and needs."

Ibid, p 96.

But those good sentiments didn't last the whole paragraph:

"... he is rich in petty envy and has a lynx-eye for what is base in those other natures whose heights he is unable to reach. ... The worst and most dangerous things that a scholar is capable of come from the instinct of his type to mediocrity ... ."

Ibid, pp 96-97.

Montaigne too thought that scholars sink beneath the load that they have taken up:

" ... That is why we see so many inadequate minds among scholars; more, in fact, than of the other kind. They would have made good farmers, good tradesmen, good craftsmen; their natural strength was cut to that measure.

" Learning is a thing of great weight, and they collapse under it; their understanding is not powerful or adroit enough to display and distribute that rich and potent material, to make use of it and get help from it."

Montaigne, Essays, Book Three, Chapter 8, above p 297.

I suppose things have improved a bit, due to the commercialisation of tertiary education and the beneficial effects of competition among universities for status, among students for grades, and among graduates for employment. High educational standards are in high demand. Students, especially those paying high fees, demand excellence in their teachers. The grades awarded to students can be seen as a reflection of the teachers' ability to teach, as one of Dershowitz's teachers admitted (above, p 70). Dershowitz also notes (pp 105-106) that if law teachers lack experience in practice they cannot adequately teach the practical skills sought by employers.

Is scholarly writing by law teachers only of use to students and appellate judges?

Posner observes that legal scholarship in general has as a marked characteristic a weak sense of fact (Overcoming Law, 1995, p 172). Also,

"The academic usually does not attend oral argument or even read the briefs in the cases that he writes about or teaches. Naturally, therefore, he tends to ascribe more importance to the opinion, to its reasoning, its rhetoric, and so forth, than to the decision itself. Yet these are the secondary factors for most judges."

Richard Posner, Overcoming Law, above, pp 129-130.

Academics, it seems, fail to appreciate the judicial point of view:

"Many judges think that academics do not understand the aims and pressures of judicial work and that as a result much academic criticism of judicial performance is captious, obtuse, and unconstructive. This sense is shared even by appellate judges, engaged in the quasi-scholarly work of opinion writing, including appellate judges appointed from the professoriat."

Richard Posner, How Judges Think (2008), p 205.

He notes that "law schools still have a long way to go to overcome the shameful aversion of most law students to math, statistics, science, and technology" (ibid, p 209). Constructive legal scholarship would get to grips with tidying up the "messy work product of judges and legislators" by "synthesis, analysis, restatement, and critique" (p 210).

"It falls to the law professors to clean up after the judges by making explicit in treatises, articles, and restatements the rules implicit in the various lines of cases, identifying outliers, explicating policy grounds, and charting the path of future development. This type of scholarship resembles appellate judging because it is the kind of thing one could imagine the judges themselves doing had they the time and the specialised knowledge."

Richard Posner, How Judges Think (2008), p 211.

I have relied heavily on Posner's views, as he is an appellate judge, and as a practitioner I only rarely look at academic writing. My impression is that it would be very unusual for counsel to cite academic writing (other than statute-commentary text books) in written submissions. Judges sometimes cite academic articles, but I - perhaps unfairly - perceive an element of cronyism in that.

Be that as it may, the conclusion I draw from these various thoughts is that law would best be taught by retired appellate judges.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Introduction (2) On judges

It is not unusual for a lawyer whose case on appeal is rejected to think that the judges have twisted the facts to suit that result. Montaigne, although not talking specifically about judges, suggested this sort of twisting is a product of intelligence:

"Men of intelligence notice more things and view them more carefully, but they comment on them; and to establish and substantiate their interpretation, they cannot refrain from altering the facts a little. They never present things just as they are but twist and disguise them to conform to the point of view from which they have seen them; and to gain credence for their opinion and make it attractive, they do not mind adding something of their own, or extending and amplifying."

Montaigne, "On Cannibals", Essays Book One Chapter 31, above p 108.

The style that Montaigne thought appropriate for advocates compliments this judicial twisting of the facts. It gives the judge as much as possible to work with. It is the style he attributed to Cicero: long drawn-out preliminaries including preambles, definitions, classifications and etymologies, time-wasting dissections and beatings about the bush,

"Cicero's way is right for addressing a judge whom one wishes to convince by fair means or foul, or for using on children, and the common people, with whom nothing must be left unsaid, in the hope that something will hit the mark."

Montaigne, "On Books" Essays Book Two, Chapter 10, above p 166.

Today this technique extends to the filing of overly prolix written submissions. It is as if the more that is said, the more likely it is that the judge will agree with something that is said.

Modern commentators can be even less charitable about judicial fact finding. Alan Dershowitz asserts that the political nature of judicial appointments in the United States means that judges who wish to be promoted should side against criminals:

"The heavy thumb of careerism is on the scale of justice in nearly every criminal case, certainly in high-profile cases involving unpopular defendants."

Dershowitz, Letters to a Young Lawyer, 2001, p 120.

Richard Posner complains that

"Too many of our judicial opinions contain unexamined assumptions, conventional and perhaps shallow pieties, and confident assertions bottomed on prejudice and folklore."

Posner, The Problems of Jurisprudence, 1990, p 97.

He also observes that

"Appellate judges in our system often can conceal the role of personal preferences in their decisions by stating the facts selectively, so that the outcome seems to follow from them inevitably, or by taking liberties with precedents."

Posner, How Judges Think 2008, p 144.

Montaigne's observation on the way intelligent people tend to think could have been made, not 500 years ago, but today. Human nature can lead judges to find the facts to be as they want them to be. The appellate judges, who do not usually hear oral evidence, have, despite their protestations to the contrary, as much power to evaluate the evidence and to criticise a lower court's reasoning as the fact-finding courts have power in the guise of assessment of credibility.

The deference that appellate judges profess for the factual determinations of lower courts may be as sham as the deference given to judges by counsel. Deference attaches to the power exercised by judges, and is just as transient.

"Like that accorded to wealthy people, this deference is of the shallowest kind: as soon as the judge loses office, as soon as the wealthy person loses money, the deference ceases. Sensitive people realize this, but it does not eliminate the pleasure of being treated in a respectful manner. The republican simplicity of manners – the "I'm no better than the next guy" deportment – that most American judges affect is intended to be admired rather than to be taken seriously. Judges receive deference because they have power, and the power resides in their votes. They don't have much power (Supreme Court Justices are an important exception, and the petty tyranny of the trial judge is well known) and they are not much deferred to (with the same exceptions). But such deference as they do receive comes from their being, like wealthy people, more powerful than most people, not from being – like athletes, popular entertainers, war heroes, saints, and scientists – admired. Most judges are quickly forgotten after they leave office."

Richard Posner, Overcoming Law (1995) pp 120-121.

The difference in manners between the friendly informality of the superior court judges and the petty tyranny that is sometimes seen in the lower courts is probably universal. Working conditions vary, and the highly pressured muddle of lower court proceedings may contribute to a judge's bad manners. So too may inability to cope:

"A man who overestimates his capacities is apt to grow impatient, and even tyrannical, in the presence of difficulties."

AC Benson, From a College Window (1906), p 276.

The kind of judge who is suited to appellate work may have a personality that is not naturally given to unpleasantness, or that is not inclined to react to high pressure and disorder by unpleasantness:

" ... judging, especially at the appellate level, is an introvert's profession ..."

Richard Posner, How Judges Think (2008), p 137.

It may be that the pleasantness of high level judges is due, apart from their indulgence in the hypocrisy of a "republican simplicity of manners" or their relatively orderly and unpressured working conditions, to their having regressed to the kind of work they did at law school. Judgment writing is a scholarly activity, and the level of scholarship is often higher than that attained by the law teachers. This brings me to my point of view on these judges: they are scholars. Sometimes they are overeager to show their cleverness, especially when promotion may be a possibility. Usually they are like ambitious honours students.

Judges at the appellate levels have an educative function. Their judgments are often like extracts from text books or specialist treatises, and as such they are designed to be studied. Some of us do study them.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Introduction (1) – the point of view

"To find a congenial subject, and to express that subject as lucidly, as sincerely, as frankly as possible, appears to me to be the most delightful occupation in the world."

AC Benson, "From a College Window" (1906) p 208

Benson's subject was human nature, and this book is required reading for any educated person. My congenial subject is criminal law, and my highly technical approach to it will be of interest to only a few. I have tried here to describe its recent developments lucidly and sincerely, but not necessarily as frankly as I could have. This is not the occasion for absolute frankness, for the law of contempt must be borne in mind, and it is more sensible to confine myself to the "delightful occupation" of attaining mastery of the subject. But first things first. What do some of western civilisation's really wise guys have to say about tackling a subject? Schopenhauer described the process of attaining mastery:

"... only through ordering what you know by comparing every truth with every other truth can you take complete possession of your knowledge and get it into your power. You can think about only what you know, so you ought to learn something; on the other hand, you can only know what you have thought about."

A Schopenhauer, "On thinking for yourself" in Essays and Aphorisms (trans.RJ Hollingdale, Penguin Classics 1970) p 89

My aim is to learn what judges have said about the law, to think about those dicta, and to compare the emergent "truths" in order to make the subject mine. In considering the opinions of judges it is more important to be sincere – that is, honest - and respectful than it is to be frank.

"One of the many excellent customs of our ancestors was their invariably respectful treatment of experts in the interpretation of our excellent law."

Cicero, "On Duties (II)", in Cicero: On the Good Life (trans. Michael Grant, Penguin Classics 1971) p 156.

Cicero also said, controversially, that it is more honourable for a lawyer to defend than to prosecute (ibid, p 145). My opinion is that when they are done properly both prosecuting and defending are equally honourable. Neither role necessarily requires frankness but both involve respect. It is apt to consider Montaigne's observation:

"It suits our imagination better to think of a craftsman on the close-stool or on top of his wife, than of a Chief Justice, venerable for his bearing and his talents, in the same position."

Michel de Montaigne, "On Repentance", in Essays (trans. JM Cohen, Penguin Books 1958) p 241.

Yes, judges defecate and copulate, some perhaps not as much as they should, but I am not here concerned with judges as people. I do not aim to inquire into whatever intrigues and stratagems may be found between the lines of their decisions. At the same time, I am not a naive toady. Like Schopenhauer (above, p 218), I concede a superior judgment to nobody. And the application of that judgment to the work of judges is an intense intellectual exercise, and like all such exercises is "the most wonderful spiritual nourishment in the world" (Cicero, "Discussions at Tusculum V", above p 87).

Sunday, January 03, 2010

And now for something completely different ...

Posts to this site will continue. There will be a new approach. Instead of a commentary on new cases as they are decided, I will post occasional observations on topics which should be of interest to advanced students and practitioners.