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The realist movement, which began in the late eighteenth century and gained force during the administration of President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, was the first to attack formalism. Realists held a skeptical attitude toward Langdellian legal science. "The life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience," Holmes wrote in 1881.

Realists held two things to be true. First, they believed that law is not a scientific enterprise in which deductive reasoning can be applied to reach a determinate outcome in every case. Instead, most litigation presents hard questions that judges must resolve by BALANCING the interests of the parties and ultimately drawing an ARBITRARY line on one side of the dispute. This line is typically drawn in accordance with the political, economic, and psychological proclivities of the judge.

For example, when a court is asked to decide whether a harmful business activity is a common-law NUISANCE, the judge must ascertain whether the particular activity is reasonable. The judge does not base this determination on a precise algebraic equation. Instead, the judge balances the competing economic and social interests of the parties, and rules in favor of the litigant with the most persuasive case. Realists would thus contend that judges who are ideologically inclined to foster business growth will authorize the continuation of a harmful activity, whereas judges who are ideologically inclined to protect the environment will not.

Second, realists believed that because judges decide cases based on their political affiliation, the law tends always to lag behind social change. For example, the realists of the late nineteenth century saw a dramatic rise in the disparity between the wealth and working conditions of rich and poor U.S. citizens following the industrial revolution. To protect society's poorest and weakest members, many states began drafting legislation that established a MINIMUM WAGE and maximum working hours for various classes of exploited workers. This legislation was part of the U.S. Progressive movement, which reflected many of the realists' concerns.

The Supreme Court began striking down such laws as an unconstitutional interference with the freedom of contract guaranteed by the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT of the U.S. Constitution. U.S. realists claimed that the Supreme Court justices were simply using the freedom-of-contract doctrine to hide the real basis of their decision, which was their personal adherence to free-market principles and laissez-faire economics. The realists argued that the free-market system was not really free at all. They believed that the economic structure of the United States was based on coercive laws such as the employment-at-will doctrine, which permits an employer to discharge an employee for almost any reason. These laws, the realists asserted, promote the interests of the most powerful U.S. citizens, leaving the rest of society to fend for itself.

Some realists only sought to demonstrate that law is neither autonomous, apolitical, nor determinate. For example, JEROME FRANK, who coined the term legal realism and later became a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, emphasized the psychological foundation of judicial decision making, arguing that a judge's decision may be influenced by mundane things like what he or she ate for breakfast. Frank believed that it is deceptive for the legal profession to perpetuate the myth that the law is clearly knowable or precisely predictable, when it is so plastic and mutable. KARL LLEWELLYN, another founder of the U.S. LEGAL REALISM movement, similarly believed that the law is little more than putty in the hands of a judge who is able to shape the outcome of a case based on personal biases.

Since the mid-1960s, this theme has been echoed by the CRITICAL LEGAL STUDIES movement, which has applied the skeptical insights of the realists to attack courts for rendering decisions based on racial, sexist, and homophobic prejudices. For example, feminist legal scholars have pilloried the Supreme Court's decision in Craig v. Boren, 429 U.S. 190, 97 S. Ct. 451, 50 L. Ed. 2d 397 (1976), for offering women less protection against governmental discrimination than is afforded members of other minority groups. Gay legal scholars similarly assailed the Supreme Court's decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186, 106 S. Ct. 2841, 92 L. Ed. 2d 140 (1986), for failing to recognize a fundamental constitutional right to engage in homosexual SODOMY. The Supreme Court's 2003 decision in LAWRENCE V. TEXAS 539 U.S. ___, 123 S. Ct. 2472, 156 L. Ed. 2d 508, that overturned the Bowers holding was a vindication for gay rights jurisprudence.

Other realists, such as ROSCOE POUND, were more interested in using the insights of their movement to reform the law. Pound was one of the original advocates of sociological jurisprudence in the United States. According to Pound, the aim of every law—whether constitutional, statutory, or case—should be to enhance the welfare of society. JEREMY BENTHAM, a legal philosopher in England, planted the seeds of sociological jurisprudence in the eighteenth century when he argued that the law must seek to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people in society. Bentham's theory, known as UTILITARIANISM, continues to influence legal thinkers in the United States.

Law and economics is one school of thought that traces its lineage to Benthamite jurisprudence. This school, also known as economic analysis of the law, argues that judges must decide cases in order to maximize the wealth of society. According to law and economics exponents, such as RICHARD POSNER, each person in society is a rational maximizer of his or her own self-interest. Persons who rationally maximize their self-interest are willing to exchange something they value less for something they value more. For example, every day in the United States, people voluntarily give up their time, money, and liberty to acquire food, property, or peace of mind. This school of thought contends that the law must facilitate these voluntary exchanges to maximize the aggregate wealth of society.

Another school of thought Bentham influenced is known as legal pragmatism. Unlike law and economics exponents, legal pragmatists provide no formula for determining the best means to improve the welfare of society. Instead, pragmatists contend that judges must merely set a goal that they hope to achieve in resolving a particular legal dispute, such as the preservation of societal stability, the protection of individual rights, or the delineation of governmental powers and responsibilities. Judges must then draft the best court order to accomplish this goal. Pragmatists maintain that judges must choose the appropriate societal goal by weighing the value of competing interests presented by a lawsuit, and then using a "grab bag" of "anecdote, introspection, imagination, common sense, empathy, metaphor, analogy, precedent, custom, memory, experience, intuition, and induction" to reach the appropriate balance (Posner 1990, 73).

Pragmatism, sometimes called instrumentalism, is best exemplified by Justice Holmes's statement that courts "decide cases first, and determine the principle afterwards." This school of thought is associated with result-oriented jurisprudence, which focuses more on the consequences of a judicial decision than on how the relevant legal principles should be applied.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Jokes to Robert Marion La FolletteJurisprudence - Formalism, Realism, The Realist-formalist Debate, Historical Jurisprudence, Contemporary Thought, Further Readings