The Volokh Conspiracy

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Traditionalizing Everything

I review Prof. Jack Balkin's new book


At Law & Liberty this week, I review Yale Law Professor Jack Balkin's new book on tradition in law, Memory and Authority. Tradition is having a moment in constitutional law, and Prof. Balkin offers an interesting and, in some respects, persuasive analysis. For example, he correctly observes that lawyers use tradition selectively, highlighting aspects of the past that support their clients' positions and downplaying others. (No great surprise there; lawyers want to win cases). He points out that traditions are often  contested and that appeals to tradition depend on listeners' identification with the past and desire to honor it–which isn't always the case, especially in 21st century America.

Notwithstanding these problems, though, Balkin argues that progressives like him should embrace traditionalism in law and adapt it to their own agendas. Prof. Balkin already considers himself an originalist; it turns out he is a traditionalist, too. I'm basically sympathetic to tradition in law, though I recognize the problems, and it's always nice to have allies. But Prof. Balkin's definition of tradition is so broad that it's not clear he's really talking about tradition at all:

[T]here are limits to how elastic tradition can be, and Balkin's own understanding of collective "constitutional memory" is so expansive that at times it hardly seems like tradition at all. For example, he praises Obergefell v. Hodges, which held that the Constitution confers a right to same-sex marriage, for its correct use of tradition. True, there is no "history of specific legal guarantees for same-sex marriage in American law." But he argues that American tradition should be understood in a broader, more sensitive way, as a commitment to animating principles. The Obergefell Court correctly saw that the reasons why Americans historically have supported marriage generally obtained in the new context of same-sex marriage as well, and applied those reasons to reach a satisfactory present-day result. One can "alter or even reject existing practices," he writes, "while being faithful to the country's traditions of liberty."

Now, one can praise or criticize the Court's reasoning in Obergefell. But to paraphrase something Grant Gilmore said about Oliver Wendell Holmes in a different context, the magician who can traditionalize Obergefell can, the need arising, traditionalize anything. Tradition refers to concrete practices and accommodations that endure across time in a community, not abstractions like "liberty" or "equality" or "dignity" or "justice." And one cannot plausibly claim that same-sex marriage is an American tradition in that sense. One must choose which traditions to follow and which to discard; that is the essence of modernity. But one cannot decide a case according to an abstract, indeterminate principle and call oneself a traditionalist. One may as well say that one is doing something new—that one is deciding a case based on one's normative commitments and leave it at that.

Memory and Authority encourages lawyers who have sympathy for the role of tradition in law to own up to the fact that they inevitably must pick and choose among the traditions that make up our legal heritage and to account for the objections of their fellow Americans who do not have the positive feelings about the past that they do. In that, the book is very valuable. In terms of constructing a persuasive argument for the use of tradition in law, though, the book does not really deliver. Balkin's "usable past" turns out to be much more about what is "usable" than what is "past," such that tradition seems to mean whatever broad principle works to get you to your present goal. That may be good or bad, but tradition it's not.

Interested readers can find the whole review here.