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Published in Legal Theory, vol. 15 (2009).


This essay examines the ambition to taxonomize law and the different methods a legal taxonomer might employ. Three possibilities emerge. The first is a formal taxonomy that classifies legal materials according to rules of order and clarity. Formal taxonomy is primarily conventional and has no normative implications for judicial decision-making. The second possibility is a function-based taxonomy that classifies laws according to their social functions. Function-based taxonomy can influence legal decision-making indirectly, as a gatekeeping mechanism, but it does not provide decisional standards for courts. Its objective is to assist in analysis and criticism of law by providing an overview of the body of legal doctrine. The third possibility is a reason-based taxonomy that classifies legal rules and decisions according to the moral principles or “legal principles” thought to justify them. Reason-based taxonomy of this type offers courts a set of high-level decisional rules drawn from legal data. Its objective is to guide courts in deciding new cases and evaluating precedents. A predominantly formal taxonomy facilitates legal analysis and communication. A functional taxonomy can assist those who make and apply law by providing a purposive overview of the field. Reason-based taxonomy may be useful to lawmakers but is unhelpful when offered as a guide to adjudication of disputes.

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Legal taxonomy