The fundamental value in judicial ethics is impartiality. This means that a judge is duty-bound to decide cases on their merits, be open to persuasion, and not influenced by improper considerations. The paradigm case of unethical behavior by a judge is taking a bribe to decide a case in favor of one of the parties. This kind of corruption, which is fortunately rare in many developed countries, is also relatively uninteresting from an intellectual point of view. A more difficult case of failure of impartiality, conceptually speaking, involves a judge who relies on extra-legal factors as the basis for a judicial decision. Making sense of judicial ethics therefore requires a distinction between factors a judge may take into account when rendering a decision, and those which are excluded from consideration. In American legal discourse, this distinction is often stated in terms of law vs. politics, where politics is used to mean any normative view that is not incorporated into the law. In contrast with legal decisions made by actors within the executive branch of government, in which policy and ideological factors may play a role, judicial decisions are supposed to be justified solely on the basis of legal reasons.
The general theme of this paper is that the role of the judge, and the subject of judicial ethics, cannot be discussed in the abstract; the analysis must have a foundation in some view about the nature of law. Talking about legal reasons and criticizing judges for relying on non-legal reasons presupposes a tenable distinction between the legal and non-legal domains. This, of course, is one of the principal points of contention between legal positivists and their critics. On the other hand, if some kind of moral or political argument is required to differentiate between law and non-law, it is not simply an empirical matter to draw a boundary separating inside from outside. The distinction between law and non-law would be evaluative and contestable, and would make reference to the very sorts of political, ideological, and policy reasons that may or may not be part of the law. The claim that the possibility of a value-free distinction between law and non-law is untenable is at the heart of Ronald Dworkin's theory of law.
More specifically, the paper will discuss two aspects of the law-politics distinction. First, principles of judicial impartiality must take a position on the existence of judicial discretion and the problem of legal interpretation. The second area of discussion is the justification for certain restrictions imposed on judges by positive law (rules of judicial conduct, statutes, and court rules) often misleadingly referred to as rules of judicial ethics. At least in the United States, many of these restrictions purport to regulate bias and the risk that judges will not be impartial. Courts applying the rules governing judicial conduct often regulate prophylactically, by disqualifying judges from presiding over certain types of cases, based on conduct that is taken to be evidence of bias. However, the discussion of the Hart/Dworkin debate shows that the political viewpoints of judges may necessarily influence the outcomes of cases. In Dworkin's view, judging is inherently a political practice, because ascertaining the content of law is impossible without resort to normative political argument. In Hart's view, by contrast, it is possible to ascertain the content of law empirically, but there may be a further normative question about the best way to prioritize or balance competing legal considerations.
I believe the right approach to judicial ethics is to focus on the application side of the distinction between the content of law (which may or may not be susceptible of determination on the basis of social facts) and standards for its application. Where there are multiple plausible interpretations of existing cases, statutes, and other applicable legal norms, all we can reasonably expect is that a judge deliberate in good faith and reach the conclusion she believes represents the best reading of the governing law. The subject of judicial ethics is essentially an attempt to flesh out the idea of judging in good faith. That, I suggest, is fundamentally about being prepared to give reasons in justification of a judicial decision.
Date of Authorship for this Version
Judicial ethics, Ronald Dworkin, H.L.A. Hart
Wendel, W. Bradley, "Jurisprudence and Judicial Ethics" (2007). Cornell Law Faculty Publications. 96.