Proportionality and the Rule of Law

As you know – although I’m sure you wouldn’t admit it in front of your drinking buddies – there are few more enjoyable ways of spending a wet Queen’s Birthday holiday weekend than by struggling to understand a book written in technical language that you feel you should understand.

So it is with Proportionality and the Rule of Law: Rights, Justification, Reasoning (CUP, 2014), a collection of essays by 18 contributors, edited by Grant Huscroft, Bradley W Miller, and Grégoire Webber.

I can only speak of the Introduction, as the book is rather expensive, and even the ebook seems over-priced. At least Amazon gives us a free sample, which includes the very excellent (as opposed to sort-of excellent?) Introduction by the editors.

So my little game, if you think of it like that, is to translate into ordinary lawyers’ English the technical language of the Introduction. But beware of the risk that I do this with a clarity born of misunderstanding.

“Proportionality” has a range of meanings and can refer to a method or to a goal of decision-making. I wouldn’t want to confuse it with other kinds of decision-making, such as logic, formalism (the application of rules to facts), morality (what would be the morally right decision), pragmatism (what result would work), although there can be some overlap.

Balancing of competing values is a proportionality method of decision-making. So is the rather different ends/means balancing, but this can be seen as a method or as a goal. Using reasonableness to limit what is acceptable is also a proportionality method. Sometimes proportionality endangers rights, in balancing them against other values, and sometimes it compromises moral values, where what is right yields to a greater right or some greater interest.

What happens to rights in proportionality reasoning can vary. Rights are not necessarily eroded in the balancing process, which will usually recognise their enhanced weight by virtue of their status as rights, but if an issue of limitation is being considered then there is a risk of erosion if proportionality requires that.

Proportionality can require recognition of the autonomy and dignity of the person, and this may guide the interpretation of legislation. Legislators, however, may have a greater awareness of rights and social interests than do courts, so executive decisions should be judged by their method rather than their outcome. This concern would limit the role of proportionality reasoning. Indeed, it is arguable (although I am not convinced by this) that proportionality is too abstract a method to be of use to judges.

You could say that morality is important and that proportionality reasoning is not a complete method for judicial decision-making. There are risks attending proportionality reasoning: irrelevancies may be taken into account, things that are doubtful may be treated as certainties, a judge may yield too much to extraneous determinations, aspects of the public good may be ignored, and a judge may have resort to a personal political philosophy.

In their conclusion to the Introduction the editors ask some pertinent questions, which the essays apparently leave the reader to consider. I put these in my own words, sacrificing the subtleties. Does proportionality erode rights? What about absolute rights? Should judges take more account of the reasons that motivate enactments? Should legislators, rather than the courts, use proportionality reasoning? Where proportionality reasoning includes morality, does it prefer some moral theories over others? How should the dangers of proportionality reasoning by courts be overcome?

Well, it’s a shame that the book is so expensive. Too expensive to read. Hopefully my clumsy summary of its Introduction will make some of the essayists’ interesting ideas more accessible.

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I doubt, therefore I am, but what are you?

In Seeing Things as They Are (OUP, 2015) John R Searle gives idealism a long-deserved slap. “There is something tragic about the massive waste of time involved in the whole tradition of idealism.” (P 93, footnote 10, if my Kindle app pagination is accurate.) Idealism is that philosophy which claims that the only things we have perceptual access to are our own subjective experiences: all we can ever perceive are our own subjective impressions and ideas (Descartes, Berkeley, Hume), we can never have knowledge of things in themselves (Kant), we can only perceive sense data (Ayer). Searle’s position is that idealism leaves us with essentially an unbelievable conception of our relation to the world (p 231).

I am not able to review the book, [Update: here is a review by Josh Armstrong in the LA Review of Books.], but you may wish to view this YouTube clip of a seminar conducted by Searle which substantially overlaps the subject-matter of this book and gives a sense of the technical language generated by philosophical contemplation of perception. Searle makes an interesting observation about El Greco and whether the painter had defective vision (p 141):

“The hypothesis … that he painted distorted figures because a normal stimulus looks distorted to him makes no sense, because if he is reproducing on the canvas what produces distortions in him, then he will simply reproduce what looks normal to the rest of us.”

This has implications not mentioned by Searle but which will occur to lawyers. Would El Greco have described in words an obviously distorted image? Are errors in one mode of perception only apparent to other people when translated into a different mode of communication? If a witness describes what was seen, will that description necessarily correspond to the witness’s visual perception? How should a verbal description of what was seen be checked? Judicial accounts of how facts are determined give no assurance of their correspondence with reality. As EW Thomas observes in The Judicial Process (CUP, 2005) at p 321, “The facts are the fount of individual justice” but there is scope for improvement in the ways they are determined. For example, there is too much weight placed on the demeanour of witnesses (324), and truth, as far as the system will permit “can be gleaned from a close reading of the contemporaneous documentation, if any, or an analysis of the probabilities intrinsic to the circumstances and about which there may be little or no dispute” (325). As a senior appellate judge, Thomas cautions that

“what judges must not do is fill an unresolvable gap with a judicial ‘hunch’. To do so is to succumb in part to what I have perhaps unkindly labelled the ‘God Syndrome’. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the God Syndrome settles on some judges shortly after their appointment to the Bench … [and] many appellate judgments would be edified if judges at that level did not show an unhealthy preparedness to adopt a version of the facts which cannot be found in the [trial] judge’s findings of fact or in the transcript of the evidence itself. … The God Syndrome does not strike at first instance only.” (326)

The resort to assessment of probabilities to assist in determining facts is also referred to by Richard A Posner in How Judges Think (Harvard UP, 2008). He uses (65) Bayesian decision theory to illustrate how, before a witness even testifies, a judge will have formed an estimate that the testimony will be truthful, based on experience with witnesses in similar cases (including when the judge was a lawyer), on a general sense of the honesty of the class of persons to which the witness belongs, or even the way in which the witness enters court and approaches the witness box. It would, says Posner (67), be irrational for judges to purge themselves of this way of thinking. And the sneakiness of some appellate judges does not escape Posner’s comment (144):

“   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.”

(I mention in passing – just to show that some judges do read each other’s books – that at 261 footnote 63 Posner cites Thomas’s book.) Posner had also discussed the difficulties of ascertaining, from evidence given in the courtroom, the reality of what happened, in The Problems of Jurisprudence (Harvard UP, 1990), particularly at 203-219. He adds (217):

“The celebration by lawyers and judges of the “fairness” of a system in which it is thought better to acquit ten guilty defendants than to convict one innocent defendant is an attempt to put a good face on what is actually a confession of systemic ineptitude in deciding questions of guilt and innocence.”

Ah yes, there’s nothing like a little philosophy to make you have doubts about everything (except your existence).