Events Calendar

Date:
February 15, 2024
Start:
11:30am
End:
12:50pm
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Location:
TNH 2.111 (Sheffield-Massey Room)

TO SAVE DEMOCRACY FROM JURISTOCRACY: J.B. THAYER AND CONGRESSIONAL POWER AFTER THE CIVIL WAR

As many Americans once again worry that their democracy is hostage to judicial power, this Article is an archival reconstruction of how famed Harvard law professor James Bradley Thayer set out on a mission to stave off the syndrome before it stuck — though he failed in the end.

The Article shows how Thayer (1831-1902) arrived at his epochmaking theory of judicial deference to safeguard Congress’s power after democratic revolutions of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Indeed, he hoped to see America transformed in the direction of British legislative supremacy, in which Parliament — and not the courts — reigned supreme. Scandalized by growing ventures to weaponize the federal judiciary so as to preempt the newly federalized American democracy, Thayer bet on something new in global history: mass democracy on a national scale, understood as an experiment in collective learning. The Article thereby provides a new periodization and transatlantic contextualization of the struggles over judicial fiat routinely associated the Supreme Court’s defense of laissez-faire in the early twentieth century.

And yet, as this Article emphasizes, Thayer failed in the long run. His democratizing fix, judicial self-restraint under the “clear error standard” — which this Article shows had the same English roots as his democratic and parliamentary theory — has tragically misled reform. It embroiled Americans in a neverending debate on judicial “restraint,” even as Thayer proposed a doctrinal prescription encouraging judges to limit their power themselves. He therefore postponed an institutional remedy for an institutional syndrome. For this reason, his mission, in spite of its partial implementation after his death, now has to be rescued in its own right. Judicial self-restraint has not prevented the continuation and even the intensification of the very juristocratic syndrome Thayer rightly found so troubling. If Americans still remain with him at the dawn of our commitment to democracy, they will have to save it from judges in a new way all their own

Faculty Colloquia Series:
Speaker:
  • Samuel Moyn
    Professor, Yale University
Specific audiences:
  • Faculty

If you need an accommodation to participate in this event, please contact the sponsor listed above or the Texas Law Special Events Office at specialevents@law.utexas.edu no later than seven business days prior to the event.