Moyn and Stern on Thayer's Judicial Self-Restraint

Samuel Moyn, Yale Law School, and Rephael Stern, Samuel I. Golieb Fellow in Legal History, NYU School of Law, and Ph.D. candidate, Department of History, Harvard University, have posted To Save Democracy from Juristocracy: J.B. Thayer and the Tragic Origins of Constitutional Theory:

James B. Thayer (LC)
As many Americans once again worry that their democracy is hostage to judicial power, this Article recovers how the country’s first constitutional law professor set out on a mission to stave off the syndrome before it stuck. The first archival reconstruction of how James Bradley Thayer (1831-1902) arrived at his epochmaking theory of judicial deference — which remains the most influential piece of scholarship on American constitutional law in the country’s history — this Article demonstrates that Thayer was determined to preserve the democratic revolutions of the Civil War and Reconstruction and to transform America in the direction of British legislative supremacy. Scandalized by growing ventures to weaponize the federal judiciary so as to preempt the new American democracy, Thayer bet on something new in global history: mass democracy 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 with the early twentieth century: far from simply foreseeing the Supreme Court’s defense of laissez-faire to come, Thayer mobilized in the first instance in response to forgotten manifestations of an American juristocracy after the Civil War. His inspiration, moreover, came from witnessing England’s rapidly-expanding representative democracy in which Parliament — and not the courts — reigned supreme. 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 faith — has tragically misled reform. An archival genealogy of rational basis review in constitutional law, this Article explains why Thayer called for it but also why 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.
--Dan Ernst



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