Empathy and Catholic Legal Theory

Over at Mirror of Justice, Rob Vischer of St. Thomas wonders about the role of empathy in Catholic legal theory. After referring to Orin Kerr’s summation of different responses to legal ambiguity, Rob asks:

Wasn’t Brown v. Board of Education driven by empathy, not just the weighing of legal merits?  How about Meyer and Pierce?  Is the recognition that “the child is not the mere creature of the state” as a rationale for a judicial decision driven solely by legal merit, or something else?  And what about abortion?  There are lots of Supreme Court decisions that reflect weak constitutional interpretation, but calls for the Court to overturn Roe v. Wade are not just about remedying bad interpretation, are they?  Aren’t we also asking judges to empathize with the unborn in recognizing the need to overturn Roe?

Putting aside Roe (which I think is all about weak constitutional interpretation), Rob’s point goes to the idea that I was trying to explore yesterday about cabined empathy. It can be, to borrow Ed Fallone’s phrase again, useful in reasoning from undisputed (or at least a judge’s accepted) first principles. It isn’t that empathy creates an obligation of equal protection, but it does help us see the flaw in Justice Henry Billings Brown’s (who remembers that name?) assertion in Plessy that the badge of inferiority arising from Jim Crow exists “solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.” 

Although I have argued against Justice O’Connor’s endorsement test in Establishment Clause cases, empathy might help us see that the harms stemming from government endorsement of religious principles flow as well from the government’s disapproval of those principles.

The endorsement test is a useful example, I think, because it also demonstrates the danger in interpretive methods that do not sufficiently bound empathy and the predilections of the judge. As was true of so much of Justice O’Connor’s jurisprudence, the test maximizes judicial discretion. It tells the judge to prohibit endorsement but then defines the concept in a way that alows the judge to completely contruct its presence or absence. The court is not to look at whether real people perceive the endorsement of religion but whether a person of the judge’s imagining – someone who is familar with the text of the first amendment and the history and purpose of the challenged practive – ought to perceive. Not surprisingly the test came to be known by the acronym of WWSD – What Would Sandra Do?

Maybe Catholic legal thought has something to tell us about this as well. Subsidiarity can be a maddeningly elastic notion, but doesn’t it remind us that the courts are only one of the institutions ordained to create justice and that they ought to operate within their sphere of authority. If that’s so, then using, in Orin’s phrase, any “appreciable legal ambiguity” to rule in a way that “furthers whatever normative vision of the law that the judge happens to like” is problematic from the perspective of Catholic legal theory.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Jessica E. Slavin

    I was about to leave this comment on your other post, but I guess it fits here as well. I just wanted to chime in that I don’t grasp the distinction you (and most everyone) draws between “empathy” and the law. Empathy, to me, means seeing things from someone else’s viewpoint. I guess it’s something like what people mean when they say, in conversation, “I feel for you.”

    It seems to me that all legal decisionmaking, like all human decisionmaking, is based in part on empathy. Indeed, don’t legal rules usually try encode a particular view of what’s right in a particular situation–i.e., a particular empathy given certain circumstances? The charge that legal decisionmakers are relying on “empathy” rather than the rule of law seems to emerge when the empathies that apparently underlie a particular legal decision are surprising or different than what the commentator expected them to be. Oftentimes, that is because the commentator’s own empathies are more traditional ones, sometimes so traditional that the commentator doesn’t even recognize them as empathies.

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