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Legal Duty v. Moral Conviction

Sam Taylor

Posted on October 14, 2020 01:25

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When the two conflict, must a judge put aside their personal beliefs to uphold the law?

Though often conflated, legality and morality are distinct: complementary, but separate aspects of obligation with an ever-present potential to contradict.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee probed Judge Amy Coney Barrett on her ideology and the influence it will have on her potential rulings in the Supreme Court. During the proceedings, she made an interesting claim: "Judges can't just wake up one day and say, I have an agenda⁠—I like guns, I hate guns, I like abortion, I hate abortion⁠—and walk in like a royal queen and impose their will on the world."

While the normative appeal of this claim is incontrovertible, it has controversial ramifications for moral philosophy and legal ethics.

If we take Barret's position as a given (as many legal scholars do), it follows that judges—when acting as such—ought to adhere to the prevailing precedents and legal norms of society, not their personal beliefs. In essence, judges are agents of the law, not arbiters of morality. Seems correct, right? After all, we wouldn't want judges shoving their arbitrary opinions down our throats.

However, the issue is far more complex.

Imagine a situation wherein the law of the land is supremely immoral⁠—an authoritarian system of deplorable oppression, where legality coincides with evil; imagine Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, or fascist Italy; imagine the pre-Civil War United States or the same under Jim Crow. Now imagine you're a judge, justice, or magistrate in one such state, bearing the same moral beliefs you do now.

Is it justified to suppose that, in your role as a legal agent, you shouldn't circumvent or obstruct abhorrent laws, but instead submit to and uphold them? Should you (as a judge) prioritize the fashionable morals of society over your deeply-held, personal convictions?

Sure, this decision is a rare one: dependent on your being in a position to hamper statutes in a horrid society. But its very potential to be actualized, its theoretical possibility, makes it significant in moral philosophy. 

So, must a judge always uphold the law as is? 

An easy answer would be to prioritize our morality over past ethics. We could say, for instance, that a judge should uphold the law except when it's "really, really bad." Only then, we might assert, can the judge in question be justified in impeding statute. But how do we determine when a law is bad enough? What if a present judge decided some law is sufficiently vile to warrant a biased ruling⁠—who are we, the promoters of fashionable trends in ethics, to objectively rebuke their repudiation of our current beliefs?

I'm at a loss for a conclusive answer. Perhaps capriciously valuing current morality is the best option, though arbitrary it may seem. Perhaps there really are objective ethics—free from the influence of society's fickle conceptions—which our modern, enlightened morality mirrors. Whatever the case, I can't help but question the notion that a judge, acting within the parameters of their office, should never uphold their personal convictions over the law.

Sam Taylor

Posted on October 14, 2020 01:25

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