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The Constitution, the Courts and the Common Law


Robert A. Sedler


Wayne State University Law School

Spring 2007

Wayne State University Law School Research Paper No. 08-08

Abstract:     
This article maintains that it is the constitutional responsibility of the courts, here the courts of the State of Michigan, to engage in judicial policymaking in the process of formulating common law rules. The article is written in response to the views expressed by some Justices of the Michigan Supreme Court that separation of powers concerns should impose significant limits on the power of the courts to establish and develop the common law of Michigan. Specifically, the contention is that policymaking is exclusively the province of the legislature, so that the courts cannot properly formulate common law rules that may have significant social and economic effects. The article strongly disagrees with the proposition that there is any kind of constitutional constraint, either prudential or structural, on the power, and indeed, the constitutional responsibility of the Michigan courts (or the courts of any state) to engage in judicial policymaking in the process of formulating common law rules.

The judicial power given to the Michigan courts by the Michigan Constitution includes the power to do what courts have always done in the Anglo-American legal system. The judicial power gives the courts the responsibility to adjudicate controversies between private persons and in the process to develop a common law through the workings of binding precedent and stare decisis. In so doing, the courts may properly take into account considerations of social and economic policy just as the legislature does when it engages in the process of enacting legislation. The difference between what the courts do and what the legislature does is a difference in process, not a difference in substance. Judicial policymaking takes place within the judicial process, that is, in the adjudication of controversies between persons in which the courts promulgate common law rules. The common law develops in a line of growth through the workings of binding precedent and stare decisis, and to the extent that there are limitations on the development of the common law, these are limitations that inhere in the judicial process itself. When the courts, for example, consider whether a new claim or a new defense should be recognized by the common law, they must consider whether that new claim or defense properly follows in the line of growth from existing doctrine and precedent. But if the courts conclude that it does, that is, if the claim or defense is consistent with the line of growth of existing doctrine and precedent, the courts are not constrained from recognizing the claim or defense on the ground that the substance of the claim or defense is a matter for the legislature rather than for the courts or that the resulting common law rule may have significant social and economic effects.

The legislature, in contrast, enacts legislation through the legislative process. That process is a freewheeling one, often dependent on political compromise and completely unrestrained by the kind of limitations that inhere the judicial process. There is no legislative concept of line of growth, and the legislature can and often does enact legislation that brings about fundamental societal change or reverses the course of public policy. In our constitutional system, the most important questions of public policy are, of course, determined by the Legislature. Where the legislature disagrees with the policy choices reflected in a common law rule, the legislature has the power to enact legislation changing the common law rule. But there are many areas of private law where the legislature has not acted. In our constitutional system, where the matter in issue is not covered or preempted by legislation, the courts may formulate a common law rule to cover that matter, and in so doing may engage in judicial policymaking. Judicial policymaking is a part of the development of the common law, and the courts cannot avoid their responsibility to engage in judicial policymaking to the extent that it is necessary in the process of formulating the common law. As a constitutional matter, there are no separation of powers considerations that prohibit the courts from engaging in judicial policymaking. This part of the article traces judicial policymaking and the common law back to the seminal writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Roscoe Pound and Benjamin Cardozo.

The article then discusses at length judicial policymaking and the development of the common law in Michigan. It shows that the clearest history of judicial policymaking in development of the common law is the liability-limiting rules of the late nineteenth century that were promulgated in the wake of the Industrial Revolution to protect the newly-emerging industries. During that time the courts in Michigan and elsewhere grafted on to the general principles of negligence law liability rules such as assumption of risk, contributory negligence, and the fellow servant doctrine, all of which had the effect of denying recovery to workers and other victims of industrial accidents. Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, however, the Michigan Supreme Court began excising its constitutional power to make changes in the common law, expanding significantly the scope of tort liability in Michigan. Emphasizing that "rules created by the court could be altered by the court," and that the court had a "corrective responsibility when dealing with judge-made law," the Court, in approximately a 30 year period: eliminated the imputed negligence doctrine, under which the driver's negligence was imputed to the passenger in the passenger's suit against a third party; eliminated charitable immunity as a defense to a tort action; held that a wife could maintain at tort action for loss of her husband's consortium; abrogated the defense of assumption of risk, which had been applied outside of the employment area, held that there could be recovery for pre-natal injuries and finally abolished contributory negligence as a complete bar to recovery in favor of a comparative negligence approach.

In these cases the Court discussed the relevant policy considerations influencing their decisions with respect to the common law rule at issue. In the last quarter century, the Court continued to take into account policy considerations in developing the common law, but not infrequently there was disagreement on the Court as to where policy considerations should lead, with some Justices arguing that policy considerations supported the imposition of tort liability, while other Justices argued that they did not.

The article concludes that it has been demonstrated that in the development of the common law of Michigan, the Michigan Supreme Court has at all times engaged in judicial policymaking. From the liability-limiting rules of the late nineteenth century designed to protect the newly-emerging industries in this state, to the Court's exercise of its power to change the common law in Michigan over a 30 year period by expanding significantly the scope of tort liability in Michigan, to its recognition of new claims, such as a child's right to recover for loss of a parent's consortium caused by a negligent injury, to its imposition of limits on tort recovery, such as the open and obvious doctrine, the Court has invoked considerations of policy in support of its decisions. In these cases, the Court's invocation of policy considerations was sometimes accompanied by substantial disagreement among members of the Court over where policy should lead, but at no time did the Court ever suggest that separation of powers considerations should somehow operate as a kind of restraint on the Court's use of policy in the development of the common law. It is the power and responsibility of the Michigan Courts under the Michigan Constitution to make policy choices in formulating the common law.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 34

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Date posted: March 11, 2008  

Suggested Citation

Sedler, Robert A., The Constitution, the Courts and the Common Law (Spring 2007). Wayne State University Law School Research Paper No. 08-08. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1103572 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1103572

Contact Information

Robert A. Sedler (Contact Author)
Wayne State University Law School ( email )
471 Palmer
Detroit, MI 48202
United States
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