The Persistence of Proximate Cause: How Legal Doctrine Thrives on Skepticism

Jessie Allen

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law

December 1, 2012

Denver University Law Review, Vol. 90, p. 77, 2012
U. of Pittsburgh Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2013-05

This Article starts with a puzzle: Why is the doctrinal approach to “proximate cause” so resilient despite longstanding criticism? Proximate cause is a particularly extreme example of doctrine that limps along despite near universal consensus that it cannot actually determine legal outcomes. Why doesn’t that widely recognized indeterminacy disable proximate cause as a decision-making device? To address this puzzle, I pick up a cue from the legal realists, a group of skeptical lawyers, law professors, and judges, who, in the 1920s and 1930s, compared legal doctrine to ritual magic. I take that comparison seriously, perhaps more seriously, and definitely in a different direction, than the realists intended. Classic anthropological studies reveal several telling structural similarities between traditional proximate cause analysis and ritual magic. Moreover, it seems that in diverse cultural contexts, magic not only survives skeptical exposure, it feeds on it. Drawing on the anthropological literature, I propose that exposing doctrinal indeterminacy functions as a kind of ritual unmasking that ultimately increases rather than diminishes the credibility of doctrinal analyses. The Article concludes by considering how unmasking doctrinal indeterminacy works to strengthen faith in doctrine and by raising some questions about the implications for law’s legitimacy. Does unmasking doctrine only further mask judicial power? Or can ritual theory help us see some potential legitimate value in maintaining doctrine as the form of legal decision making, even as we acknowledge doctrine’s inability to determine legal outcomes?

Number of Pages in PDF File: 54

Keywords: proximate cause, torts, judicial decisionmaking, courts, doctrine, legal realism, new legal realism, magic, ritual, jurisprudence, legal theory, rule of law, doctrinal analysis, legal reasoning, law & anthropology, legal theory, adjudication, performance, sociolegal studies, law & culture, formalism

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Date posted: March 9, 2013  

Suggested Citation

Allen, Jessie, The Persistence of Proximate Cause: How Legal Doctrine Thrives on Skepticism (December 1, 2012). Denver University Law Review, Vol. 90, p. 77, 2012; U. of Pittsburgh Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2013-05. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2222105

Contact Information

Jessie Allen (Contact Author)
University of Pittsburgh - School of Law ( email )
3900 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
United States
412-624-2175 (Phone)
412-648-2649 (Fax)
HOME PAGE: http://www.law.pitt.edu/people/jessie-allen

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