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Ambivalence about Formalism

58 Pages Posted: 18 Sep 2007  

Jonathan T. Molot

Georgetown University Law Center


In statutory interpretation, many scholars try to reconcile judicial power with democracy by cabining judicial discretion and rendering judges more faithful agents of Congress. Although debate pervades the field, the dominant approach is to rely on formalism to narrow judicial leeway and promote legislative supremacy. In constitutional theory, by contrast, many scholars respond to a very similar problem with a very different strategy. Here too, the concern is that judges will exercise power in a manner that substitutes judicial preferences for political will, and here too, there is as much disagreement as agreement. But instead of casting judicial discretion as the source of the problem, there is a growing trend in constitutional scholarship toward embracing judicial discretion as part of the solution. Many constitutional theorists urge judges to employ discretionary tools in a manner that limits their intrusions into the political process and minimizes the disruption associated with judicial review. These constitutional scholars tend to reject formalism in favor of a form of minimalism that is in many respects the antithesis of formalism.

Professor Molot suggests that both sets of scholars have gone too far in their positions on formalism. Statutory scholars often overlook the importance of judicial flexibility as an antidote to the excesses of formalism. Constitutional scholars often overlook the importance of formal constraints and fidelity to law. Using administrative law as a counterexample, Professor Molot sketches out a more balanced approach to formalism that he argues is superior to the one-sided approaches that have increasingly characterized statutory and constitutional scholarship today.

Suggested Citation

Molot, Jonathan T., Ambivalence about Formalism. Virginia Law Review, Vol. 93, No. 1, 2007; Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 07-12. Available at SSRN:

Jonathan T. Molot (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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