Law as Palimpsest: Conceptualizing Contingency in Judicial Opinions

43 Pages Posted: 8 May 2009 Last revised: 10 Jul 2012

See all articles by Bret D. Asbury

Bret D. Asbury

Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law

Date Written: July 29, 2009


Metaphors create conceptualizations, and for decades legal academics have employed metaphors to shape understandings of legal problems. But no metaphor in current use successfully conceptualizes the contingency of judicial opinions and the complexity of the relationship between opinions and precedent. This Article seeks to fill this void by introducing a new metaphor, the palimpsest, into the realm of legal analysis.

A palimpsest is a writing surface that can be cleared away for reuse, like a personal blackboard. What distinguishes a palimpsest from other writing surfaces is that its removed contents do not disappear, but remain, obscured yet recoverable: A writing on a palimpsest never goes away.

This Article argues that thinking of judicial opinions as being part of a shared, ever-evolving palimpsest underscores the fact that they are ultimately contingent and serves as a reminder of the multiple levels of interconnectedness between them and the cases they cite. Precedents — like the underlayers of a palimpsest — never go away, and they inform and shape the application of opinions in ways far more significant than simply serving as points of reference. A palimpsestic approach to understanding judicial decisionmaking also helps to explain why even the oldest, most reviled cases remain part of our national psyche — like underlayers of a palimpsest, they can never truly disappear, and their continued presence forces us to grapple with their existence. Finally, considering judicial opinions as part of a shared palimpsest reminds us that even the most troubling opinion is ultimately contingent, its application subject to reexamination and revision by future courts and future generations. Just as such an opinion replaces its precedents, it too will one day be replaced, like each of a palimpsest’s layers.

Keywords: Palimpsest, contingency

Suggested Citation

Asbury, Bret D., Law as Palimpsest: Conceptualizing Contingency in Judicial Opinions (July 29, 2009). 61 Ala. L. Rev. 121 (2009), Available at SSRN:

Bret D. Asbury (Contact Author)

Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law ( email )

3320 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
(215) 571-4786 (Phone)

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