The Hercules of Helena: Justice James C. Nelson and the Jurisprudence of Principle
75 Mont. Law Rev. 199 (2014)
38 Pages Posted: 6 Sep 2014
Date Written: June 14, 2014
The late legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin conceived an ideal American judge, “a lawyer of superhuman skill, learning, patience and acumen.” He also is a judge of principle, with a strong philosophical bent. For his labors Dworkin calls this judge of principle “Hercules.” Helena, Montana is not Olympus, and retired State Supreme Court Justice Jim Nelson is not Hercules. No human judge is. Yet over his nearly two decades on the Montana Supreme Court, Nelson exemplified Herculean judging in both its strengths and its weaknesses. This review considers the judicial career of Justice Nelson in both quantitative and qualitative dimensions. It begins with an empirical assessment of Nelson’s judicial record in Part I. After a brief biographical sketch, it considers metrics of ideology and influence on the Montana Supreme Court, and situates Justice Nelson among his colleagues. The review continues with an analytical assessment of Nelson’s judicial philosophy in Part II. Focusing on constitutional cases, it examines the development of two principles, personal autonomy and equal dignity, central to his reading of the Montana Constitution. Part III synthesizes the empirical and analytical assessments and identifies some limits to Justice Nelson’s jurisprudence of principle. The review concludes by proposing some tentative conclusions about Justice Nelson’s legacy.
Keywords: Justice James C. Nelson, Ronald Dworkin, Jurisprudence, State Constitutions, State Courts, Autonomy, Dignity
JEL Classification: K10, K40
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation