Beyond the Formalism Debate: Expert Reasoning, Fuzzy Logic, and Complex Statutes

100 Pages Posted: 30 Jun 2015

See all articles by Edward S. Adams

Edward S. Adams

University of Minnesota - Twin Cities - School of Law

Daniel Farber

University of Minnesota - Twin Cities - School of Law

Date Written: 1999

Abstract

Formalists and antiformalists continue to debate the utility of using legislative history and current social values to interpret statutes. Lost in the debate, however, is a clear model of how judges actually make decisions. Rather than focusing on complex problems presented by actual judicial decisions, formalists and antiformalists concentrate on stylized examples of simple statutes.

In this Article, Professors Adams and Farber construct a more functional model of judicial decisionmaking by focusing on complex problems. They use cognitive psychological research on expert reasoning and techniques from an emerging area in the field of artificial intelligence, fuzzy logic, to construct their model. To probe the complex interactions between judicial interpretation, the business and legal communities, and the legislature, the authors apply their model to two important bankruptcy cases written by prominent formalist judges.

Professors Adams and Farber demonstrate how cognitive psychology and fuzzy logic can reveal the reasoning processes that both formalist and antiformalist judges use to interpret complex statutes. To apply formalist rules, judges need to recognize the aspects of a case that trigger relevant rules. Cognitive psychologists have researched expert reasoning using this type of diagnostic process. Once the judge identifies the appropriate rules, she will often find they point in conflicting directions. Fuzzy logic provides a model of how to analyze such conflicts.

Next, Professors Adams and Farber consider how these models of judicial decisionmaking inform efforts to improve statutory interpretation of complex statutes. They reason that expert decisionmaking builds on pattern recognition skills and fuzzy maps, both the result of intensive repeated experience. The authors explain that cases involving complex statutory interpretation frequently involve competing considerations, and that the implicit understandings of field "insiders" tend to be entrenched and difficult to displace. Consequently, Professors Adams and Farber argue that judges in specialty courts, such as the Bankruptcy Courts, are probably in a better position than generalist appellate judges to interpret complex statutes. Generalist judges should approach complex statutory issues with a strong degree of deference to the "local culture" of the field.

Professors Adams and Farber conclude the Article with speculation on how fuzzy logic could be used in a more quantitative way to model legal problems. They note that computer modeling may ultimately provide insight into the subtle process of judicial practical reasoning, moving away from the false dichotomy often drawn between formalist and antiformalist approaches to practical judicial decisionmaking.

Keywords: Formalist, Antiformalist, Fuzzy Logic, Statutory Interpretation

Suggested Citation

Adams, Edward S. and Farber, Daniel, Beyond the Formalism Debate: Expert Reasoning, Fuzzy Logic, and Complex Statutes (1999). Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol. 52, pp. 1241-1340, 1999. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2624885

Edward S. Adams (Contact Author)

University of Minnesota - Twin Cities - School of Law ( email )

229 19th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States

Daniel Farber

University of Minnesota - Twin Cities - School of Law

229 19th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States

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