Why Judicial Formalism is Incompatible with the Rule of Law

38 Pages Posted: 30 Aug 2016 Last revised: 4 Sep 2016

See all articles by Marcin Matczak

Marcin Matczak

Warsaw University - Faculty of Law and Public Administration

Date Written: August 29, 2016


When a judge follows the letter of the law, her judgment may be considered blinkered by the man in the street. Legal professionals, however, would classify the judgment as formalistic. From a theoretical perspective, formalistic decision-making limits the number of premises on which a judge may base a verdict. It asks the judge to focus on the literal meaning of the legal text and to disregard other interpretative premises, like the purpose or function of the law, legislative history or – in civil law jurisdictions – previous court decisions.

Formalism as an art of limiting judicial choices is perceived by many as fully consistent with the rule of law. It seems to both allow the curtailment of interpretive discretion and to ensure fidelity to the will of the lawmaker. This contrasts with an all-things-considered approach, where the premises for judicial decision-making seem unlimited, discretion encouraged, and the will of the lawmaker ignored.

In this paper I show that the apparent compatibility between formalism and the rule of law is based on a particular assumption as to the nature of legal language: that this language is criterial in the sense that in order to understand it, one needs to rely on dictionary definitions understood as sets of criteria. This assumption is misguided, and its flaws are revealed by theoretical advances in the contemporary philosophy of language. Specifically, semantic externalism demonstrates that the meaning of language cannot be discovered merely by reading dictionaries; rather, it requires the investigation of the linguistic practices of a particular communicative community, and an insight into the history and function of individual legal terms.

Because the nature of legal language is different from that assumed by the formalists, the compatibility between formalism and the rule of law collapses. With such a distorted perspective of the characteristics of legal language, formalism cannot ensure fidelity to it. This paper shows that judicial decisions based on applying definitions are very often surprising to the law’s addressees; this contradicts one of the main tenets of the rule of law, namely, the predictability of court verdicts. As a consequence, the rule of law requires a different, moderately non-formalistic approach to legal interpretation. Within this approach, judges can make decisions based on a broader scope of interpretive premises and by doing so ensure a better level of predictability.

Keywords: legal interpretation, judicial formalism, textualism, judicial decision-making,rule of law, judicial politics

Suggested Citation

Matczak, Marcin, Why Judicial Formalism is Incompatible with the Rule of Law (August 29, 2016). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2831477 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2831477

Marcin Matczak (Contact Author)

Warsaw University - Faculty of Law and Public Administration ( email )

Krakowskie Przedmiescie 26/28
Warszawa, 00-927

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