Finding Law

56 Pages Posted: 3 Nov 2017 Last revised: 1 May 2019

Date Written: March 11, 2018


That the judge’s task is to find the law, not to make it, was once a commonplace of our legal culture. Today, decades after Erie, the idea of a common law discovered by judges is commonly dismissed—as a “fallacy,” an “illusion,” a “brooding omnipresence in the sky.” That dismissive view is wrong. Expecting judges to find unwritten law is no childish fiction of the benighted past, but a real and plausible option for a modern legal system.

This Article seeks to restore the respectability of finding law, in part by responding to two criticisms made by Erie and its progeny. The first, “positive” criticism is that law has to come from somewhere: judges can’t discover norms that no one ever made. But this claim blinks reality. We routinely identify and apply social norms that no one deliberately made, including norms of fashion, etiquette, or natural language. Law is no different. Judges might declare a customary law the same way copy editors and dictionary authors declare standard English—with a certain kind of reliability, but with no power to revise at will.

The second, “realist” criticism is that law leaves too many questions open: when judges can’t find the law, they have to make it instead. But uncertain cases force judges to make decisions, not to make law. Different societies can give different roles to precedent (and to judges). And judicial decisions can have many different kinds of legal force—as law of the circuit, law of the case, and so on—without altering the underlying law on which they’re based.

This Article claims only that it’s plausible for a legal system to have its judges find law. It doesn’t try to identify legal systems that actually do this in practice. Yet too many discussions of judge-made law, including the famous passages in Erie, rest on the false premise that judge-made law is inevitable—that judges simply can’t do otherwise. In fact, judges can do otherwise: they can act as the law’s servants rather than its masters. The fact that they can forces us to confront the question of whether they should—and, indeed, whether the Erie doctrine itself can outlive its mistaken premises. Finding law is no fallacy or illusion; the brooding omnipresence broods on.

Keywords: Common Law, Unwritten Law, Finding Law, Judicial Lawmaking, Erie, Legal Theory, Brooding Omnipresence

JEL Classification: K1, K10, K4, K40

Suggested Citation

Sachs, Stephen E., Finding Law (March 11, 2018). California Law Review, 2019, vol. 107, pp. 527-81, Duke Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Series No. 2018-31, Available at SSRN:

Stephen E. Sachs (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1563 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-5009 (Phone)

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