Justice Accused at 45: Reflections on Robert Cover's Masterwork

39 Pages Posted: 20 Dec 2021

See all articles by Sanford Levinson

Sanford Levinson

University of Texas Law School

Mark Graber

University of Maryland - Francis King Carey School of Law

Date Written: December 17, 2021


We raise some questions about Robert Cover’s Justice Accused, not to criticize magnificent and audacious scholarship motivated by the most pressing moral concerns, but to consider the timeliness and timelessness of certain themes explored in that masterwork. Our concern is how the issues Cover raised when exploring the ways antislavery justices decided fugitive slave cases played out in the antebellum United States, played out in the United States when Cover was writing, and play out in the United States today. Cover’s opus was a work of the Great Society, even if the text discusses the American judiciary of more than a century before. The moral-formal dilemma faced by the justices Cover studied when adjudicating cases arising from the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 was whether judicial decision-makers should interpret the law in light of the antislavery values of many northern constituencies or defer to laws that reflected the moral values of politicians eager to compromise on slavery to preserve a bisectional consensus. As times change, so does the moral-formal dilemma. The civil rights movement and, for many, the anti-War movement, at least as viewed from the academy in the 1960s, presented the moral-formal dilemma in pure form. Jim Crow laws were unjust. Young men were being drafted to fight an immoral war. Every respectable ethicist and every decent lawyer, at least as defined by the bulk of the academy, understood that morality and law were opposed. The sole question in the academy was whether laws widely agreed to be immoral should be respected and obeyed. One feature of much contemporary civil disobedience—consider illegal protests at abortion clinics or a public willingness to disobey state bans on abortion—is that the moral debate is marked by good faith disagreement on both sides. Pro-choice and pro-life activists in this environment face the same more-formal dilemma, as each decides the extent to which the Constitution reflects the values they cherish and the extent to which they have obligations to respect the Constitution or official decisions interpreting the Constitution that either fail to protect all women from exercising their fundamental right to reproductive choice or fail to prevent the wholesale slaughter of the unborn. Donald Trump and the contemporary Republican party may be providing Americans with a new variation on the moral-formal dilemma grappled with by nineteenth century justices in fugitive slave cases and twentieth century justices in civil rights cases. The moral-formal dilemma many Americans in institutions far remote from courts are facing is whether to follow the letter of the law and retain the basic structure of constitutional law in the United States even when following and maintaining the letter of the law threatens to warp the constitutional fabric, undermine the political regime, and risk an environmental catastrophe that could easily leave humans near extinction.

Keywords: moral-formal dilemma, Justice Accused, Robert Cover, Donald Trump, autocrat, Supreme Court, anti-slavery,

Suggested Citation

Levinson, Sanford V. and Graber, Mark, Justice Accused at 45: Reflections on Robert Cover's Masterwork (December 17, 2021). Touro Law Review, Forthcoming, U of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2021-15, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3988435

Sanford V. Levinson

University of Texas Law School ( email )

727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States
512-471-3273 (Phone)

Mark Graber (Contact Author)

University of Maryland - Francis King Carey School of Law ( email )

500 West Baltimore Street
Baltimore, MD 21201-1786
United States

Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics