Justice Breyer's Democratic Pragmatism

32 Pages Posted: 10 Nov 2005

See all articles by Cass R. Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein

Harvard Law School; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)


There have been many efforts to reconcile judicial review with democratic self-government. Some such efforts attempt to justify judicial review if and to the extent that it promotes self-rule. "Active Liberty," by Justice Stephen Breyer, is in this tradition; but it is also marked by a heavy pragmatic orientation, emphasizing as it does the need for close attention to purposes and to the importance of consequences to legal interpretation. Its distinctiveness lies in its effort to forge close connections among three seemingly disparate ideas: a democratic account of judicial review; a purposive understanding of legal texts; and a neo-pragmatic emphasis on consequences. Breyer's argument is convincing insofar as it challenges "originalist" approach on pragmatic grounds. It is more vulnerable insofar it downplays the inevitable role of judicial discretion in the characterization of purposes and the evaluation of consequences. Those who emphasize consequences, and active liberty, might well end up embracing textualism, or even broad judicial deference to legislative majorities. Moreover, it is not simple to deduce, from the general idea of "active liberty," concrete conclusions on the issues that concern Breyer, such as affirmative action, campaign finance reform, privacy rights, and commercial advertising. Many competing approaches to these issues, and to interpretation as a whole, can also march proudly under the pragmatic banner.

Keywords: Active Liberty, Justice Stephen Breyer

Suggested Citation

Sunstein, Cass R., Justice Breyer's Democratic Pragmatism. Yale Law Journal, Forthcoming, U Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 267, U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 111, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=845064

Cass R. Sunstein (Contact Author)

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Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

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