A Theory of Adjudication: Law as Magic

60 Pages Posted: 12 Jul 2007 Last revised: 5 Jun 2017

See all articles by Jessie Allen

Jessie Allen

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law

Date Written: March 1, 2007


This article takes a new approach to the problem of legal rationality. In the 1920s and 1930s the Legal Realists criticized judicial decisions as "magic solving words" and "word ritual." Though the Realist critique continues to shape American jurisprudence, the legal magic they observed has never been seriously explored. Here, drawing on anthropological studies of magic and ritual, I reconsider the irrational legal techniques the Realists exposed. My thesis is that the Realists were right that law works like magic, but wrong about how magic works. That is, they were right that adjudication makes use of a particular combination of techniques - enacting performances, heightened formality, transformative analogy, performativity, temporal play - that is also found in ritual magic. But they were wrong that those techniques necessarily preclude rational decisionmaking. Drawing on the insights of field anthropology, I theorize legal magic as an authentic mode of legal practice. After considering the different aspects of legal magic and the Realists' critique, I propose three potential roles for legal magic: as a way to imbue official legal decisions with the affective moral force of lived experience, as an institutional practice that may enhance judicial impartiality, and as a method for symbolically reversing otherwise irreparable injuries. I hope that my reanalysis of legal magic can provide a new perspective on the relationship of law and reason, illuminate undertheorized aspects of law and contribute to a more concrete and nuanced understanding of adjudication's social role.

Suggested Citation

Allen, Jessie, A Theory of Adjudication: Law as Magic (March 1, 2007). Suffolk University Law Review, Vol. 41, p. 773, 2008, NYU Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 07-10, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=999624 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.999624

Jessie Allen (Contact Author)

University of Pittsburgh - School of Law ( email )

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Pittsburgh, PA 15260
United States
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412-648-2649 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://www.law.pitt.edu/people/jessie-allen

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