The Supreme Court term started last week, and the docket includes many interesting and controversial cases. A safe prediction is that there will be many cases in which the Court splits 5-4 firmly along ideological lines. We take it for granted that justices can dissent, issue official separate opinions, and that the public vote of the justices is revealed, but this was not always so. In a new paper recently posted to SSRN, Professor Henderson traces the history of opinion delivery practices in England and the United States in search of an explanation for the current practice of dissent. The history shows that the discourse is about power, and that courts adapt their opinion delivery practices to achieve a greater role over dispute resolution.
From 'Seriatim' to Consensus and Back Again: A Theory of Dissent
M. Todd Henderson
University of Chicago - Law School
U of Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 263
Why do judges dissent? There are several conventional answers. One is that dissents communicate legal theories to future judges, litigants, or politicians in the hope of becoming law later. Another is that dissents reveal the internal deliberation of courts, thus increasing their legitimacy in a democratic society. Both of these suggest that dissent improves the law making process.
Other theories are potentially less benign. For example, dissents are inevitable given the ego and life-tenure of Article III judges or dissents enable majorities to be bolder in their holdings, thereby creating more law than is necessary. Chief Justice Roberts adheres to this latter view, and therefore has called for more unanimity on the Court. Before we can say whether Roberts's goal is worth pursuing, we must have a full account of the reason for dissent.
This paper traces the history of judicial discourse to understand the reason for dissent. Over the past several hundred years, the Supreme Court and its predecessors in England have sometimes issued dissents and sometimes spoken largely with one voice. A specific change in the delivery of opinions has happened at least three times on a grand scale: (1) Chief Justice Mansfield's change from traditional seriatim opinions to an “opinion of the court” in England circa 1760; (2) a similar change in the United States Supreme Court upon the ascendancy of John Marshall to Chief Justice in 1801; and (3) the development of a tradition of writing separately during the New Deal era of the Supreme Court, which has persisted to the present.
This paper shows that in each case the change in judicial discourse was made in an attempt to increase the power of law courts over other forms of dispute resolution. For example, Mansfield and Marshall moved from seriatim opinions to an “opinion of the court” to bring certainty to decisions and thereby increase the power of their courts, whereas the modern move away from unanimity is about achieving the same goal, but by using dissent to placate losers and protect the Court's jurisdiction over politically contentious issues like abortion or affirmative action. In short, history shows that judicial discourse, be it unanimity or seriatim or something in the middle, reflects court power, and those who want to change court power did so through a change in judicial discourse.