Legal Realism

AuthorWilfrid E. Rumble

Page 1580

Legal realism was the most significant movement that emerged within American jurisprudence during the 1920s and 1930s. Numerous factors conditioned this development, including pragmatism, SOCIOLOGICAL JURISPRUDENCE, and certain ideas of Justice OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES. The legal realists were not, however, an organized or highly unified group of thinkers. Their concepts had diverse sources, their work branched out in many directions, and their responses to particular issues often varied. The substantial differences between Judge JEROME N. FRANK and Karl N. Llewellyn illustrate these tendencies. Even so, these men and the other realists shared a number of distinctive attitudes and ideas.

The term "legal realism" signifies the basic thrust of the movement, which was to uncover and to explain legal realities. This effort reflects the allegation that some of the most cherished beliefs of lawyers are myths or fictions. The major purpose of the realists' provocative criticisms of these beliefs was not, however, to undermine the American legal system. Rather, it was to facilitate development of an accurate understanding of the nature, interpretation, operation, and effects of law. The realists insisted that achievement of this goal was essential for intelligent reform of legal rules, doctrines, and practices.

This outlook contributed to the realists' intense dissatisfaction with prevailing modes of legal education and scholarship. Both were under the spell of the case method pioneered by Christopher Columbus Langdell, the influential dean of the Harvard Law School from 1870 to 1895. He conceived of legal science as a small number of fundamental principles derived from study of relatively few cases. This conception was anathema to the realists, most of whom taught at leading American law schools. Their objective was to reform and to supplement, however, rather than to discard, the case method. The changes they advocated included focus on the behavior of judges and other officials, on their actual decisions rather than broad precepts. This emphasis was essential for the understanding of "real" instead of mere "paper" rules. The realists also urged the broadening of legal education to embrace not only the law on the books but also its administration and social impact. The development of this approach required a much closer integration of law and the social sciences than was traditional.

Some of these ideas were an...

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