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01/08/2013

Adam White on Learned Hand's Letters
Michael Ramsey

In the Wall Street Journal, Adam White: A Liberal Who Preached Restraint (reviewing Constance Jordan's Reason and Imagination: The Selected Correspondence of Learned Hand).  From the review:

The legal philosophy that Hand employed as a judge, and that he extolled in his widely read essays, was the judicial restraint preached by the progressive reformers of Hand's youth. Just weeks after Hand entered Harvard Law School, the law review published James Bradley Thayer's "The Origin and Scope of the American Doctrine of Constitutional Law," an article that guided Hand's lifelong judicial philosophy.

In an era dominated by the Supreme Court's nullification of state laws concerning public health, safety and labor, Thayer argued that the courts should defer to state legislatures and uphold state laws—that is, progressive reforms of state laws—unless the laws' unconstitutionality was "so clear that it is not open to rational question." Because the people's government must respond to "great, complex, ever-unfolding exigencies," the courts must stay their hand, Thayer said, lest they take on the power of an unelected super-legislature.

Hand's debt to Thayer is reflected in Ms. Jordan's choice, to begin the book, of a letter from Hand to "My dear Mr. Thayer" a year after Hand graduated from Harvard. Hand later took up Thayer's theme in a 1911 letter to Frankfurter: The "stand-patters," he wrote, ". . . want to put the whole weight of government on nine elderly gentlemen at Washington." Hand's own belief was that the court "ought not to exercise [the power of judicial review] at all." Instead, as he wrote in a letter to Frankfurter 40 years later, a judge applying a statute should try to "imagine" what outcome the original legislators would have intended. (Hence Ms. Jordan's choice of book title.)