Ronald Dworkin, often labeled as the most important legal philosopher of his time, died on February 14 in London at age 81.
The author of numerous books and long-form articles in The New York Review of Books, Dworkin was also a public intellectual who could blog relatively promptly about current legal events.
His writing combined "profound insight with elegant and accessible explanation," said Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe on Thursday. "Ronald Dworkin was a towering figure in American legal philosophy. His death leaves a gaping hole that nobody I know can hope to fill."
A Rhodes scholar who clerked for the legendary Judge Learned Hand, Dworkin turned down a Supreme Court clerkship with Justice Felix Frankfurter. He practiced law at Sullivan & Cromwell for a time, but soon entered academia, teaching at Yale Law School, New York University School of Law and at British universities as well.
University of Chicago Law School professor Brian Leiter, founder of the school’s center on law, philosophy and human values, said of Dworkin, "Among legal philosophers, he was recognized as a trenchant, if not always fair, critic of legal positivism, according to which law in any society results only from certain official acts, such as what a legislature enacts, or a court decides. Dworkin argued instead that…the law also included all the moral principles and rights needed to provide a good moral justification for these official acts."
Leiter said Dworkin’s impact on legal scholarship was "substantial," but his impact on American law was "slight." Leiter added, "His was the constitutional vision of the Warren Court, loosely speaking, and his career coincided with the decline of that constitutional jurisprudence in the United States."
Dworkin’s view of the Constitution as a document of moral principles and of the Supreme Court as a moral authority led him to embrace liberal answers to many of the legal issues he analyzed. He was a sharp critic of the conservative members of the Supreme Court, in 2010 describing the Citizens United ruling on campaign finance reform as "appalling." He added, "The conservative justices savaged canons of judicial restraint they themselves have long praised."
In 2009, Dworkin rallied to the defense of then-Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, who was being attacked for asserting that a wise Latina judge could come to a better decision than a white male. "Being a Latina may give a judge a better understanding of the crucial moral difference between racial discrimination poisoned by prejudice and race-sensitive policies aimed at erasing that prejudice." Dworkin wrote.
Dworkin had a knack for explaining legal abstractions in human terms. On the right to die, he once wrote, "Whether it is in someone’s best interests that his life end in one way rather than another depends on so much else that is special about him—about the shape and character of his life and his own sense of his integrity and critical interests—that no uniform collective decision can possibly hope to serve everyone even decently." Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cited Dworkin’s comment in the high court’s leading decision on the issue, Washington v. Glucksberg, in 1997.
Five years earlier Justice John Paul Stevens, writing in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, said that under the Constitution, fetuses do not have the "right to life." In a footnote, Stevens cited "Professor Dworkin" without using his first name, as saying, "The suggestion that states are free to declare a fetus a person…assumes that a state can curtail some persons’ constitutional rights by adding new persons to the constitutional population."
Admirers said Dworkin, an enthusiastic and colorful personality, added panache to sometimes dreary philosophical conferences. He once wrote, "In my own view, someone who leads a boring, conventional life without close friendships or challenges or achievements, marking time to his grave, has not had a good life, even if he thinks he has and even if he has thoroughly enjoyed the life he has had."
Tony Mauro can be contacted at email@example.com.