Decision and Legal Interpretation

  • Paul W. KahnEmail author


What is the relationship of interpretation to decision? Many scholars believe that decision marks the limit of law, the point at which doctrine no longer determines judicial outcomes. Others believe outcomes are the result of political contests between sociologically identifiable groups. Theorists seem to have to choose between legal apologetics and political critique. Rejecting both views, this article argues that decision is a necessary condition of interpretation. It engages with Carl Schmitt’s claim that “Every political idea in one way or another takes a position on the ‘nature’ of man and presupposes that he is either ‘by nature good’ or ‘by nature evil.’” The decision of law is not about the state of the soul, but about the narrative frame. Legal interpretation begins with a choice between project and system. A project locates the origin of order in the deliberate act to realize an idea; a system believes order to be spontaneous and immanent. Writing a constitution is a project; the common law is a system. To interpret law as a project is to see man as naturally evil, for absent a plan we will have only the chaos of the state of nature. To interpret law as a system is to see man as naturally good, for he need only be himself for the regularities of law to emerge. This is the decision that grounds interpretation and, therefore, lies behind every legal claim and legal theory.


Interpretation Decision Project System Schmitt Constitution 


  1. Agamben, G. (2011). The kingdom and the glory: For a theological genealogy of economy and government (Lorenzo Chiesa, Trans.). Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Bickel, A. (1962). The least dangerous branch: The supreme court at the bar of politics (2nd ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Blackstone, W. (1765). Commentaries. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  4. Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723 (2008) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting).Google Scholar
  5. Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 386 (1798) (Iredell, J., concurring).Google Scholar
  6. Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892).Google Scholar
  7. Cover, R. (1983). The Supreme Court, 1982 Term—Foreword: Nomos and narrative. Harvard Law Review, 97, 4–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Dworkin, R. (1978). Taking rights seriously. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Dworkin, R. (1986). Law’s empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Fisher, S. G. (1862). The trial of the constitution. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.Google Scholar
  11. Frank, J. (1930). Law and the modern mind. New York: Brentano’s.Google Scholar
  12. Gillman, H. (2001). Review: What’s law got to do with it? Judicial behavioralists test the “Legal Model” of judicial decision making. Law and Social Inquiry, 26, 465–504.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Grewal, D. S. (forthcoming). The invention of the economy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Grey, T. (1983). Langdell’s orthodoxy. University of Pittsburgh Law Review, 45, 1–53.Google Scholar
  15. Hamilton, A. (1781). Federalist No. 1. In C. Rossiter (Ed.), 1961. The Federalist Papers: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay. New York: Signet.Google Scholar
  16. Hart, H. L. A. (1961). The concept of law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Holmes, O. W. (1897). The path of the law. Harvard Law Review, 10, 457–478.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Kahn, P. (1992). Legitimacy and history: Self-government in American Constitutional Theory. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Kahn, P. (1997). The reign of law. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Kahn, P. (1999). The cultural study of law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  21. Kahn, P. (2008). Sacred violence: Torture, terror, and sovereignty. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kahn, P. (2011). Political theology: Four new chapters on the concept of sovereignty. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Kahn, P. (2016). Making the case: The art of the judicial opinion. New Haven: Yale University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Kahn, P. (2019). Origins of order: Project and system in the American legal imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kant, I. (1785). Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten. Berlin: Verlag von L. Heimann. English Edition: Kant, I. (1873). Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals (Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, Trans.). New York: Green and Company.Google Scholar
  26. Kramer, L. (2004). The people themselves: Popular constitutionalism and judicial review. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Langdell, C. C. (1879). A selection of cases on the law of contracts (2nd ed.). Boston: Little, Brown.Google Scholar
  28. Lilla, M. (2007). The Stillborn God: Religion, politics, and the Modern West. New York: Vintage Books.Google Scholar
  29. Lincoln, A. (1865). Second inaugural address.Google Scholar
  30. Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905).Google Scholar
  31. Locke, J. (1689). Two treatises on Civil Government. London: George Routledge and Sons.Google Scholar
  32. Mandeville, B. (1729). The fable of the bees; or, Private vices, Publick benefits. London: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  33. Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Comm’n, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018).Google Scholar
  34. Minow, M. (1998). Between vengeance and forgiveness: Facing history after genocide and mass violence. Boston: Beacon.Google Scholar
  35. Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015).Google Scholar
  36. Pollock, F. (1890). English opportunities in historical and comparative opportunities, Oxford lectures and other discourses. London: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  37. Rana, A. (2015). Constitutionalism and the foundations of the security state. California Law Review, 103, 335–386.Google Scholar
  38. Schmitt, C. (1922). Politische Theologie. Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveränität. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot. English Edition: Schmitt, C. (2005). Political theology: Four chapters on the concept of sovereignty (George Schwab, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  39. Schmitt, C. (1932). Der Begriff des Politischen. Munich: Duncker & Humblot. English Edition: Schmitt, C. (1996). The concept of the political (George Schwab, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  40. Sheehan, J., & Wahrman, D. (2015). Invisible hands: Self-organization and the eighteenth century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Siegel, R. (2008). Dead or alive: Originalism as popular constitutionalism in Heller. Harvard Law Review, 122, 191–245.Google Scholar
  42. Smith, A. (1776). The wealth of nations. New York: Bantam Classics.Google Scholar
  43. Taylor, C. (2003). Modern social imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Thayer, J. B. (1892). A selection of cases on evidence at the common law. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Thayer, J. B. (1899). Our new possessions. Harvard Law Review, 12, 464–485.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Tiedeman, C. G. (1890). The unwritten constitution of the United States. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.Google Scholar
  47. Tushnet, M. (2006). Popular constitutionalism as political law. Chicago-Kent Law Review, 81, 991–1006.Google Scholar
  48. Unger, R. M. (1996). What should legal analysis become? London: Verso.Google Scholar
  49. Viner, J. (1972). The role of providence in the social order: An essay in intellectual history. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Washington, G. (1796). Farewell address. In V. H. Paltsits (Ed.), Washington’s farewell address, in facsimile. New York: New York Public Library.Google Scholar
  51. Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophische Untersuchungen (English edition: Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigation (G. E. M. Anscombe, Trans.)). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Yale Law SchoolNew HavenUSA

Personalised recommendations