RONALD DWORKIN: LEGAL MORALIST
Ronald Dworkin, who has died aged 81, was one of the world's foremost legal philosophers, and a forceful advocate for using morality to interpret issues of constitutional law. He was a leading scholar of constitutional law as a professor in both Britain and the United States, but he exerted equal influence in the wider world with his commentary on political issues and philosophy, most notably in the pages of the New York Review of Books, where his essays flowed like lectures, taking his audience along for an illuminating ride.
His legal philosophy was challenged most heavily from the political right, and he became a particular target when he opposed President Ronald Reagan's appointment to the Supreme Court of his former Yale colleague Robert Bork, with whom he had taught jointly a course in constitutional law. He based his opposition on Bork's strict constructionist approach, which he called a refusal to 'test interpretation of the Constitiution against the principles latent in (the Supreme Court)'s own past decisions.' Believing the framers of the Constitution had imbued it with room for moral interpretation, Dworkin often found such strict interpretations hypocritical, or in the case of the Supreme Court's 2000 decision to 'acclaim' George W Bush president, an exercise in 'professional self interest'. He wrote 'the fiat of the five conservative justices...stopped the deomocratic process in its tracks.'
Dworkin's work for the New York Review stretched from a trenchant analysis of affirmative action through the 2000 election and to the current Roberts court, which he described as a 'right-wing phalanx...guided by no judicial or political principle at all, but only by partisan, cultural, or perhaps religious allegiance'. In the New York Review he published a memorable destruction of the 2010 Citizens United decision, which applied the concept of freedom of speech to allow corporations unlimited spending on political campaign advertising, and a convincing argument in favour of 'Obamacare' and its requirement that people have health insurance. He was attacked, often derided, from the right. Bork called him a 'liberal moral relativist', and the New York Review would often run long criticisms of his articles by Harvard professor Gerald Fried, which Dworkin would then dissect in rebuttal. But Dworkin's principled stances earned the respect, if not agreement, of many on the right. Walter Olson, of the Cato Institute, wrote 'over decades of intra-left legal debate, he took the better side—arguing for the importance of individual rights, free speech, and the integrity of law as a discipline in itself'.
Ronald Myles Dworkin was born in Providence, Rhode Island 11 December 1931. His parents divorced when he was a baby, and his mother raised three children by teaching piano. He won a scholarship to Harvard, and after graduating went to Magdalen College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. His final examination paper was largely critical of the theory of legal positivism, as propagated by H.L.A. Hart, Oxford's Chair of Jurisprudence. Hart saw justice embodied in adherence to the law's system of rules, not requiring the perspective of morality. As it happened, Hart was called in to be one of the reader's of Dworkin's exam, which he passed with highest marks. In 1969, when Hart retired, he nominated Dworkin as his successor to the Chair, and cited passages from that exam in his welcoming speech. They also provided the basis of his collection, Taking Rights Seriously (1977), in which he took apart not only Hart's Concepts Of Law but John Rawls' A Theory Of Justice. Dworkin argued that the law needed to be interpreted to provide justice, rather than relying on a black and white answer, because, strictly speaking, both parties in a dispute might well be 'right' to a greater or lesser degree.
After taking his Oxford exams, Dworkin returned to Harvard to complete another law degree, and then clerked for Judge Learned Hand, of the US Court of Appeals, one of America's greatest jurists. In a move he came to regret, he then turned down an offer to clerk for the Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, instead joining the prestigious New York firm of Sulolivan and Cromwell. He had married Betsy Ross, whom he met while clerking for Hand, with whom they spent one of their first dates, and with the arrival of twins he found the travel demands of the job too pressing, and in 1962 took a professorship at Yale. He added the Oxford post, but in 1975 turned down Harvard and joined the faculty at New York University, helping to build its law school into one of the nation's best. Eventually, he moved to University College, London, and split time between London, where he kept a flat in Belgravia, and New York, with a colonial news house just off Washington Square. His summers were spent on Martha's Vineyard.
Dworkin's most influential book was Law's Empire (1986), which expounded his own theory of law, while in Sovereign Virture he offered a notion of society's parallel needs to allow people freedom to succeed while cushioning them against failure; that although all people were equal under the law, the law needed to realise that all people were not equal (2000). His books, like his essays, moved between the abstract principles of law, and analyses of contemporary legal issues. In Life's Dominion (1993) he examined legal arguments about both abortion and euthanasia, and A Badly Flawed Election (2002) took apart the Supreme Court's Bush v Gore decision. Justice For Hedgehogs (2011), with its title recalling Isiah Berlin, was his attempt to mix all his philosophy into one field theory, and a 16th book, Religion Without God is forthcoming.
Betsy died in 2000, and Dworkin married Irene Brendel, the ex-wife of his friend, the pianist Alfred. He died of cancer, and is survived by his second wife, and his son and daughter from his first marriage.