Olde Fields, New Corn, and an Inscription

hlscrest.pngI have always been facinated by the confrontation between James I and Chief Justice Edward Coke over the nature of the common law. The king asserted the right to dictate the law because, he reasoned, law was simply the expression of natural reason and the king’s reason was as good as the judges. Coke responded by conceding that the law was reason, but insisted that it was an “artificial reason” that could only be gained by deep study and long experience. Coke’s response is cryptic, and historians of greater learning than I have lavished a great deal of attention on what precisely he meant in context. I take it, however, that Coke is claiming that rules built up in the law over the centuries represent a well of experience and wisdom that exceeds what we might acquire by rational construction on a tabula rasa. As it happens I am a big fan of the common law, and I tend to have more faith in judicial caususitry than in a priori philosophical speculations. In some sense, I believe in the artificial reason of the law.

Hence, I was fancinated when I ran across Felix Frankfurter’s dedication in his 1930 book The Labor Injunction. He wrote, “To Mr. Justice Brandeis, for whom law is not a system of artificial reason, but the application of ethical ideals, with freedom at the core.” The shifts in jurisprudential world views crammed into that inscription is really quite impressive. There is also a wonderful irony in the fact that Frankfurter no doubt penned these words at the Harvard Law School, which is of course covered with the law school’s crest on which are prominently displayed sheaves of wheat. The sheaves are an allusion to Coke and another of his maxims on the law: “From olde fields, springs forth new corn.” The dirt of experience and history imagined by Coke, however, strike me as quite different — less ethereal and celestial — than the “ethical ideals” for which Frankfurter praised Brandeis.

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