The legal world is mourning today the loss of one of its intellectual leaders, Ronald Dworkin. Dworkin died in London at age 81 of Leukemia. Ironically, I received news of Dworkin’s death by a reporter with the Washington Post as I was working on a law review article discussing his theory of constitutional interpretation. [Update: Here is the Washington Post article on Dworkin]
Dworkin was a professor of law at New York University as well as an emeritus professor at University College, London.
After hundreds of years of common law in England and the United States, it is rather hard to truly create something original and transformative. Ronald Dworkin is one of the few academics of this century who could claim such a distinction. His Law’s Empire was a transformative and original scholarly work.
Dworkin’s view of the act of interpretation by judges rejected the positivist theories of leading intellectuals like H.L.A. Hart who Dworkin succeeded as the Chair of Jurisprudence at Oxford. Dworkin wrote about the intersection of law and morality and tied his interpretivist theory to a morality based reading of the Constitution. For many, Dworkin was something of a legal prophet who tried to invest legal interpretation with a sense of moral reasoning. His writings offered a new and transcendent view of the law – a view that will influence legal reasoning for generations.
Dworkin saw an underlying moral context and purpose in constitutional text. That moral foundation shaped his interpretivist approach to understanding the evolving meaning of the language. The very limits imposed on government power in Dworkin’s view were the expression of moral principles.
While he is criticized as a moral relativist by some, his writings were powerful and at times poetic defenses of a moral interpretivist view.
He clerked for the famous Learned Hand in New York — an powerful image of two of the influential legal thinkers of the 20th and 21st century working in the same office.
Farewell Ronald and well done.