The Chain of Judicial Command

Legal education typically assumes that in a world in which laws are clear, laws must be followed. If you don’t like the law, t’row de bums out. If a judge does not like the law, the same: the judge must still obey, until the people t’row de bums out. The legislative process is the only socially healthy way to change the law.

And yet, one finds in that most authoritarian, rule-bound of all cultures, the military, an understanding of the importance of having people not follow the rules, even in combat situations in which you might think that the chain of command would be most important.

I have:

Colonel Edson D. Raff was the kind of midlevel combat commander who saw what needed to be done and went ahead and did it without waiting for orders, the kind of innovative, aggressive commander any general would give a million dollars for — if he didn’t have him court-martialed and shot.

Orr Kelly, Meeting the Fox: The Allied Invasion of Africa, From Operation Torch, to Kasserine Pass, to Victory in Tunisia 113 (2002).

And:

The company commander contacted the battalion commander by radio and asked for instructions. As he did so, his company spontaneously rose up, as one man, and assaulted the hill. The assault was such a surprise — as much to the American commanders as to the Italians — that the hill fell to the Americans almost immediately. The spontaneous assault was one of those rare battlefield phenomena where soldiers, acting without orders, see what needs to be done and do it.

Orr Kelly, Meeting the Fox: The Allied Invasion of Africa, From Operation Torch, to Kasserine Pass, to Victory in Tunisia 271 (2002).

I have never read anything like this written of a judge taking orders from a legislature. It is never said. But do judges in fact go ahead and do “it without waiting for orders?” Why, yes, they do. All the time. There is a culture of silence about this, as if judicial disobedience were a more worrisome thing than a lack of discipline on the battlefield. I would have thought, given the stakes, that it would be the other way around.

When judges do “it without waiting for orders” in the right way, and help us win the battle for justice thereby, they make a valuable contribution to our society, a contribution that makes them worth at least $900,000, if not the million that should go to the maverick who through inspired disobedience helps us to succeed on the battlefield. If we can talk about the fact and contribution of disobedience at war, we ought to be able to talk about the fact and contribution of disobedience in adjudication.

In other words, the law in action quite often fails to reflect the law on the books, not only because the law may have gaps, conflicts, and ambiguities, but because judges flout it. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.