Remembering the Towering ‘Legal Philosopher’ Ronald Dworkin

February 15, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

There is not an abundance of legal scholars able to accessibly and compellingly explain constitutional principles and values, and the world just lost one of the best. Ronald Dworkin died February 14 “after a valiant battle with leukemia,” New York University Law School announced. Dworkin was a longtime distinguished professor at NYU Law. He also taught at Oxford and later the University of London, as The Guardian notes.

He was also, as The New York Times Adam Liptak reports, a prolific writer (he authored more than 100 articles for The New York Review of Books, and authored numerous influential books on law and philosophy, possibly his most influential, Liptak says is the Law’s Empire “on the nature and role of adjudication.” Liptak noted the book “was among the most-cited books on law of the last century.” Before entering academia, Dworkin also clerked for Judge Learned hand, “a towering figure in the law,” as Liptak notes.

The Guardian’s Godfrey Hodgson writes, Dworkin “developed a powerful, scholarly exegesis of the law, and expounded issues of burning topicality and public concern – including how the law should deal with race, abortion euthanasia and equality – in ways that wee accessible to lay readers. His legal arguments were subtly presented applications to specific problems of a classic liberal philosophy which, in turn, was grounded in his belief that law must take its authority from what ordinary people would recognise as moral virtue.”

Because of his unbending “loyalty to the New Deal tradition set by his hero Franklin D. Roosevelt,” as Hodgson puts it, Dworkin not surprisingly alienated and drew overwrought attacks from rightist law professors and policy makers. As Liptak notes, the conservative jurist Richard Posner once accused Dworkin of merely, in a polemic manner, touting “a standard menu of left-liberal policies.”

The NYRB as it mourns “the loss of a long-standing contributor and friend” presents a selection of some of Dworkin’s work.


From a piece examining the Supreme Court’s rulings on some of the George W. Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies, Dworkin wrote that the high court’s work “might prove to a more profound impact, because the justices’ arguments provide the legal basis for a much more powerful conclusion than the Court itself drew – that the Constitution does not permit the government to hold suspected enemy combatants or terrorists indefinitely without charging them and convicting them of crimes, according them all the traditional protections of our criminal law process, unless they are treated in effect as prisoners of war. They would then have the benefits and protections allowed international law, including the Geneva Conventions.”  

What Posner and others saw as a controversial voice for liberal principles, others saw a towering “legal philosopher” willing to wade into the “largest moral and political issues of the day through his lectures and scholarship.”

[image via Wikimedia Commons]