Legal Theory Lexicon

This is a collection of the Legal Theory Lexicon posts from Legal Theory Blog. A new entry appears each week on Sunday. The most recent posts appear on this page. To access older posts use the "Table of Contents" below. (Many of the Legal Theory Lexicon posts have benefitted from comments by Ken Simons of the Boston University School of Law.)

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Legal Theory Lexicon 024: Balancing Tests
    Introduction Balancing tests are ubiquitous in American law. From the Due Process Clause to the Freedom of Speech and from the federal joinder rules to personal jurisdiction, U.S. law makes the outcome of legal disputes dependant on the balancing of various interests and factors. Law students quickly become familiar with the idea of a balancing test, and moreover, are likely to quickly develop a cynical attitude about their constraining power. "So it's just subjective?"--is a question often asked in classroom discussion when a balancing test is announced. This post provides a rough and ready introduction to the theoretical issues raised by the notion of a "balancing test." As always, my intended audience consists of law students, especially first years, with an interest in legal theory.
    Case-by-Case versus Systemic Balancing The first distinction to master when thinking about balancing tests is that between case-by-case and systemic balancing. When a court adopts a case=by-case balancing test, the test is applied to each case, one case at a time. For example, in personal jurisdiction law, a case-by-case balancing test is used to determine whether assertions of personal jurisdiction are consistent with the Due Process Clause. But not all balancing is done on a case-by-case basis. For example, Mathews v. Eldridge announced a balancing test for determining whether pre-deprivation hearings are required by Due Process. This balancing test is applied to general categories (types) of deprivations. Once it has been determine that the balancing test does not require a hearing in category (e.g. Social Security disability benefit cases), the result is a categorical rule that can be applied to the category without further balancing.
    There is, of course, an analogy between the difference between case-by-case versus systemic balancing and the difference between act and rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism makes the rightness of an action depend on the consequences of that individual action. Rule utilitarianism makes the rightness of an action depend on whether the action conforms to the system of rules that would produce the best consequences. This analogy points to a larger concept--the scope of decision problem. Many legal theories assume that the scope of decision is an individual action or case, whereas others look to individual legal rules and yet others look to types of rules.
    Here is a nifty move, made famous by David Lyons (the legal philosopher who teaches at Boston University). Lyons argued that rule utilitarianism could be shown to be extensionally equivalent to act utilitarianism. His argument was beautifully simple. Take a rule and a particular action that would be required by act utilitarianism but forbidden by the utility maximizing rule. Now imagine an exception to the rule that would allow the utility maximizing action to be treated differently. The new rule-plus-exception produces more utility than the old rule. Hence rule utilitarianism requires the new rule. Lyons argued that we can iterate this move until rule utilitarianism and act utilitarianism require exactly the same results.
    One more point about case-by-case versus systemic balancing. Both kinds of balancing can be done ex post (backwards looking) or ex ante fowards looking. Take the Learned Hand balancing test for negligence. This test requires us to compare the cost of safety (ex post) against the benefits (ex post). This is ex post, case-by-case balancing. But when courts decide whether to issue an injunction, they sometimes "balance the equities," ex ante, asking whether the injuries done if the injunction does not issue will outweigh those that will result if the injunction is entered--in the future. Likewise, systemic balancing can be done either ex post or ex ante.
    What is Balanced? Yet another question that must be faced by any balancing test is "What is balanced?" Courts seem to think that just about any sort of interest or factor can be balanced. One kind of balancing test is represented by the International Shoe test for personal jurisdiction. This test balances interests--i.e. the interest of the plaintiff in the forum, the interest of the forum in the dispute, and so forth. Another kind of balancing test takes a varity of so-called factors into account: "prejudice to the defendant," "the impact on nonparties," and so forth in the case of tests for mandatory joinder. Properly speaking, such factors cannot really be balanced. Interests belong on the same scale--at least if they are the right kind of interests, but "factors" are usually considerations that bear in complex ways on a decision. The integration of multiple factors into a decision may involve balancing, but it also may involve reasoning that doesn’t actually weigh and compare commensurables.
    The Commensurability Problem This last point about balancing tests leads to a very fundamental idea in legal theory. Some approaches to moral theory make all ultimate values commensurable. In contemporary law and economics, for example, one approach reduces all value to preference-satisfaction, which then can be weighed via a Bergson-Samuelson social utility function. W(x) = F {U1(x), U2(x), . . UN(x)}, where F is some increasing function, U1 is the utility of state of affairs X for individual number 1, and so forth. Although some forms of consequentialism have the property of making all values commensurable, many moral theories do not have this property. Deontological ethics and virtue ethics, for example, generally are interpreted as maintaining that not all values are commensurable and hence as denying that balancing is even possible in some choice situations.
    The commensurability problem also provides a nifty move for legal theorists. If someone proposes a balancing test, ask yourself if the things that it requires to be weighed are such that they really can be measured on the same scale. If not, then the proposed balancing test simply will not be able to do the work assigned to it.
    Balancing Tests and the Rule of Law Yet another issue concerning balancing tests is the fancy version of the law student's intuition that balancing tests are subjective. Justice Scalia, for example, has argued that balancing tests undermine the rule of law because of their subjectivity and elasticity. If we believe that the rule of law values--certainty and predictability of the law--are very great social goods, then we have a general reason to prefer categorical rules to balancing tests. On the other hand, some balancing tests may be actually be more predictable than some rules with respect to a particular problem. For example, a case could be made that the "purposeful availment" component of the International Shoe test for personal jurisdiction is more subjective than the multifactor balancing component of the Shoe test. Some rules are very fuzzy; some balancing tests are quite precise.
    Conclusion Balancing tests are so common in American law, that you might begin to take them for granted, but that would be a mistake. Almost every balancing test raises interesting issues of legal theory. I hope this post has provided you with the tools to begin asking those questions.
For a collection of all the Legal Theory Lexicon posts, surf here.