One of the ways our legal system has avoided confronting this ugly reality is through a commitment to legal formalism. Legal formalism allows us to ignore the social determinants that my AUSA friend saw every day as he prosecuted federal drug cases. As my colleague Professor Michael Seidman has suggested, legal formalism, which has been effectively critiqued and displaced by legal realism in many other areas of law, continues to exercise considerable influence over the way we think about criminal law. This formalist approach, in my view, has strongly affected the way we approach the drug problem. One consequence is that we continue to pursue an increasingly futile war on drugs and refuse to see the issue in its broader, realist dimension. A little realism on the subject of drugs, I suggest, would go a long way. There is much to be said for formalism in the criminal law. Formalism, with its commitment to fair procedures, clear rules, and restricted discretion, is a necessary part of any fair system of criminal law. The sanctions involved in the criminal system are too severe to permit them to be allocated in an open ended discretionary or regulatory manner. The criminal law's commitment to formalism is thus not a fault, but a strength. Discretionary regulatory schemes too often invite subjective judgments susceptible to abuse, prejudice, and favoritism. Formalist rules, by contrast, are built on the promise of treating likes alike. Precisely for this reason, however, we ought to reconsider whether the criminal approach makes sense when there is substantial evidence that the commitment to equality has been seriously compromised. Our dual commitments to equality and to the reduction of the human damage that drug abuse inflicts suggest that we should reduce our reliance on the criminal justice system. Alternative approaches, such as treatment and rehabilitation, promise to be both more effective and more fair.
35 Suffolk U. L. Rev. 241-255 (2001)
Scholarly Commons Citation
Cole, David, "Formalism, Realism, and the War on Drugs" (2001). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 71.