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This paper concerns two topics which, I hope to show, are vitally connected. One is the distinctive importance of appellate adjudication in the legal system of United States. The other is the workings of entangled concepts in the law. That appellate adjudication is important in some sense may seem obvious to everybody (to a few it will seem obvious that appellate adjudication is unimportant). My point will be that via appellate adjudication courts engineer entangled legal concepts, and it is this aspect of appellate adjudication that is both crucial and unique to it, at least in the U.S. legal system. Entangled concepts intertwine description and evaluation; entangled legal concepts facilitate and constrain legal reasoning and legal judgments, in ways that distinguish legal adjudication from pure politics or the implementation of public policy. In the paper itself, I demonstrate more fully what it is for a legal concept to be an entangled one and how entanglement supplies guidance in adjudication. I also broach how entanglement in legal concepts and engineered entanglement have significance for legal pedagogy; appellate adjudication; the respective roles of the judiciary, the legislature, and administrative agencies; the erosion of the distinction between so-called public law and so-called private law; and our understanding of the fact/value distinction.

Understanding more specifically the nature of the entanglement at work in appellate adjudication requires much closer scrutiny of appellate opinions than we usually give. I examine carefully the background to MacPherson v. Buick and Justice Benjamin Cardozo’s particular re-engineering of ‘negligence’ and ‘duty,’ entangled concepts belonging to the same legal taxonomy. Via this scrutiny, I demonstrate the flaws in the engineering of some concepts in the buildup to MacPherson, and how these flaws led to those concepts’ collapse and ultimately to Cardozo’s re-engineering of ‘negligence’ and ‘duty.’ I also explain why careful understanding of the engineering of entangled legal concepts can make us appreciate that even the most successful of such concepts have within in them the grounds for their own obsolescence.

To show that conceptual engineering of entangled concepts occurs outside the context of state common law, I also examine how the U.S. Supreme Court has engineered ‘commerce’, itself an entangled concept. The recent decision regarding the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act makes this example particularly timely. This secondary example also clarifies the nature of entanglement and engineering it.

This article concerns appellate adjudication in any area of law. I maintain that whether we are dealing with private law or public law, common law or statutory law or Constitutional law, the defining feature of appellate adjudication is its continuous engineering and reengineering of entangled legal concepts. The merger of fact and value in these concepts explains both the fertility of appellate adjudication and the constraints judges work with when they work with legal concepts that entangle fact and value.

Publication Citation

5 Wash. U. Jur. Rev. 61-105 (2012)