The Common Law
The Common Law is Oliver Wendell Holmes' most sustained work of jurisprudence. In it the careful reader will discern traces of his later thought as found in both his legal opinions and other writings. At the outset of The Common Law Holmes posits that he is concerned with establishing that the common law can meet the changing needs of society while preserving continuity with the past. A common law judge must be creative, both in determining the society's current needs, and in discerning how best to address these needs in a way that is continuous with past judicial decisions. In this way, the law evolves by moving out of its past, adapting to the needs of the present, and establishing a direction for the future. To Holmes' way of thinking, this approach is superior to imposing order in accordance with a philosophical position or theory because the law would thereby lose the flexibility it requires in responding to the needs and demands of disputing parties as well as society as a whole. According to Holmes, the social environment--the economic, moral, and political milieu--alters over time. Therefore in order to remain responsive to this social environment, the law must change as well. But the law is also part of this environment and impacts it. There is, then, a continual reciprocity between the law and the social arrangements in which it is contextualized. And, as with the evolution of species, there is no starting over. Rather, in most cases, a judge takes existing legal concepts and principles, as these have been memorialized in legal precedent, and adapts them, often unconsciously, to fit the requirements of a particular case and present social conditions.
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Page 1 - The life of the law has not been logic ; it has been experience. The felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow-men, have had a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by- which men should be governed. The law embodies the story of a nation's development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms...
Page 5 - The customs, beliefs, or needs of a primitive time establish a rule, or a formula. In the course of centuries the custom, belief, or necessity disappears, but the rule remains. The reason which gave rise to the rule has been forgotten, and ingenious minds set themselves to inquire how it is to be accounted for. Some ground of policy is thought of, which seems to explain it and to reconcile it with the present state of things; and then the rule adapts itself to the new reasons which have been found...
Page 2 - The substance of the law at any given time pretty nearly corresponds, so far as it goes, with what is then understood to be convenient ; but its form and machinery, and the degree to which it is able to work out desired results, depend very much upon its past.
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