February 26, 2018 Print

Blackstone & Burke Provides Successful Judicial Education Sessions in Alabama

Many important court cases concerning individual liberties make their way to the Supreme Court of the United States. However, thousands more decisions reinforcing — or, conversely, dismantling — constitutional rights are decided by state circuit and supreme courts. The sheer amount of judges and cases throughout state courts presents an excellent opportunity to advance the cause of liberty, where Atlas Network partner Blackstone & Burke Center for Law and Liberty focuses.

The Blackstone & Burke Center, based at Faulkner University’s Thomas Goode Jones School of Law in Montgomery, Alabama, has seen success in working to promote the ideas of liberty among Alabama’s judges and legal community. The inaugural session of the Judicial Seminar series, held at the Alabama State Bar headquarters, featured a discussion between eight Alabama judges on the role of natural law in the courtroom. Led by Eric R. Claeys, professor of law at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, the discussion examined historic cases and included works by St. Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, Sir William Blackstone, and Joseph Story.

“Sitting judges also need to gain historical and philosophical context for their everyday work and routines,” said Dr. Allen Mendenhall, executive director of the Blackstone & Burke Center. “They need to see themselves as part of the bigger picture so they appreciate the gravity of their decisions. That’s why our judicial seminar assigns readings not just from modern cases but from Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Montesquieu, Jefferson, Burke, and so on.”

The seminar was designed to promote discussion on such topics as the role of the judiciary in relation to the legislature, the origin of money, the meaning and application of social contract theory, and the use of natural law in judicial decision making. The overall objective of the session was to familiarize judges with the historical origins of law, and how natural law has shaped judicial processes, with the goal of spurring a conversation among judges to help promote the application of natural law in the courtroom.

“Rather than debating present conflicts revolving around terms like judicial engagement and judicial restraint, we want judges having an appropriate context for those conflicts,” continued Dr. Mendenhall. “Before adopting a particular mode of statutory construction, for instance, a judge needs to understand the English origins of the United States Constitution, the story of the growth of Parliament and parliamentary supremacy in English history, the theoretical postulates of Locke and Bentham, the figures and philosophies that influenced the American Founders, the origins of judicial review, and different perspectives on rights and duties.” This inaugural seminar session is just the first of a number of planned judicial seminars by the Blackstone & Burke Center. Each of the judges in attendance expressed interest in attending future sessions, and the discussions on natural law have already made an impact with the judges who attended.

“One of the judges who attended our October seminar recently called me to say that he and another judge, his friend and colleague, had discussed natural law over lunch in relation to a case on their docket,” recalled Dr. Mendenhall. “He said he referenced the readings from our seminar. “It’s improbable that natural-law theory would have been a point of discussion had this particular judge not recently participated in our seminar in which natural law was the principal subject. I don’t know how that case was resolved, what specific issues it involved, or whether this discussion about natural law played any role in its disposition, but I was pleased to learn that two sitting judges were seriously considering the larger, long-term ramifications of the case from a philosophical standpoint.”

Among typical judicial seminars, the Blackstone & Burke Center’s seminar stood out, according to its participants. The discussions were philosophically and intellectually engaging, whereas the typical judicial education seminar functions essentially as a networking event, as described by one of the attendees. The discussion-based nature of the Blackstone & Burke seminars will ensure that future iterations of the event will be well attended and that the ideas of liberty in law will continue to spread among Alabama’s judges.

The Blackstone & Burke Center for Law and Liberty received an Atlas Network grant in support of its Judicial Seminar series.