Judicial Doctrine as Risk Regulation

by Brannon P. Denning & Michael B. Kent, Jr.

Much of the literature on risk regulation concerns “first-order” risks—e.g., those addressed by environmental law or workplace safety rules. But scholars recently have suggested that risk regulation can provide a helpful framework for thinking about “second-order,” or political, risks arising from allocations of power and institutional design. Although a few commentators have utilized this perspective to suggest connections between risk regulation and particular areas of constitutional law, in this essay we take a broader view. Building on the existing literature, we argue that the selection of constitutional decision rules is a judicial effort to regulate the political risk that government officials will violate constitutional principles.

After making the case that it is helpful to view judicial doctrinal formation as a species of political risk regulation, we discuss some implications of this risk regulation model and pose some questions for future research. We conclude that the risk regulation model reinforces the notion that the formation of doctrine is a temporally extended process, rather than a one-time event, and it provides a metric by which that doctrine can be evaluated. Additionally, the risk regulation model helps explain some of the more commonly critiqued features of constitutional law. Finally, the risk regulation model raises important questions that merit further investigation: (1) Should we trust judicial perceptions of and responses to political risk? (2) What influences risk assessment among judges, and are those influences (and resulting assessments) normatively defensible? (3) What connection, if any, exists between judicial risk assessment and the myriad doctrinal formulae employed by the Supreme Court?

 

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