The Corrective Justice Theory of Punishment


The American penal system is racist, degrading, and inefficient. Nonetheless, we cannot give up on punishment entirely, for social peace and cooperation depend on the deterrent threat of the criminal sanction. The question—central to determining the degree to which punishment is justified—is why society’s need for general deterrence is an offender’s problem. Why is it his responsibility to scare off would-be future offenders? His past offense does not magically render him accountable for the actions of total strangers. Existing theories of criminal justice are unable to answer this question.

This Article fills the lacuna—justifying state punishment, but, more importantly, establishing its moral limits—with the help of tort law principles. It argues that deterrent punishment can be justified as a means of rectifying an offender’s contribution to “criminality”—not merely the perceived but the objective threat of crime in society. Criminality chills the exercise of our rights, forces us to take expensive precautions, and exposes us to unreasonable risks of harm. By having increased the level of criminality in the past, an offender owes a duty of repair to society as a whole, a duty of “corrective justice” in the language of tort theorists. He can fulfill this duty by decreasing the threat of crime in the future. In this way, deterrent punishment does not merely sacrifice him to limit the problem of future crime, for which he has no personal responsibility. Rather, it forces him to fulfill his own duty of repair.

This novel theory—the corrective justice theory of punishment—entails three sentencing principles. First, punishment must in fact deter crime and must be the most efficient means of doing so. Second, however efficient it may be, punishment must not harm an offender more than is required to repair his criminality contribution. Third, even if it is both efficient and reparative, punishment must not harm an offender to a degree that is entirely out of proportion to the harm prevented by doing so. The Article demonstrates how these three principles, in combination, demand a radical reduction in American sentencing scales. The Article thus concludes that the corrective justice view presents stable moral ground for the de-carceral movement in America.


The American penal system is racist,1.See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (10th Anniversary ed. 2020); Desmond S. King & Rogers M. Smith, Racial Orders in American Political Development, 99 Am. Pol. Sci. Rev. 75 (2005); Dorothy E. Roberts, The Social and Moral Cost of Mass Incarceration in African American Communities, 56 Stan. L. Rev. 1271 (2004).Show More degrading,2.See Jacob Bronsther, Long-Term Incarceration and the Moral Limits of Punishment, 41 Cardozo L. Rev. 2369 (2020); Jonathan Simon, Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America 10 (2014).Show More and inefficient.3.See Rachel Elise Barkow, Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration (2019); David M. Kennedy, Deterrence and Crime Prevention (2009); Mark A. R. Kleiman, When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (2009); Oliver Roeder, Lauren-Brooke Eisen & Julia Bowling, What Caused the Crime Decline? (2015); Franklin E. Zimring, Gordon Hawkins & Sam Kamin, Punishment and Democracy: Three Strikes and You’re Out in California (2001).Show More We punish too many people too harshly. Nonetheless, we cannot give up on punishment entirely, for Hobbes is still right: social peace and cooperation in the modern world require state punishment for those who break the law.4.See Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan 86–129, 183–221 (Richard Tuck ed., Cambridge Univ. Press rev. student ed. 1996) (1651).Show More Not a lot of punishment.5.There is considerable evidence that the certainty of receiving some level of punishment is more important for the purpose of deterrence than the severity of the punishment applied. See Daniel S. Nagin, Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century, 42 Crime & Just. 199, 201 (2013); Andrew von Hirsch, Anthony E. Bottoms, Elizabeth Burney & Per-Olof Wikström, Criminal Deterrence and Sentence Severity: An Analysis of Recent Research 25–27, 47–48 (1999); Steven N. Durlauf & Daniel S. Nagin, Imprisonment and Crime: Can Both Be Reduced?, 10 Criminology & Pub. Pol’y 13, 13–14 (2011).Show More Much less than we currently dole out—but some. Whether as an expression of human rationality or selfishness, people behave badly without the threat of the criminal sanction.6.See Hobbes, supra note 4, at 86–100 (discussing the limited circumstances in which cooperation is rational); Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation 3–24 (Penguin Books 1990) (1984) (same); Robert Sugden, The Economics of Rights, Co-operation and Welfare 36–57 (2d ed. 2004) (same).Show More Indeed, recent examples of societies operating without criminal justice systems—such as Denmark after German soldiers arrested its police force in 1944,7.Johannes Andenaes, The General Preventive Effects of Punishment, 114 U. Pa. L. Rev. 949, 962 (1966) (reporting that during the German occupation of Denmark, when an unarmed watch corps served as a makeshift police force, the frequency of street crimes like robbery rose very sharply).Show More Iraq after U.S. and coalition forces overthrew the Baathist regime in 2003,8.Naomi Klein, Baghdad Year Zero: Pillaging Iraq in Pursuit of a Neocon Utopia, Harper’s Mag., Sept. 2004, at 43, 46–53 (reporting widespread lawlessness after the fall of the Baathist regime); John F. Burns, Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of Its Treasure, N.Y. Times (Apr. 12, 2003), [] (reporting looting).Show More and the Brazilian state of Espírito Santo after its police force went on strike in 20179.Paulo Whitaker & Pablo Garcia, Over 100 Dead in Brazil as Police Strike Spurs Anarchy, Reuters (Feb. 9, 2017, 10:21 AM), [] (reporting widespread violence in the wake of the police strike); Lola Mosanya, ‘Crazy Violence’ in Brazilian State During Police Strike, BBC Newsbeat (Feb. 11, 2017),–38942911/crazy-violence-in-brazilian-state-during-police-strike [] (same); Paulo Whitaker, Some Brazil Police Break Strike Following Wave of Homicides, Reuters (Feb. 12, 2017, 11:36 AM), [] (same).Show More—loudly support the thesis that we need some level of general deterrence to maintain civil order.

The question—central to determining the degree to which punishment is justified—is why society’s need for general deterrence is an offender’s problem. How could it be that breaking the law means that the state is entitled to harm you to scare off would-be future offenders?10 10.“Specific” deterrence, whereby an individual’s punishment is meant to discourage his own future offending, does not raise this concern.Show More There is something positively sinister in Reverend Sydney Smith’s statement of the deterrence theory from 1824: “When a man has been proved to have committed a crime, it is expedient that society should make use of that man for the diminution of crime: he belongs to them for that purpose.”11 11.Sydney Smith, The Treatment of Untried Prisoners (1824), reprinted in Essays: Social and Political 236, 249 n.* (London, Ward, Lock & Bowden, Ltd. n.d.) (emphasis added).Show More Consider, by comparison, that if punishing an entirely innocent person happened to deter crime, we still would not do it. It is not that person’s responsibility to scare off would-be future offenders. But why is it the responsibility of an actual offender? His past offense does not magically render him accountable for the actions of total strangers. His punishment would thus seem to merely sacrifice him for the greater good,12 12.See Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), reprinted in Practical Philosophy 37, 80 (Mary J. Gregor ed. & trans., 1996) (1785) (“So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”).Show More in the specific sense that it would intentionally harm him as a means of mitigating a social problem for which he lacks responsibility.13 13.See Jacob Bronsther, Vague Comparisons and Proportional Sentencing, 25 Legal Theory 26, 48 (2019).Show More In different guises, this question has been raised many times before.14 14.See, e.g., Ted Honderich, Punishment: The Supposed Justifications 53 (1969); Johannes Andenaes, The Morality of Deterrence, 37 U. Chi. L. Rev. 649, 649 (1970); Nigel Walker, The Efficacy and Morality of Deterrents, 1979 Crim. L. Rev. 129, 139; Kent Greenawalt, Punishment, 74 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 343, 353 (1983); Warren Quinn, The Right to Threaten and the Right to Punish, 14 Phil. & Pub. Affs. 327, 330–31 (1985); Wojciech Sadurski, Giving Desert Its Due: Social Justice and Legal Theory 253 (1985); Igor Primoratz, Justifying Legal Punishment 35 (1989); Victor Tadros, The Ends of Harm: The Moral Foundations of Criminal Law 113–14 (2011).Show More But thus far scholars have ignored or awkwardly side-stepped the issue,15 15.See infra Part I.Show More leaving a justificatory hole at the center of the criminal law.

This Article presents a solution—justifying state punishment, but, more importantly, establishing its moral limits—through a new conception of criminal justice: the corrective justice theory of punishment. On this view, deterrent punishment can be justified, but only to a limited degree, as a means of rectifying an offender’s contribution to the threat of crime in society. Not just an abstract justification of state punishment, but also a set of strict sentencing principles, the corrective justice theory presents stable moral ground for the de-carceral movement in America.

In developing this view, the Article conceives of the criminal law as a system of protections—against murder, rape, theft, drunk driving, and so forth—upon which all citizens rely for their assured liberty and safety, and that depends for its effectiveness on the deterrent threat of punishment. This, I argue, is the function of the criminal law. We punish not to give wrongdoers a deserved allotment of suffering or condemnation, as on the retributivist view,16 16.See infra notes 35–49 and accompanying text.Show More nor simply to increase the “cost” of offending, as on the utilitarian theory of deterrence,17 17.See infra notes 29–30 and accompanying text.Show More but to help maintain a civil order in which strangers can live together peacefully and productively.

Put differently, the traditional theories understand the criminal law to have only two subjects: offenders and victims. The criminal law either (a) delivers retribution to an offender for creating a victim or (b) prevents the creation of future victims. What these theories have left out, somehow, is everybody else. When it is working, the criminal law is an indispensable source of security for all people, bathing them in protection as they, say, ride a busy subway in the morning and as they sleep in their beds at night. Beyond its protections against violence, the criminal law also helps to regulate cooperative enterprises like the traffic system and the stock market.18 18.See Lindsay Farmer, Making the Modern Criminal Law: Criminalization and Civil Order 37–60 (2016); Vincent Chiao, Criminal Law in the Age of the Administrative State 35–70 (2019).Show More Of course, other forms of law, like contract law, and non-legal social norms,19 19.See Robert C. Ellickson, Order Without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes (1991) (arguing that informal norms can enable social cooperation); Eric A. Posner, The Regulation of Groups: The Influence of Legal and Nonlegal Sanctions on Collective Action, 63 U. Chi. L. Rev. 133, 135 (1996) (examining the interactions between the legal and non-legal normative orders).Show More like the norm against cutting a line, also facilitate civil society. But I maintain, following Hobbes, that these more refined means of civilization depend on the underlying threat of the criminal law.

The Article then explains that the criminal law, as a system of protections, rests ultimately not on police intervention, but rather on people self-applying criminal legal norms. This, I argue, is the method of the criminal law. When I walk down a street, I am not relying upon the police to protect me like personal guards, but rather upon other people within the jurisdiction to self-apply the rules that prohibit assaulting me, stealing my wallet, and so forth.

This conception of the criminal law clarifies the nature of the criminal wrong. When an individual offender fails to self-apply the criminal law, then, in combination with other offenders, he contributes to a wider social threat. This is “criminality”—not merely the perceived but the objective threat of crime. The social costs of criminality are reflected in both the completed offenses themselves and the actions taken to prevent or avoid the completed offenses. That is, in addition to subjecting us to unreasonable risks of harm, criminality also chills the exercise of our rights and forces us to take expensive precautions. Thus, the more criminality there is in society, the less worth the criminal law has as a guide to the possible incursions of other people, and the less assured is our liberty. Deterrent punishment, as a means of holding an offender responsible for his criminality contributions, is thereby permissible; that is, it does not merely sacrifice him to mitigate a problem for which he lacks responsibility.

In accordance with the corrective justice theory, we can use an offender via general deterrence as a means of repairing the damage to our assured liberty caused by his past criminality contributions. He increased the level of criminality in the past to some degree, contributing to a threat that makes life in society more difficult, perilous, and expensive; and the way to repair that—as a means of securing what tort law theorists call “corrective justice”20 20.See generally Jules L. Coleman, Risks and Wrongs 324 (1992) (“Corrective justice imposes on wrongdoers the duty to repair their wrongs and the wrongful losses their wrongdoing occasions. . . . losses for which they are responsible.”); Ernest J. Weinrib, Corrective Justice 17 (2012) (“Because the defendant, if liable, has committed the same injustice that the plaintiff has suffered, the reason the plaintiff wins ought to be the same as the reason the defendant loses.”); Jules Coleman, Corrective Justice and Wrongful Gain, 11 J. Legal Stud. 421, 421–22 (1982) (arguing that corrective justice is the foundation of tort law and responding to efficiency-based theories of tort law); Scott Hershovitz, Corrective Justice for Civil Recourse Theorists, 39 Fla. St. U. L. Rev. 107, 109 (2011) (suggesting a conception of corrective justice that is compatible with the civil recourse theory of tort law); Stephen R. Perry, The Moral Foundations of Tort Law, 77 Iowa L. Rev. 449 (1992) (surveying and critiquing theories of corrective justice).Show More—is to use him to decrease the level of criminality in the future. The state is not merely sacrificing him to limit the problem of future crime. Rather, it is forcing him to fulfill his own duty, owed to society as a whole, to repair his criminality contributions and restore the reliability of the criminal law system. Over time, ideally—with would-be future offenders appropriately deterred—it would be as if he had never contributed to criminality at all, in terms of the average threat of crime faced by society. In this way, the Article justifies general deterrence with the help of tort law principles. It explains that we ought to conceive of the criminal wrong as a tort against society, in the form of a criminality contribution, and then of deterrent punishment as an equitable remedy for that wrong.

Does it matter whether we get this theory (or any such theory of punishment) right? Emphatically yes. As John Gardner writes, “criminalization and criminal punishment are prima facie such abhorrent practices,”21 21.John Gardner, Offences and Defences: Selected Essays in the Philosophy of Criminal Law 204 (2007).Show More and so the burden of justifying these practices rests squarely and heavily upon the state. The stakes for offenders are high, even in mild systems of punishment; and the state needs an honest and convincing answer when someone asks, “Why am I being punished?” The corrective justice theory aims to provide that answer.

Further, a society’s theory of punishment is ultimately its theory of criminal sentencing. The reasons that explain why the state can permissibly punish at all will also prescribe how much and what type of punishment is handed down. This Article examines the sentencing implications of the corrective justice theory at length. The basic sentencing principle is as follows: by increasing past criminality by X units, an offender owes a duty to society to decrease future criminality by X units. The Article then develops three subsidiary principles.

First, the infliction of penal harm must be parsimonious, meaning that it must generate deterrence and must be the most efficient means of doing so. Given that the budget for crime prevention is limited, the state should ask, for each dollar spent, whether investments in the community, such as early childhood development programs, would represent a more efficient means of reducing future criminality.

Second, punishment must be reparative, repairing only the offender’s wrongdoing, rather than merely being “useful.” The offender does not simply “belong to society,” as on Rev. Smith’s view.22 22.Smith, supra note 11, at 249.Show More When punishing an offender is in fact the most efficient means of crime prevention, the state is entitled to harm him to the degree required to erase his criminality contribution, but no more. Utilitarian deterrence theories, by comparison, lack internal sentencing limits tied to the severity of offenses and would indeed license the punishment of innocent people if it happened to maximize social welfare.

Third, sentences must be equitable. What if the infliction of deterrent harm were parsimonious and reparative, but nonetheless draconian? Imagine that only thirty-year prison sentences could erase the criminality contributions of car thieves. This Article draws insight from the law of equity, examining when courts will grant an injunction in response to a tort or specific performance in response to a breach of contract. The Article concludes that it is impermissible to harm an offender to a degree that is entirely out of proportion to the harm prevented by doing so. A thirty-year sentence for a car thief, even if it were the singular means of generating the requisite amount of deterrence, would be entirely out of proportion to the reparative benefit gained by society.23 23.Cf. Blackfield v. Thomas Allec Corp., 17 P.2d 165, 165 (Cal. Dist. Ct. App. 1932) (holding that removing an overhang at a cost of $6,875 was entirely out of proportion to the $200 in damages suffered by the plaintiff).Show More

Finally, the Article explains how jurisdictions can apply these principles in the real world and demonstrates how they would radically reduce American sentencing scales.

This Article proceeds in four parts. Part I demonstrates that the two dominant schools of criminal law theory—utilitarianism and retributivism—are unable to explain how general deterrence might be consistent with a principled refusal to sacrifice people to limit harms or threats for which they lack responsibility. Part II introduces the conception of the criminal law as a system of protections. It shows how this system depends on people self-applying criminal legal norms and how offenders create the threat of criminality as a byproduct of their unreliability with regard to upholding the criminal law. The analogy is to factories contributing to smog and global warming as a byproduct of their pollution. Part II also defends the empirical premise that this system of protections requires a certain amount of deterrent punishment to function effectively. Part III introduces the “corrective justice” principle that provides an exception to the general prohibition on using people as a means to the greater good. This principle explains that an individual has a duty to rectify the losses or damage caused by his wrongful conduct and that he can permissibly be forced to fulfill this duty. Part III then applies this principle to the conception of the criminal law and criminality detailed above to generate the corrective justice theory of punishment. Part IV develops the corrective justice theory of sentencing.

The Constitution’s First Declared War: The Northwestern Confederacy War of 1790–95

What counts as the first presidential war—the practice of Presidents waging war without prior congressional sanction? In the wake of President Donald Trump’s attacks on Syria, the Office of Legal Counsel opined that unilateral presidential war-making dates back 230 years, to George Washington. The Office claimed that the first President waged war against Native American tribes in the Northwest Territory without first securing congressional authorization. If true, executive war-making has a pedigree as old as the Constitution itself. Grounded in a systematic review of congressional laws, executive correspondence, and rich context of the era, this Article evaluates the claim that our first President waged war in reliance upon his constitutional authority. In fact, there is little that supports the bold claim. Congress authorized war against Northwestern tribes raiding frontier settlements. In other words, Congress exercised its power to declare war and did, in fact, declare war, albeit without using that phrase. Moreover, Washington and his cabinet repeatedly disclaimed any constitutional power to wage war without congressional sanction, making it exceedingly unlikely that he waged war of his own accord or in sole reliance on his constitutional powers. Washington’s abjurations of power should make executive-branch lawyers blush, for the Commander in Chief and his celebrated advisors, including Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Knox, consistently observed that Presidents could not take the nation to war and, therefore, could not sanction offensive measures, including attacks. The Constitution’s First War was a congressional war through and through, just as the Constitution requires. It was not a presidential war and cannot be cited as a long-lost precedent for presidential wars in Korea, Libya, or Iran.


In January of 2020, the United States killed Qasem Soleimani.1.Merrit Kennedy & Jackie Northam, Was It Legal for the U.S. To Kill a Top Iranian Military Leader?, NPR (Jan. 4, 2020), []; Oona A. Hathaway, The Soleimani Strike Defied the U.S. Constitution, Atlantic (Jan. 4, 2020), [https://pe­].Show More Soleimani was Iran’s second-most powerful leader and responsible for killing many American military personnel. The drone strike touched off praise and censure, including doubts about its constitutionality.2.Rand Paul (@RandPaul), Twitter (Jan. 3, 2020, 9:02 AM),­RandPaul/status/1213098238573723649 [].Show More Could the President kill a foreign leader with no congressional authorization? Senator Rand Paul insisted that “[i]f we are to go to war [with] Iran the Constitution dictates that we declare war.”3.Risch Says Soleimani Was ‘Ratcheting Up’ Attacks on the U.S., PBS NewsHour (Jan. 3, 2020), [] (statement of Sen. James Risch). Although the Senator also cited the War Powers Act, the Act conveys no authority to order attacks. Id.; War Powers Resolution of 1973, Pub. L. No. 93-148, § 2, 87 Stat. 555.Show More Senator James Risch disagreed, arguing that “the president . . . has [war] powers under Article 2 of the Constitution.”4.Paul Kane & Mike DeBonis, Trump’s Order To Strike Iranian Commander Sparks Fresh Debate in Congress over War Powers, Wash. Post(Jan. 3, 2020), https://www.washington [].Show More He further noted that “[t]his debate [over war powers] started under George Washington.”5.April 2018 Airstrikes Against Syrian Chemical-Weapon Facilities, 42 Op. O.L.C. 1, 1 (May 31, 2018),­31/2018-05-31-syrian-airstrikes_1.pdf [].Show More

The audacious attack was hardly unprecedented. In 2018, the United States launched a missile strike against Syrian chemical weapons facilities.6.Michael R. Gordon, Helene Cooper & Michael D. Shear, Dozens of U.S. Missiles Hit Air Base in Syria, N.Y. Times (Apr. 6, 2017),­middleeast/us-said-to-weigh-military-responses-to-syrian-chemical-attack.html [].Show More And the year before, the military attacked a Syrian air base with targeted airstrikes.7.April 2018 Airstrikes Against Syrian Chemical-Weapon Facilities, supra note 6, at 1.Show More Again, no federal law sanctioned any of these earlier strikes. Rather, President Donald J. Trump relied upon his constitutional powers.

In the wake of the 2018 Syrian strikes, the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (“OLC”) opined that President Trump had constitutional authority to attack other 7 (quoting Presidential Authority To Permit Incursion into Communist Sanctuaries in the Cambodia-Vietnam Border Area, 1 Op. O.L.C. Supp. 313, 331 (1970)).Show More The OLC stressed that “[the President] as Commander in Chief, is authorized to commit . . . hostilities, without prior congressional approval.” 3.Show More Although the OLC opinion briefly gestured towards constitutional provisions, it actually relied almost entirely on practice. The claim was that President Trump could order the strikes because his predecessors on “dozens of occasions over the course of 230 years” had done the same.10 10.The administration provided a rather brief legal justification for the Soleimani strike, arguing that under Article II, Presidents could use force to, among other things, “protect important national interests.” White House, Notice on the Legal and Policy Frameworks Guiding the United States’ Use of Military Force and Related National Security Operations (2020),­05722/6E1A0F30F9204E380A7AD0C84EC572EC.doc148.pdf []. In a call with reporters, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien cited both the President’s constitutional authority and the 2002 Iraqi Authorization for Use of Military Force (“AUMF”). Maggie Haberman & Catie Edmondson, White House Notifies Congress of Suleimani Strike Under War Powers Act, N.Y. Times (Jan. 4, 2020),­01/04/us/politics/white-house-war-powers-resolution.html [].Show More In short, longstanding practices, not specific statutory authorization, set the metes and bounds of presidential war powers.11 11.This Article uses the terms “Native American” and “Indian” interchangeably. This is to acknowledge and respect the preferences that different indigenous people have. See Samantha Vincenty, Should You Use Native American or American Indian? That Depends on Who You Ask, Oprah Mag. (Oct. 30, 2020), []; Native Knowledge 360°: Frequently Asked Questions, Nat’l Museum of the Am. Indian, https://american­­tive,preferred%20by%20many%20Native%20people [] (last visited Feb. 10, 2021).Show More

This confident claim, that Presidents have waged war on their own authority since the Constitution’s earliest days, rests on an unjustly obscure conflict: the Northwestern Confederacy War (or First War) conducted against several Native American12 12.The war goes by many names, including the “Northwest Indian War,” the “Little Turtle War,” and “President Washington’s Indian War.” In this Article, we will use either “Northwestern Confederacy War” or “First War.” We delve more deeply into the events infra Part II.Show More tribes north of the Ohio River.13 13.April 2018 Airstrikes Against Syrian Chemical-Weapon Facilities, supra note 6, at 6.Show More According to the OLC, “Presidents have exercised their authority to [wage war] without congressional authorization since the earliest days of the Republic.”14 14.Id.Show More Specifically, “President Washington [ordered] offensive operations against the Wabash Indians in 1790.”15 15.A number of scholars have helped establish the dominant view that the original Constitution left the decision to go to war to Congress, to be exercised by bicameralism and presentment. Here is a partial list: Michael D. Ramsey, The Constitution’s Text in Foreign Affairs, ch. 11 (2007); Louis Fisher, Presidential War Power 6–7 (2d ed. 2004); John Hart Ely, War and Responsibility: Constitutional Lessons of Vietnam and Its Aftermath 3–4 (1993); Michael J. Glennon, Constitutional Diplomacy 80–84 (1990); Francis D. Wormuth & Edwin B. Firmage, To Chain the Dog of War: The War Power of Congress in History and Law 17–18 (2d ed. 1989); Saikrishna Prakash, Unleashing the Dogs of War: What the Constitution Means by “Declare War,” 93 Cornell L. Rev. 45, 48 (2007); William Michael Treanor, Fame, the Founding, and the Power To Declare War, 82 Cornell L. Rev. 695, 699 (1997); Raoul Berger, War-Making by the President, 121 U. Pa. L. Rev. 29, 36 (1972); Charles A. Lofgren, War-Making Under the Constitution: The Original Understanding, 81 Yale L.J. 672, 679 (1972).Show More And because Presidents since George Washington have authorized military attacks without legislative sanction, modern Presidents likewise enjoy the power to wage war without congressional approval.

If our first President waged war without congressional authorization, that fact undermines a common constitutional assertion—that Presidents cannot take the nation to war.16 16.Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, 61011 (1952) (Frankfurter, J., concurring).Show More Although many modern scholars and legislators insist that Presidents cannot wage war without congressional authorization, Washington apparently committed the very act that they regard as constitutionally verboten. Further, one might suppose that what was true for Washington must be no less true for Harry Truman, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. Hence, as a matter of constitutional law, Presidents can wage war as they please against North Korea, Libya, Syria, or, for that matter, Canada.

The OLC’s argument could be understood in two different ways. First, the OLC could be asserting that because Presidents have enjoyed the power to wage war from the Constitution’s inception, this practice sheds light on the original meaning of “executive power,” “Commander in Chief,” and “declare war.” Second, the OLC could be advancing a different claim, namely that despite the original meaning of these phrases, practice from the government’s earliest days has layered a “gloss” on them,17 17.John C. Yoo & Robert J. Delahunty, Authority for Use of Military Force To Combat Terrorist Activities Within the United States 10 n.15 (Oct. 23, 2001), https://nsarch­ [­4QEN-AF­WP]; Authorization for Continuing Hostilities in Kosovo, 24 Op. O.L.C. 327, 333 (2000).Show More meaning that whatever the original scheme, Presidents today enjoy the power to wage war. We believe the 2018 OLC opinion makes the first sort of claim. After all, dutiful and upright Washington would never deliberately violate the Constitution. If he took the nation to war, it would seem that, notwithstanding Congress’s power to declare war, the original Constitution truly sanctioned presidential wars. And it follows that the conventional view about war powers is misguided because Washington’s war refutes it.

The OLC’s recent invocation of the Northwestern Confederacy War is not exceptional. Other OLC opinions have cited the war, although none have given it the prominence and weight that the 2018 opinion does.18 18.Abraham D. Sofaer, The Power Over War, 50 U. Miami L. Rev. 33, 38–41 (1995); John Yoo, George Washington and the Executive Power, 5 U. St. Thomas J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 1, 19–20 (2010).Show More These opinions relied upon the work of scholars, most notably Abraham Sofaer and John Yoo, who drew constitutional lessons from the war.19 19.See Yoo & Delahunty, supra note 18, at 10 n.15; Authorization for Continuing Hostilities in Kosovo,supra note 18, at 333.Show More

Because the OLC has repeatedly cited the First War to justify the executive’s unilateral use of military force abroad,20 20.Federal Legislature, Phila. Gen. Advertiser, Jan. 4, 1793, at 3 (comments of Rep. Wadsworth).Show More it is necessary to carefully assess it. There is a considerable risk that an incomplete or mistaken understanding of the war may become embedded in the historical narrative and mislead politicians and scholars. The First War may become the sturdy keystone for a view that Presidents can take the nation to war because that is what Washington supposedly did only a year after the Constitution’s inception.

The OLC’s opinions, and the underlying scholarship, while rigorous in many respects, rely on incomplete evidence and fail to properly situate the conflict in its historical context. The historical record demonstrates that Congress in fact authorized Washington to start the Northwestern Confederacy War and repeatedly approved the war’s continuation. Far from inaugurating the practice of presidential wars, the First War marked the earliest exercise of Congress’s power to “declare war.”

Consequently, Washington laid no novel gloss on the “executive power” or the “Commander in Chief” Clauses. Claims to the contrary tether the first President to a flawed and anachronistic proposition he never once entertained—that Presidents enjoy constitutional authority to start wars. As we demonstrate, George Washington in fact publicly proclaimed exactly the opposite. He forcefully insisted that Commanders in Chief could not wage war unilaterally. He endorsed this principle categorically, applying it even in the wake of declarations of war issued by other nations. On this point, his cabinet fully agreed. The claim that Presidents could lawfully take the nation to war was so outside the mainstream that neither Washington nor anyone else voiced it, even to reject it. At the time, no one read the Constitution as the executive branch (mis)reads it today. The debate we have today simply did not exist during the Washington administration because no one at the time claimed that the Constitution authorized Presidents to start wars.

Resting on the first in-depth evaluation of primary materials, this Article corrects the record and sheds new light on the original War Constitution. In our telling, America’s First War teaches a number of vital lessons. First, Congress’s power to declare war encompassed authority to sanction military expeditions, including the power to authorize offensive measures. Second, despite serving as Commander in Chief and enjoying the “executive power,” the President clearly lacked such power. Third, Congress could exercise its authority to “declare war” without using the precise phrase or a formal declaration. Fourth, via its decisions over the army’s size and the delegation of authority to summon state militias, Congress regulated the President’s conduct of the First War.

The Northwestern Confederacy War witnessed a remarkable number of “firsts.” The war marked the first exercise of Congress’s power to declare war. As one critic said, it was “the war of the legislature.”21 21.By Particular Desire, Phila. Gen. Advertiser, Jan. 7, 1792, at 2.Show More As another detractor put it, the new government found the Indians in the Northwest “in a state of disquietude” and “declare[d] war against them, as a display of power.”22 22.Prakash, supra note 16, at 96, 105.Show More The war also marked the first major interplay between the Commander in Chief and Congress, with the latter guiding the former and the former acting under the auspices of legislative decisions. The Commander in Chief was under the command of Congress.

Part I reviews existing treatments of the Northwestern Confederacy War and recounts the First War. Part II discusses the power to declare war and what the Founders said of that power prior to 1789. Part III recounts the statutes that Congress passed to authorize and support the First War. Part IV discusses what Washington and his cabinet said about presidential power to wage war without congressional authorization. Part V draws concluding lessons from America’s first war.

Conflict Avoidance in Constitutional Law

­­­­Hard cases present a dilemma at the heart of constitutional law. Courts have a duty to decide them—to vindicate rights, to clarify law—but doing so leads to errors (judges do not know the “right answer”) and strains the credibility of courts as impartial decision makers. Theories of constitutional adjudication tend to embrace one horn of this dilemma. We explore a principle for deciding hard cases that appreciates both. We argue that courts should decide hard cases against the party who could have more easily avoided the conflict in the first place. This is the conflict-avoidance principle. The principle builds on and systematizes “least cost avoidance” in private law and myriad constitutional doctrines. We apply the principle to several cases, generating insights into discrimination, affirmative action, religion, and so on. The principle represents a form of common-law constitutionalism, and it reveals connections between rights, markets, and State power. It also invites objections, to which we respond. Conflict avoidance is not “value-neutral,” and it cannot resolve every hard case. But it can resolve many in a practical way.

Take any demand, however slight, which any creature, however weak, may make. Ought it not, for its own sole sake, to be satisfied? If not, prove why not? The only possible kind of proof you could adduce would be the exhibition of another creature who should make a demand that ran the other way.

William James (1891)1.William James, The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life, 1 Int’l J. Ethics 330, 339 (1891).Show More


How should courts resolve hard constitutional cases?2.See Ronald Dworkin, Hard Cases, 88 Harv. L. Rev. 1057, 1060 (1975) (defining hard cases as ones where “no settled rule dictates a decision either way”).Show More On the one hand, deciding them on the merits strains courts’ credibility as impartial decision makers, especially when they engage in judicial review of legislation where the constitutional text is vague and the interests at stake essentially political.3.See T. Alexander Aleinikoff, Constitutional Law in the Age of Balancing, 96 Yale L.J. 943, 971–73, 977–78 (1987) (criticizing interest balancing). For a thorough and optimistic account of the capacity of courts to balance interests optimally, see generally Robert Alexy, A Theory of Constitutional Rights (Julian Rivers trans., Oxford Univ. Press 2002) (1986) (offering an account of constitutional rights that connects the analytical, empirical, and normative dimensions of legal doctrine); Robert Alexy, Constitutional Rights, Balancing, and Rationality, 16 Ratio Juris. 131 (2003) (arguing that there is a rational structure within balancing). Roughly speaking, interest balancing focuses on which party (or possibly which group) can bear a loss in court more easily. Are the losses to this side (or to this principle) outweighed by the gains to the other? Our enterprise is quite different. We focus on which party could have avoided more easily the conflict that led to the hard case in the first place.Show More On the other hand, courts are constitutionally charged with deciding such cases. A refusal to decide them amounts to shirking that responsibility.4.U.S. Const. art. III, § 2 (“The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution . . . .”); Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 177 (1803) (“It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.”); Alexander M. Bickel, The Least Dangerous Branch: The Supreme Court at the Bar of Politics 70 (1962) (explaining that not deciding cases must “be justified as compatible with the Court’s role as defender of the faith”).Show More Theories of constitutional adjudication often embrace one horn of this dilemma.5.Theories of judicial deference embrace the first horn by treating most constitutional issues as political ones appropriately decided by the political branches. See, e.g., James B. Thayer, The Origin and Scope of the American Doctrine of Constitutional Law, 7 Harv. L. Rev. 129, 129–39 (1893) (explaining origins of judicial review); see also Larry D. Kramer, The People Themselves: Popular Constitutionalism and Judicial Review 7–8 (2004) (comparing early judicial review to contemporary practice). Originalist theories, “moral” interpretations, and “living constitutionalism” tend to treat constitutional questions as essentially legal questions with which the Court is properly tasked with deciding, thereby embracing the second horn. See, e.g., Antonin Scalia, A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law 45–46 (1997) (discussing issues with living constitutionalist interpretations); James E. Fleming, Living Originalism and Living Constitutionalism as Moral Readings of the American Constitution, 92 B.U. L. Rev. 1171, 1172–73 (2012) (offering a “complete, ecumenical approach to constitutional interpretation”); David A. Strauss, The Living Constitution 41–44 (2010) (arguing that judges and lawyers are not properly equipped for originalist interpretation). Process theory and prudential approaches attempt to reconcile the two. See, e.g., John Hart Ely, Democracy and Distrust: A Theory of Judicial Review 4–5 (1980) (arguing that judicial review is best justified when it can be understood as a mechanism for improving the democratic process); Bickel, supra note 4, at 64 (“No good society can be unprincipled; and no viable society can be principle-ridden.”). Our approach draws on elements of both the process and prudential traditions.Show More This Article explores a principle that appreciates the force of both horns: courts should decide hard cases against the party who could have more easily avoided the constitutional conflict in the first place. We call this the conflict-avoidance principle.

To preview the principle, consider an example. Suppose a student wears a Confederate flag shirt to school, in violation of the dress code, and gets disciplined. She argues that this violates her free speech rights, and the school responds that it has the authority to ensure a conducive learning environment.6.Cf. Castorina ex rel. Rewt v. Madison Cnty. Sch. Bd., 246 F.3d 536, 538, 548 (6th Cir. 2001) (noting that a “disruption-free educational environment is a substantial government interest”); Defoe v. Spiva, 625 F.3d 324, 335 (6th Cir. 2010) (holding that the school officials’ concern that displays of the Confederate flag would be disruptive was reasonable).Show More For the sake of argument, assume the case is hard (we will say more about “hard cases” below). A court applying conflict avoidance would compare the relative costs to the parties of avoiding the conflict in the first place. Could the student have expressed herself in another way? Could she have transferred to a school with a more permissive dress code? Could the school have ensured a conducive environment without banning the flag? Whoever could have avoided the conflict more easily would lose.

This is a simple example, but the principle applies the same way in real, controversial cases like Masterpiece Cakeshop, Our Lady of Guadalupe School, Fisher, and Janus.7.Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colo. C.R. Comm’n, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018) (on discrimination and religion); Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru, 140 S. Ct. 2049 (2020) (same); Fisher v. Univ. of Tex. at Austin, 136 S. Ct. 2198 (2016) (on affirmative action); Janus v. Am. Fed’n of State, Cnty., & Mun. Emps., Council 31, 138 S. Ct. 2448 (2018) (on speech).Show More We will examine these cases and others below.

Applying the conflict-avoidance principle has several advantages. For one thing, it requires courts to decide cases instead of deflecting or delaying judgment.8.Cf. Bickel, supra note 4, at 71 (approving Justice Brandeis’s statement that “[t]he most important thing we do . . . is not doing” and observing that Brandeis “had in mind all the techniques . . . for staying the Court’s hand”).Show More Second, and more important, applying the conflict-avoidance principle requires courts to decide cases by looking to relatively concrete facts and considerations, rather than to abstract political values. Such an approach not only plays to courts’ institutional strengths; it may also produce a pattern of decisions that vindicate the relevant values where they are needed most. That, at least, is the theory of the common law.9.Frederick Schauer, Do Cases Make Bad Law?, 73 U. Chi. L. Rev. 883, 883 (2006) (“Treating the resolution of concrete disputes as the preferred context in which to make law . . . is the hallmark of the common law approach.”).Show More As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, “[i]t is the merit of the common law that it decides the case first and determines the principle afterwards.”10 10.Codes, and the Arrangement of the Law, 5 Am. L. Rev. 1, 1 (1870) (unsigned article by Oliver Wendell Holmes).Show More

Finally, the conflict-avoidance principle encourages parties to avoid the sorts of conflicts that produce hard cases. Deciding such cases imposes real costs. In addition to financial costs, such cases can undercut the legitimacy of courts as judicial institutions, especially when the political stakes are high.11 11.Precisely that concern underlies the Supreme Court’s practice of treating some politically charged issues as “political questions,” incapable of impartial judicial resolution. See Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 217 (1962) (stating that cases lacking “judicially discoverable and manageable standards” or requiring a “policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion” involve political questions).Show More Furthermore, deciding hard cases can lead to errors in the sense that judges do not know the “correct” answer (if they did, the case would not be hard). We think reducing the incidence of hard cases is itself a benefit.12 12.We relax the assumption that deciding hard cases imposes more costs than benefits. See infra Part V.Show More

The conflict-avoidance principle has roots in private and public law. It relates to least cost avoidance, which Guido Calabresi identified and developed in tort law.13 13.Guido Calabresi, The Costs of Accidents: A Legal and Economic Analysis 135 (1970) (advocating placing liability on “those acts or activities . . . which could avoid the accident costs most cheaply”).Show More It also resonates with various constitutional doctrines—such as time, place, and manner doctrines in First Amendment law—that inquire into the alternative courses of action available to the parties to a dispute.14 14.See infra Part IV.Show More Also, some scholars have advanced proposals that sound in cost avoidance.15 15.The clearest example would appear to come from Professor Tang, who has two papers in draft form. See Aaron Tang, The Costs of Supreme Court Decisions: Towards a Best Cost-Avoider Theory of Constitutional Law (Sept. 27, 2019) (unpublished manuscript), [­WW] [hereinafter Tang, Cost-Avoider]; Aaron Tang, Constitutional Law After Mazars, Vance, & June Medical: The Case for Harm-Avoider Constitutionalism, 109 Calif. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2021) (on file with authors) [hereinafter Tang, Harm-Avoider]. Professor Tang’s work and ours, which developed simultaneously and independently, are quite different. In brief, we aim to minimize conflicts by placing the onus on the party who could have avoided the dispute at lowest cost, whereas Professor Tang aims to minimize the “costs” of judicial decisions by placing the onus on the group that could bear the loss most easily. See infra note 46. Professor Tang’s work relates more closely to interest balancing, covering, or mitigation (i.e., bearing loss after the fact) than to a conventional understanding of avoidance (preventing the loss from occurring).For other scholarship that sounds in conflict avoidance, see, for example, Douglas Laycock, The Broader Implications of Masterpiece Cakeshop, 2019 BYU L. Rev. 167, 193 (arguing that free exercise claims by service providers should not prevail over non-discrimination claims by LGBT customers in communities where “discrimination is still widespread”); J.H. Verkerke, Is the ADA Efficient?, 50 UCLA L. Rev. 903, 941 (2003) (applying least cost avoidance to disability law in the workplace); Robert D. Cooter, The Strategic Constitution 129–32 (2000) (connecting rights to mobility costs); Frank I. Michelman, Pollution as a Tort: A Non-Accidental Perspective on Calabresi’s Costs, 80 Yale L.J. 647, 666–86 (1971) (book review) (applying least cost avoidance to pollution).We note that conflict avoidance can be seen as a distinct kind of “minimalist” theory of adjudication. See, e.g., Cass Sunstein, Burkean Minimalism, 105 Mich. L. Rev. 353, 355–56 (2006). Minimalist theories direct judges to concentrate on the facts of the case. See id. at 376 (describing as non-minimalist an approach that is “not limited to the facts of particular cases”). Conflict avoidance directs judges to focus on a particular subset of facts, namely on who could have avoided the conflict more easily.Finally, we note that our argument is consistent with a broader, emerging approach to constitutional law. See generally Robert D. Cooter & Michael D. Gilbert, Constitutional Law and Economics, in Research Methods in Constitutional Law: A Handbook (Malcolm Langford & David S. Law eds., forthcoming 2021) (discussing the emergence of economic theory as applied to constitutional law).Show More Thus, we do not offer a radically new approach to constitutional adjudication. Rather, we collect strands of reasoning that already permeate law and legal scholarship and show how, once systematized, they yield a promising and innovative approach to hard cases.

Why hasn’t anyone systematized these ideas before? Why haven’t judges and scholars, many of whom are familiar with least cost avoidance, already applied these ideas to constitutional law? Here is one explanation. Constitutional adjudication often proceeds “top-down.”16 16.Richard A. Posner, Legal Reasoning from the Top Down and from the Bottom Up: The Question of Unenumerated Constitutional Rights, 59 U. Chi. L. Rev. 433, 433 (1992) (defining top-down reasoning as when “the judge or other legal analyst invents or adopts a theory about an area of law—perhaps about all law—and uses it to organize, criticize, accept or reject, explain or explain away, distinguish or amplify the existing decisions to make them conform to the theory and generate an outcome in each new case as it arises that will be consistent with the theory”).Show More The constitutional principles at stake loom large, sweeping away particular case facts. In contrast, least cost avoidance proceeds in a “bottom-up,” context-sensitive fashion.17 17.For an analysis of the formal difference between bottom-up and top-down reasoning, see Charles L. Barzun, Justice Souter’s Common Law, 104 Va. L. Rev. 655, 708–13 (2018) (explaining that, whereas under top-down reasoning, courts apply a fixed major premise (or rule) to the minor premise (or facts) in order to deduce a conclusion, with bottom-up forms of reasoning, the judge aims to let the facts of the case themselves be the guide to the proper outcome).Show More Courts concentrate on the facts (who could have avoided the crash more easily?), rather than on how to best apply the relevant legal principles. Applying least cost avoidance to the Constitution requires taking a bottom-up approach to a subject dominated by top-down reasoning.18 18.Of course, our approach is top-down in the sense that it involves applying the conflict-avoidance principle to many different cases. But the point is that it is a meta-principle that directs courts to focus on the sort of factual nuances that bottom-up approaches consider critical.Show More

Gesturing at least cost avoidance and “bottom-up” reasoning is easy. The hard part is translating it to constitutional law. We take the main contribution of our project to lie in showing what the translation requires.

The conflict-avoidance principle is not a panacea; nor does it claim “value-neutrality.” But it does offer a fresh way of thinking about how to resolve hard cases. Rather than seeing constitutional conflicts as brute clashes of values—liberty vs. equality, positive liberty vs. negative liberty, substantive equality vs. formal equality—courts might make more progress by looking at the concrete difference that vindicating those values would have made in parties’ actual lives. The goal is to see what work rights claims are doing in social and political life.

We develop our argument in five Parts. Part I clarifies the scope of the principle: we confine its use to hard cases, where “hard cases” has a specific meaning that we will explain. Part II briefly reviews least cost avoidance in private law, drawing out a key distinction between avoiding costs and bearing them. Part III operationalizes the conflict-avoidance principle by developing a doctrinal test for its application. Part IV applies the test to real cases, including recent, controversial cases before the Supreme Court. In Part V, we respond to various objections. The Conclusion develops a broader point. Although the conflict-avoidance principle requires no special commitment to private ordering or negative liberty, it does illuminate a connection between markets, rights, and State power.