Legal formalism

Legal formalism is a view in jurisprudence and the philosophy of law. Legal formalists argue that judges and other public officials should be constrained in their interpretation of legal texts by their plain meaning and/or the intentions of their authors. Legal formalism can be contrasted to legal instrumentalism, a view associated with American legal realism. Instrumentalism is usually the view that creativity in the interpretation of legal texts is justified in order to assure that the law serves good public policy and social interests, although legal instrumentalists could also see the end of law as the promotion of justice or the protection of human rights. Legal formalists counter that giving judges authority to change the law to serve their own ideas about good policy undermines the rule of law. Another critique of legal formalism has been offered by the critical legal studies movement, which has argued that law is indeterminate.

Justice Antonin Scalia of the United States Supreme Court is noted for his formalist views about a variety of topics, particularly his view that the United States Constitution should be interpreted in accord with its original meaning and his view that statutes should be read in accord with their plain meaning.


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