Legal Realism

Also found in: Legal, Wikipedia.

Legal Realism


a major current in law in the United States, which arose during the 1920’s and significantly influenced the subsequent development of American legal thought. Its most important representatives were J. Gray, O. Holmes, J. Frank, K. Llewellyn, and E. Patterson.

Legal realists correctly identified the conservatism, rigidity, and backward-looking traditionalism of the American legal system, but in their demand for modification and adaptation of the legal system to changing conditions they came to deny erroneously the principles of stability of law and subordination of the judge to the law. They viewed a legal norm as nothing more than a legislator’s opinion of the law, which a judge could consider or ignore. They held that any legal precept, whether expressed in law or precedent, inevitably turns into something frozen and lagging behind the times. Law, they felt, should change constantly, which is possible if the court is a legislating force. The legal realists contended that the law is what the court decides it is.

Legal realists were divided into two groups on the question of what guides the court in reaching its decision. One group looked to behaviorism, pointing to the influence of external factors on the judge’s behavior; the other appealed to Freudian-ism, searching for the influence of psychological factors deep within the individual. In both cases the judge’s behavior, and thus the law he created, was seen as based exclusively on psychological factors. In this way, legal realism came to an oversimplified understanding of the law, and its nihilistic attitude toward stable legal norms and its demand for unlimited freedom of judicial discretion essentially negated the principle of legality.


Ivanenko, O. F. Pravovaia ideologiia amerikanskoi burzhuazii. [Kazan] 1966.
Starchenko, A. A. Filosofiia prava i printsipy pravosudiia v SShA. Moscow, 1969.
Tumanov, V. A. Burzhuaznaia pravovaia ideologiia: K kritike uchenii o prave. Moscow, 1971.
References in periodicals archive ?
It also suggests a version of legal realism largely antagonistic to the book's very commitment to the autonomy of law.
American Legal Realism and Empirical Social Science.
Within roughly the last decade, however, this perception seems to have changed, and it seems to have done so as a result of a development in relation to American Legal Realism initiated a few years earlier by Brian Leiter.
2) While Legal Realism came to represent a variety of
to challenge natural law; (7) legal realism arose in the 1920s and 1930s
See Laura Kalman, Legal Realism at Yale, 1927-1960 44-46 (1986) and works cited therein.
Legal realism has several modes, but they all declare that something other than, and more powerful than, law is the cause of law.
Discussing bottom-up New Legal Realism, Macaulay argues for a broad
This progressive understanding of law, resting on fundamentally Darwinian and pragmatic premises--and therefore looking ever forward rather than backward--underpinned the development of sociological jurisprudence and legal realism within the law schools.
The following year, Llewellyn issued a testy call for a dramatic reorganization of legal education in response to the insights generated by legal realism.
We can read discussions on whether Kantian disinterest is the appropriate mode of apprehension for football; on whether the position of the referee in football is best theorized by natural law theory, by Hobbesian or Rawlsian contractarianism, by John Austin's theory of laws as commands of the sovereign, Hart's theory of laws as social rules, or Holmes's legal realism (all this in four pages, which gives some idea of the depth and sophistication of the analysis).

Full browser ?