Justifications, Powers, and Authority

Yale Law Journal 117:1070 (2008)
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Criminal law theory made a significant advance roughly thirty years ago when George Fletcher popularized the important conceptual distinction between justifications and excuses. In the intervening years, however, very little progress has been made in exploring the structure and function of justification defenses. The reason for this failure, I suggest, is a widely shared misconception about their place within the criminal law’s institutional structure. Contrary to what is generally believed, it is not up to trial courts to decide ex post facto what conduct is justified and what is not. This determination is made ex ante by other institutional actors such as private fiduciaries, public officials, and sometimes, ordinary citizens caught in extraordinary circumstances. The court’s role is simply to review the validity of that prior exercise of decision-making discretion. More broadly, my study is intended to serve as a reminder of the importance of institutional structure in criminal law. It is almost always misleading to address issues in criminal law by way of abstract moral theorizing, as is often done, because this leaves out the crucial question of institutional division of labor. Before addressing the substantive aspect of particular questions—what conduct should be prohibited, justified, or excused—we must first address ourselves to the institutional questions that I have called the problems of authority, discretion, and legality. These institutional questions receive their most thorough treatment in two other areas of law: the private law of fiduciaries and public administrative law. If we wish to make progress in understanding justification defenses—and the institutional structure of criminal law more generally—I argue that it is to these areas of law that we should attend.
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