The Daily Gamecock

Visiting Professor Kieth Bybee says 'law is formal and artificial'

Speech compares judicial system to common courtesy


Hypocrisy, courtesy and the judicial system were the foundation of Professor Keith J. Bybee’s Constitution Day lecture Thursday night in the USC Law School Auditorium.

Bybee, a judiciary studies professor at Syracuse University and the Director of the Institute for the Study of the Judiciary, Politics and the Media, spoke on the American perceptions of the judicial branch and legal system. His speech, “All Judges Are Political — Except When They Are Not: Acceptable Hypocrisies and the Rule of Law,” examined American suspicions of hypocrisies of the legal system.

The lecture, which brought more than 50 attendees, was sponsored by the Office of the Provost, the School of Law, the College of Arts and Sciences and the Department of Political Science in commemoration of the signing of the Constitution Sept. 17, 1787.

Bybee’s contention was that the law is a system that — on some level — allows hypocrisy and thrives because of it. He cited judges who participate as partisan political activists in the community but represent impartiality on the bench. It is from this apparent hypocrisy that Bybee drew his ironic assertion that “all judges are political — except when they are not.”

Bybee used the metaphor of “common courtesy” in relation to the judicial system. If, for instance, a student greeted a professor and said it was nice to see him or her, Bybee explained that the sentiment might be genuine or a mere formality. However, like the law, it is the procedure of courtesy that matters. Like courtesy, Bybee said, the “law is formal and artificial.”

“[Both courtesy and the law] may reflect true personal decency ... or the desire to appear truly decent,” Bybee said.

In this sense, he explained that though people may question the level of sincerity or hypocrisy present in acts of courtesy or the judicial system, both are useful in and appeal to a society in which “people ... have an easier time seeing than being.”

That is, society tends to be more concerned with the procedure behind the judicial system than the intent. For that reason, Bybee explained, the judicial system is able to thrive both in spite of and because of perceived hypocrisies.

Bybee stressed the point that the law is about “procedures as means of brokering settlements.”

“The example of courtesy tells us to look at law as a system of managing disputes ... People do not have to be fully satisfied in order to settle a dispute,” Bybee said.

Professor Dan Sabia, chairman of the Department of Political Science, said Bybee was chosen to speak at the event because he is an “engaging” speaker with a “thoughtful” message. The Department of Political Science sponsors a speaker every year in honor of Constitution Day, Sabia said.