David Brooks’ column on the wedding-cake case doesn’t quite grasp the way the legal process deals with abstract principles.
In American federal courts, every decided case will involve a real dispute. But a court like the Supreme Court that chooses its own cases does not select cases because of interest in the individual dispute, but because of the importance of the abstract principle required to resolve the dispute.
This particular case, e.g., is not so much about wedding cakes as about the abstract (and difficult) question of whether one’s right to free speech and the free exercise of religion entitles one to violate the community’s official judgment about the limits of acceptable discrimination. Where the lower courts and the legal profession need guidance on such an issue, the court can perform one of its most important roles. The guidance will set the framework for resolving thousands of disputes that will never see a courtroom.
No doubt, more people should resolve differences informally. But be careful throwing out this particular bath water.
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William R. Andersen, Judson Falknor Professor of Law, University of Washington Law School, Seattle