Skip to content

Henry E. Smith, Cardozo and the Nature of the Equitable Process, Yale J. L. & Humanities 166 (2023).

Abstract: Benjamin Cardozo is associated with the common law, equity, judicial decision-making, and with a characteristic kind of proto-Realism. And in his day he was the most prominent expositor of the law of New York, a jurisdiction that had led the way in the merger of law and equity. So it is with equity. Equity pervades Cardozo’s work as a theme of the law and as a problem in judicial theory, in both his theoretical writings and in his decisions. In The Nature of the Judicial Process, Cardozo invokes equity when introducing the problem of reconciling the need for both certainty and flexibility in the law. And equity plays a large role in the modes of judicial decision-making he identifies—the philosophical, the historical, the customary, and the policy-oriented. This last, or sociological, method is the “arbiter” of the others in a way suggestive of equity’s role as meta-law. Because this approach to equity could only emerge from its application, it is not surprising that cases in the area of equity would receive his special attention as a judge. Most clearly in some headline equity cases but going far beyond them, Cardozo’s vision for the integration of equity and law was functional rather than primarily jurisdictional. Equity for Cardozo both kept the law to a high moral standard and supplemented and corrected the law in limited circumstances. Sometimes Cardozo’s reformulation of equity in this functional sense reformed the law so subtly as to be easy to miss. Seen in the light of later full-blown Legal Realism, Cardozo’s equity is easily mistaken for a version of Realism in its rhetoric but disappointingly cautious in its results. Cardozo’s equity was a genuine path not taken and one that perhaps still could bring equity into the modern age.