Photo of Ron Den Otter and Jude Egan at Cal Poly Authors

Written by on April 15, 2013

Conversations with Cal Poly Authors puts morality on trial

“I believe that my book, Judicial Review in an Age of Moral Pluralism, is the most important book in the history of the world,” saidĀ Ronald Den Otter, Cal Poly associate professor of political science, to kick off the Cal Poly Authors discussion last Friday.

He was joking, of course, but as the conversation turned from the book’s origins to the subject matter, it became clear that Judicial Review in an Age of Moral Pluralism tackles crucial questions about the role of the justice system in a diverse society that has differing opinions about right and wrong. Joined by Jude Egan, also an associate professor in political science at Cal Poly, the two discussed the appropriateness and history of judicial review in the United States.

Defining judicial review and moral pluralism

Judicial review, as Den Otter explained, is simply the process of reviewing legislation by the courts. Moral pluralism is the existence of multiple moralities in American culture, many of them falling into opposition at times. When the courts step in and decide for the public, the very process can be considered anti-democratic, striking down laws like Proposition 8, which was approved by California voters.

Yet leaving important legal questions to the people or the state legislature may not be the best way to address serious moral problems. One example Den Otter and Egan frequently returned to was Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that led to the desegregation of schools.

So, while an American ideal might be to let everyone live their own life, often legislation must be passed when one person’s rights encroach on another’s, Den Otter said.

“Moral pluralism bleeds into politics and law to the extent that we have to make collective decisions,” Den Otter said.

Courts deciding divisive issues

Over the hour and a half discussion, Den Otter discussed everything from graduate school dissertations to abortion rights and segregation, and began to scratch the surface of the judicial system’s intricacies. In addition to Egan’s thoughtful questions about the book, students, staff and faculty engaged with Den Otter in a discussion of how public opinion affects the courts’ idea of justice, and how increasing diversity in America will continue to change the judicial landscape.

“There’s no question that the justices do respond to public opinion,” Den Otter said.

More about the series, Conversations with Cal Poly Authors, at Kennedy Library. See photos from this conversation on our Flickr.

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