Richard Posner wrote that the theory of judicial restraint is dead and that the liberal decisions of the Warren Court killed it. Posner should have placed some of the blame on himself and other former Warren Court and early Burger Court clerks who joined the legal academy. As young law professors, they rejected legal process theory that they had learned in law school from Henry Hart and Albert Sacks at Harvard, Alexander Bickel and Harry Wellington at Yale, and from process theory's patron saints on the Court"Felix Frankfurter and John M. Harlan. Legal process theory yielded to new theories, including rights protection (John Hart Ely and Owen Fiss), Critical Legal Studies (Duncan Kennedy and Mark Tushnet), and law and economics (Richard Posner and Guido Calabresi). This symposium piece explores the rise and fall of legal process theory as well as the scholarship of former Warren Court and early Burger Court clerks who nearly killed it. It also suggests that there could be a revival of a process-based judicial restraint based on a new generation of late Burger Court/early Rehnquist Court clerks-turned-academics who came of age during the mid-1980s. These law clerks rejected judicial supremacy and adopted popular constitutionalism and other democratic approaches to constitutional interpretation. Popular constitutionalism is inspired by the same faith in the democratic political process as the judicial restraint advocated by James Bradley Thayer, Felix Frankfurter, and Alexander Bickel.
My contribution to this tribute places Bill Nelson's scholarship about Judge Edward Weinfeld and Justice Byron White within several contexts. It is a personal history of Nelson the law student, law clerk, and young scholar; an intellectual history of legal theory since the 1960s; an examination of the influence of legal theory on Nelson's scholarship based on his writings about Weinfeld and White; and an example of how legal historians contend with the subject of judicial reputation. Nelson was one of many former Warren Court and Burger Court clerks who joined the professoriate and rejected the legal process theory that they had learned as law students. Instead of process theory, Nelson and this upstart generation of scholars gravitated to one of five competing theories: (1) Rights protectors; (2) Post-realism; (3) Law and economics; (4) Originalism; and (5) Judicial restraint holdouts. Nelson's scholarship about Weinfeld and White represents a case study about a scholar struggling to fit two judges whom he clerked for and greatly admired into one of these five schools of thought. Nelson tries hard to turn them into rights protectors, to draw similarities between their jurisprudence and Justice Brennan's jurisprudence that Nelson so obviously admires. Nelson also reframes Weinfeld's and White's judicial restraint so that it looks nothing like the pretentious process theory that Nelson had rejected at N.Y.U. Law School and at Harvard.