Should an historian act as a judge, pronouncing verdicts on the past? Should a judge express views about the past or even use the past for his judgments? How can legal history help judges? Can you imagine that knowing about the history of medieval canon law, a subject seemingly quite distant from modern times, can prepare someone to become a respected judge? For a moment you might think I seduce you to follow me in an experiment, but I had rather tell here about the experiences of a scholar and judge who dealt in his life with exactly the questions at the start of this post. On April 17, 2017 John T. Noonan Jr. died. He served for thirty years as a judge of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Before and during his period as a judge he did research in the field of medieval and modern canon law. Noonan (1926-2017) wrote also about American law in past and present. A number of obituaries have appeared which focus on his contributions as a judge. Here I would like to honour his achievements by looking at his work as a legal historian.
Near to major themes in law and society
The obituaries I have seen until now understandably focus on his work as a judge. In particular the obituary issued by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals mentions a number of major cases – with full references – to which Noonan contributed, sometimes with a dissenting opinion which was eventually followed by the Supreme Court of the United States. Even Wikipedia gives substantial quotes from these important cases in the article about Noonan. The obituaries in the San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times single out his political independence. Noonan was a Catholic who opposed abortion, but he certainly could not be labelled conservative. In the Commonweal Magazine‘s obituary there is attention for Noonan’s clear views about liberalism, but also on Shakespeare and the lack of attention to the Bard’s religion. The Faculty Lounge has a short notice by Alfred Brophy about Noonan’s passing, but he redeems it by sending you to a moving tribute at the blog of Diane Marie Amann (University of Georgia). She goes straight to the heart of the matter by showing Noonan in action. If you prefer to skip the section here below about the impact of medieval canon law you are right to proceed to her fine post.
Noonan came from Boston and studied at Harvard University, Cambridge and the Catholic University of America. To mention only his academic posts, he was a professor at Notre Dame University between 1961 and 1966 and from 1967 onwards at the University of California at Berkeley (Boalt Hall). His first book was on a subject touching medieval canon law, theology and economic history, The scholastic analysis of usury (Cambridge, MA, 1957). In a modern textbook about medieval views of the economy [Diana Wood, Medieval economic thought (Cambridge, etc., 2002)] the two chapters about usury frequently refer you to Noonan’s book. Intention is one of the keys in understanding and defining usury and interest. His second book, Contraception. A history of its treatment by the Catholic theologians and canonists (Cambridge, MA, 1965; enlarged edition, 1986) appeared at a crucial moment in the history of the Catholic Church, in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council when pope Paul VI created a commission to study contraception. He invited Noonan to participate in it as a consultant. Another study, too, brought medieval theology and canon law together [Power to dissolve. Lawyers and marriage in the courts of the Roman curia (Cambridge, MA, 1972)].
How authors come to a subject can be mysterious, but I think it is not entirely by chance that Noonan wrote about matters of life and death, in particular about moral conduct. Bonds dissolved or not are also at stake in his book on The Antelope : the ordeal of the recaptured Africans in the administrations of James Monroe and John Quincy Adams (Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1977). I could not resist going to the digital collection Slavery in America – discussed here in some detail last year – and to check for the presence of this case around a ship with slaves in 1820. Changing views on slavery are among the subjects in his study A Church that can and cannot change. The development of Catholic moral teaching (Notre Dame, IN, 2005). The personal conduct of judges through the centuries is the subject of Bribes. The intellectual history of a moral idea (New York, 1984). Many students of American law will know about his volumes with selected cases around religious freedom and the responsibilities of lawyers.
It is tempting to discuss here more of Noonan’s books which discuss developments in American law from a historical perspective, but I promised you to focus on medieval canon law. A fair number of Noonan’s articles can conveniently be consulted in the volume Canons and canonists in context (Goldbach 1997). Articles about medieval canon law appear not only in the few journals created for this field, but also elsewhere, sometimes in Festschriften. Thus the volumes in this series are most useful, also for the additions and corrections added by the authors. The bibliographical database of the Regesta Imperii (Akademie der Wissenschaften, Mainz) lists most of Noonan’s articles about medieval canon law.
Noonan wrote two major articles about the author of the Decretum Gratiani, a subject at the heart of the modern study of medieval canon law, because Gratian’s book is often seen as the core and cause of the very birth of medieval canon law. In the first article, ‘Was Gratian approved at Ferentino?’, Bulletin of Medieval Canon Law N.S. 6 (1976) 15-28, he investigates the historical evidence around a papal approbation of Gratian’s textbook. The second article, ‘Gratian slept here: the changing identity of the father of the systematic study of canon law’, Traditio 35 (1979) 145-172, is an object lesson in making distinctions about reliable and unreliable evidence. Noonan crushes sloppy thinking and careless repetition of unchecked information. Even his colleague at Berkeley, Stephan Kuttner, receives a frown at one point. Thirty years later Anders Winroth could establish at last some facts about the life of Gratian with certainty in ‘Where Gratian Slept: The Life and Death of the Father of Canon Law’, Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte. Kanonistische Abteilung 99 (2013) 105-128. Kenneth Pennington gives at his website a more colourful presentation of John Noonan’s work on Gratian, including the covers of some books and some remarkable photographs of Noonan.
Intention is a matter of concern in medieval canon law ever since its appearance in the twelfth century as a subject in medieval theology. It is through canon law that intention became a theme in criminal law. Judges were called upon to consider someone’s intentions. Stephan Kuttner, Noonan’s teacher in Washington, D.C., wrote the classic study tracing this development [Kanonistische Schuldlehre von Gratian bis auf die Dekretalen Gregors IX systematisch auf Grund der handschriftlichen Quellen dargestellt (Città del Vaticano 1935)] and Noonan clearly studied it in great depth. For Noonan the facts and intentions counted in judging historical situations. In his view facts matter indeed, because he wanted to judge cases, not persons. Some of his views of famous American judges can be found in Persons and masks of the law : Cardozo, Holmes, Jefferson, and Wythe as makers of the masks (New York, 1976). Noonan did not keep ethics and moral questions at a safe distance. Making the right judgments is only possible when knowledge of the law, insight into what consist justice and a fine-tuned and ever developing conscience come into action, or to put it more briefly, where mind and heart fully work together. It is exactly how Noonan impressed those who met him. Being a judge and a historian in one person is challenging, but he had the greatness to achieve this in a long and fruitful life.