Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Master of Arts (MA)

Degree Name


Department or School/College

Department of Philosophy

Committee Chair

Sean O'Brien

Commitee Members

Andrew King-Ries, David Sherman


Critical Legal Studies, Dworkin, philosophy of law


University of Montana


Laws are intended to put individuals on notice as to how they should act in society and what behavior they may expect from others. But what happens when the text of a law is vague and open to multiple interpretations? How can individuals be expected to conform to laws when the laws are unclear as to what they demand? If the law is to retain legitimacy, there must be a principled way of determining what the law requires in these so-called “hard cases.” Ronald Dworkin argues that if interpretation is not constrained, adjudicators are creating the law rather than simply interpreting it. He believes that such a constraint lies in considerations of coherence that will limit the range of plausible interpretations available for any given law. According to Dworkin, a good interpretation is one that both explains the settled legal materials and coheres with the political morality embedded in those materials. He believes that those constraints will result in one correct interpretation that best fulfills these requirements. Dworkin’s critics, however, argue that because the settled law has been composed by various individuals with differing goals and ideological convictions, any notion of constraint is illusory. They contend that those interpreting the law may choose among competing interpretations while relying on personal, extra-legal considerations in doing so. According to J.M. Balkin, this undermines Dworkin’s distinction between genuine and unconstrained interpretation. In this thesis, I apply Dworkin’s theory of legal interpretation to a “hard case,” and use this application to defend Dworkin and demonstrate the soundness of his characterization of legitimately constrained interpretation.



© Copyright 2007 Vincent William Wisniewski Jr.