The Wilson Quarterly

The vestibule of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy (1308–21) was populated with ancient representatives of what Cass R. Sunstein considers an underappreciated class, the “trimmers.” Dante wrote that a very large group of miserable souls had been sent to Hell because they had lived “without infamy and without praise.” Today they might be denigrated as lukewarm in their allegiances, ­wishy-­washy in their politics, ­flip-­floppers in their beliefs. Sunstein, a law professor recently ap­pointed director of President Barack Obama’s Office of Infor­mation and Regulatory Affairs—in effect, the govern­ment’s regulatory czar—springs to their defense. Not only is trim­ming pervasive, he says, it is also ­honorable.

Trimmers inhabit both the legal and political realms. They are part of a great group averse to extremes. One type of trimmer is the compromiser. “Seeking to reduce social conflict, at­tempting to avoid public out­rage, and believing that the middle posi­tion is presumptively best, com­pro­misers try to give something to both sides,” Sunstein writes.

Then there are preservers. They come in two varieties. One group attempts “to discern what they believe, on the basis of their own independent inspection, to be the deepest and most valuable parts of opposing positions.” Other preservers are “con­cerned, not with their own independent judg­ments but with what is thought, by those who hold op­pos­ing positions, to be deepest and most important.”

Compromisers and preservers can both be defended, according to Sunstein, but he advances a fee­ble justification of ­split-­the-­dif­ference compromisers. He says that sometimes a ­risk-­averse judge might choose to compro­mise because the hazards of eith­er side seem dangerous, or be­cause he or she might not have the time or capacity to think ­care­fully—­or reach a firm conclu­sion—­about which position is ­right.

But Sunstein bursts with more compelling ­arguments—­some based on U.S. Supreme Court ­cases—­in support of trimmers of the preserver persuasion. A “prominent example” of this kind of trimming is Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell’s opinion in University of California v. Bakke (1978), which held that rigid quota systems for college admissions are unconstitutional, but that race may be treated as a “factor” in admis­sions decisions.

Not only is trimming pervasive, it is also honorable.

Trimming is a ­decision-­making process, Sunstein says. Almost every judge has to “trim” at least a little by deferring to past decisions. Indeed, he asks, “isn’t any sane position a form of trimming?” On its surface, he says, Brown v. Board of Educa­tion (1954), which invalidated laws that allowed “separate but equal” schools, doesn’t seem like an instance of trimming. But perhaps the Court trimmed after all, he reasons, by not striking down laws that sounded neutral on the surface but had discriminatory ­consequences.

Trimming is different from ­minimalism—­in which a court rules on the narrowest possible question, leaving the broader questions for another day. Sun­stein is almost dismissive of Chief Justice John C. Roberts’s view that “if it’s not necessary to decide more to dispose of a case, in my view, it is necessary not to decide more.” Even so, Sunstein says that sometimes minimalism is defensible when the area of law is novel, judges lack information, or private and public institu­tions do not require a clear ­settlement.

But trimmers, Sunstein writes, believe that “in law as well as in life, it is sometimes best to settle on a course of action rather than to rest content with a series of narrow, ad hoc decisions.” Mini­malism can create confu­sion, leaving government and the public unsure of how to ­proceed.

Sunstein acknowledges that trimming is sometimes wrong. The Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) was a consum­mate act of malign trimming. It authorized segregation, allowing the provision of separate public services and facilities for blacks in order to placate segre­ga­tion­ists in the South and else­where. And trimming can also go awry in the hands of decision makers who blunder or are con­fused, or when extremists deliberately exaggerate their position so that the only remaining middle path actually veers sharply in one ­direction.

“By their very nature, trim­mers hope to reduce social con­flict, to show a kind of civic re­spect, and to ensure that no side feels excluded, humiliated, or hurt,” Sunstein says. Trim­ming is not always proper, he believes, but there are powerful arguments in its favor, and ­sometimes—­despite its bad ­rap—­it’s simply the best thing to ­do.

THE SOURCE: “Trimming” by Cass R. Sun­stein, in Harvard Law Review, Feb. ­2009.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/ohadby

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