This Essay was prepared for a Symposium at the Yale Law School, celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of The Nature of the Judicial Process, the published version of four lectures Judge Benjamin Cardozo delivered at Yale Law School between February 14 and 18, 1921. Revisiting these lectures presents a challenge to the contemporary reader. That challenge is to imagine how the lectures could have generated the strongly affirmative reaction that they apparently did. In this Essay, we seek first to recover that reaction and to juxtapose it against our initially far less enthusiastic response. We then identify a feature of the lectures that was not remarked upon when they were first published and has not been emphasized since: Cardozo’s examination of how appellate judging is frequently about whether to extend what he called a doctrinal 'path', or not to extend that path. If the path is extended, existing doctrinal propositions are treated as governing not only the case at hand, but also as applying to an expanded set of potential future cases. But if the path is not extended, the doctrinal principles embodied in a set of previous cases are deemed inapposite to the current case, and a developing doctrinal path is truncated, thus limiting its application to future cases. We then show how Cardozo employed the concepts of doctrinal paths and 'forks in the road' in several of his most famous torts cases. We conclude that when Cardozo’s discussion of those concepts is understood as one of the principal contributions of The Nature of the Judicial Process, the lectures can be understood to be of lasting as well as historical significance.
Kenneth S. Abraham & G. Edward White, Doctrinal Forks in the Road: The Hidden Message of The Nature of the Judicial Process, 34 Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities 73 (2023).