legal formalism

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Legal formalism refers to an approach to jurisprudence that emphasizes the discovery of legal principles through logical analysis, and the application of those principles to the facts of a case. Formalists believe that by applying a consistent set of legal rules to a given case, sound legal decisions will be the outcome of logical deduction. 

Legal formalism can be understood as both a descriptive theory of law and as a prescriptive theory of law. 

As a descriptive theory of law, legal formalism seeks to discover uncontroversial principles of common law and apply them to the facts at hand. Legal formalism differs from legal realism, as it does not consider the social interests and public policy ramifications of rulings. In this respect, legal formalism is an attempt at creating a rational and scientific legal system, absent of political considerations.

As a prescriptive theory of law, proponents of legal formalism argue that legal formalism is necessary to maintain the separation of powers. By limiting judges to adjudicating what the law currently is, rather than on what the law ought to be, legal formalism prevents the encroachment of judicial powers into the powers of the legislative and executive branches. Critiques of legal formalism argue that this approach is ill suited to resolve injustice or promote fundamental rights.  

Legal formalism was the dominant theory of legal thought in the United States from the 1870s until the 1920s, when it was replaced by legal realism. However, vestiges of legal formalism can be found throughout the legal system. For example, textualism and originalism are both formalistic approaches to statutory interpretation used in constitutional law.

[Last updated in June of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]