Tuesday, May 31, 2005


By Stockton

All law students know and revere the name Learned Hand. Hand's name graces many of the opinions we all know and avoid today. Hand is probably the most well-known and respected judge never to have sat on the Supreme Court. He was a far thinking visionary whose meteoric career ended upon his death.

Hand was born in Albany, New York, in 1872, to a mother and father. He spent his first twelve years in childhood. Then, upon reaching age thirteen, he entered his teenage years. These years were clouded by choosing a name. Hand's Christian name was Billings, his middle name Learned. Why he chose to be known as Learned remains a mystery to his biographers.

Hand, along with his cousins Slow and Cool, attended Harvard University. Hand studied philosophy under George Santayana until Santayana gained too much weight and almost suffocated the future judge.

Hand eventually attended law school, worked on Wall Street and made his way to the bench. He served as a Federal District Court judge and ultimately found himself on the prestigious 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

Hand became one of the foremost thinkers in the economic interpretation of law. He is best known for his formula on duty and standard of care found in US. v. Carroll Towing Co. 159 F.2d 169 (2nd Cir. 1947). The issue: should a tow captain have finished off two pints of Wild Turkey before hitting the high seas. The formula provides the correct answer.

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Learned Hand's most Famous Formula

Answer: No!*

Unfortunately, Hand soon found that his formula was inadequate for contractual issues (unless Wild Turkey was involved). He toiled for years on the formula, devoting almost every spare hour to adapting it to contract disputes.** He found the result satisfying.

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Hand's Contract Formula (simplified version)

Hand's formulas were a hit in the legal community and calculator sales skyrocketed.

Hand's later years were clouded in disappointment. The success of his formulas drove him to reduce all human/legal behavior to formulas. Finally, in the last years of his life, he attempted to reduce his wife to a formula but a neighbor called the police and a restraining order was issued.

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Mrs. Hand, in the Judge's final years

Hand died penniless and disappointed, bequeathing his protractor and slide rule to Harvard University.

* The formula also showed that the defendant had a 3.72 Earned Run Average in 1937.

** Hand's remaining spare hours were devoted to his other love, Parcheesi

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