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Alexander Mordecai Bickel (December 17 1924November 8 1974) was a law professor and expert on the United States Constitution. One of the most influential constitutional commentators of the twentieth century, his writings emphasize judicial restraint.


Bickel was born to Jewish parents (Solomon and Yetta Bickel), originally from Bucharestmarker, Romaniamarker, who had immigrated to Brooklyn, NYmarker. He graduated from Harvard Law Schoolmarker summa cum laude. He served as a law clerk to Justice Felix Frankfurter of the Supreme Court of the United Statesmarker in the 1952 term, preparing an historical memorandum urging that Brown v. Board of Education be reargued. Starting in 1956, he taught at Yale Law School until his death. With Charles Black, he forged what has become one of the world's great centers for the study of constitutional law.

A frequent contributor to Commentary, New Republic and the New York Times, Bickel represented the latter in the Pentagon Papers case (1971). He also defended President Richard Nixon’s order to dismiss special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox.


Bickel's most distinctive contribution to constitutional law was to stress what he called "the passive virtues" of judicial decision-making – the refusal to decide cases on substantive grounds if narrower grounds exist to decide the case. Bickel viewed "private ordering" and the voluntary working-out of problems as generally preferable to legalistic solutions.

In his books The Supreme Court and the Idea of Progress and The Morality of Consent, Bickel attacked the Warren Court for what he saw as its misuse of history, shoddy reasoning, and sometimes arbitrary results. Bickel thought that the Warren Court's two most important lines of decision, Brown v. Board of Education and Baker v. Carr, did not produce the results the Court had intended. In his book The Least Dangerous Branch, Bickel coined the term countermajoritarian difficulty to describe his view that judicial review stands in tension with democratic theory.

Bickel envisioned the Supreme Court as playing a statesman-like role in national controversies, engaging in dialogue with the other branches of government. Thus he did not see the Court as a purely passive body, but as one which should lead public opinion, albeit carefully.

Bickel's writings addressed such varied topics as constitutionalism and Burkean thought, citizenship, civil disobedience, freedom of speech, moral authority and intellectual thought. Bickel has been cited by Chief Justice John Roberts and by Justice Samuel Alito as a major influence and is widely considered one of the most influential constitutional conservative of the 20th century.

Bickel was a gifted and easily accessible instructor. He inaugurated the DeVane Lecture series at Yale in 1972 where he taught a large class mostly of Yale undergraduates.

Quotes by Bickel

"News reporting in the United States would be devastatingly impoverished if the countless off-the-record and background contacts maintained by reporters with news were cut off."

Selected bibliography

  • The Least Dangerous Branch (Bobbs-Merrill, 1962)
  • Politics and the Warren Court (Harper & Row, 1965)
  • The Supreme Court and the Idea of Progress (Harper & Row, 1970)
  • The Morality of Consent (Yale University Press, 1975)
  • History of the Supreme Court of the United States: The Judiciary and Responsible Government: 1910-1921 (vol. IX, Macmillan, 1984).


3. Malcolm Gladwell. "Outliers", Little, Brown and Co., 2008, page 123.

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