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Posts Tagged ‘H.L.A. Hart’

Legal Positivism and the Common Law

In Britain, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Western Philosophy on April 30, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

Legal positivism, in the most basic sense, holds that laws are the manifestation of sovereign commands. It stands in contradistinction to natural law or the judicial conformity with human reason that supposedly defines the common law.[i] Legal positivism generally rebuffs the premise that law and morals are necessarily or even customarily united. Legal positivists from Jeremy Bentham to John Austin to H.L.A. Hart maintained or implied that the formal source of the law was human promulgation, not nature or divine decree; theirs was an analytical jurisprudence that treated the normative function of the law as imposing rules and duties upon the subjects of the sovereign. Positivism generally holds that law is logical and analytical and made up of legislative policies with a linear history that can be understood through utilitarian calculation. To comprehend the law in the positivist paradigm requires analyzing the signification of words as grammatical imperatives—as “commands,” in Austin’s lexicon.

The common law, on the other hand, traditionally was seen as the vast accumulation of judicial decisions as against the commands of legislatures or the unbinding whims of equity courts; a legislative code announces rules whereas judicial decisions follow, clarify, and sustain them. The common law is a body of cases, a growing organism representing the general rules and inherited customs of the jurisdiction. It is simultaneously conservative and progressive. It comes together over time as innumerable judges and justices struggle with and against precedent to apply longstanding rules to new and unique situations. It responds and reacts to cultural norms rather than making them.

What distinguishes the common law from a civil law system is the doctrine of stare decisis (“let the decision stand”), which requires judges to follow precedents established by prior decisions or to distinguish the facts of new cases from the facts of previous cases in order to reach an applicable rule. Certain rules persevere because they triumph over lesser practices that have not worked. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., explained that this process of creating and sustaining laws in graduated stages does not always make sense or produce the perfect outcome: “In form its growth is logical. The official theory is that each new decision follows syllogistically from existing precedents. But just as the clavicle in the cat only tells of the existence of some earlier creature to which a collar-bone was useful, precedents survive in the law long after the use they once served is at an end and the reason for them has been forgotten.” If some laws seem to be artifacts, Holmes qualifies, they are not likely to burden the people subject to them, for their effect is in their use, and anyway it is only a matter of time before they are overgrown by the “secret root from which the law draws all the juices of life,” which is to say the legislature.

 

Note

[i] The literature on this subject is enormous. The distinction between legal positivism, natural law, and the common law has been the object of discussion among so many jurists and jurisprudents over centuries that it is impossible to recommend a single text on the topic that would clarify all competing views. The most authoritative voice on matters of positivism today is probably Joseph Raz.

 

The Law is Above the Lawyers

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Conservatism, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Legal Research & Writing, Literary Theory & Criticism, The Supreme Court, Writing on October 3, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review appeared here in The American Spectator.

Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (Thomson West, 2012)

Do not let its girth fool you: Reading Law by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and legal writing guru Bryan A. Garner is an accessible and straightforward clarification of originalism and textualism.* A guide for the perplexed and a manual of sorts for judges, this book presents 57 canons of construction. Each canon is formatted as a rule — e.g., “When the syntax involves something other than a parallel series of nouns or verbs, a prepositive or postpositive modifier normally applies only to the nearest reasonable referent” — followed by a short explanation of the rule.

Frank H. Easterbrook, who provided the foreword to the book, submits that originalism is not about determining legislative intent, but construing legislative enactment. In other words, originalists interpret as strictly as possible the words of the particular text and do not look to the earlier maze of political compromises, equivocations, and platitudes that brought about the text. Each legislator has unique intent; projecting one person’s intent onto the whole legislative body generates a fiction of vast proportion.

That the process of enacting a law is so rigorous and convoluted suggests the importance of adhering closely to the express language of the law; legislators, after all, have taken into account the views of their constituents and advisors and have struggled with other legislators to reach a settlement that will please enough people to obtain a majority. A judge should trust that painstaking process and not overturn or disregard it.

Originalism involves what Stanley Fish, the eminent Milton scholar and literary critic turned law professor, has called “interpretive communities.” That is the very term Easterbrook employs to describe how judges should account for cultural and communal conventions at the time a text is produced: “Words don’t have intrinsic meanings; the significance of an expression depends on how the interpretive community alive at the time of the text’s adoption understood those words.”

To be sure, the original meaning of a text — what reasonable people living at the time and place of its adoption ordinarily would have understood it to mean — is never fully accessible. The meanings of old laws are particularly elusive. When a judge can no longer identify the context of a law by referring to dictionaries or legal treatises available when it was promulgated, then he should defer to the legislature to make the law clearer.

Judges should not impose their interpretative guesses onto the law and, hence, onto the people; nor should judges make new law on the mere supposition, however reasonable, that a text means something that it might not have meant when it was written. “Meaning” is itself a slippery signifier, and it is in some measure the aim of this book to simplify what is meant by “meaning.”

The book is not all about grammar, syntax, and punctuation. It has philosophical and political urgency. The authors propose that the legal system is in decline because of its infidelity to textual precision and scrupulous hermeneutics. A general neglect for interpretive exactitude and consistency has “impaired the predictability of legal dispositions, has led to unequal treatment of similarly situated litigants, has weakened our democratic processes, and has distorted our system of governmental checks and balances.” All of this has undermined public faith in lawyers and judges.

Scalia and Garner, who recently teamed up to write Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (Thomson West, 2009), proclaim themselves “textualists,” because they “look for meaning in the governing text, ascribe to that text the meaning that it has borne from its inception, and reject judicial speculation about both the drafters’ extratextually derived purposes and the desirability of the fair reading’s anticipated consequences.” Most of us, they say, are textualists in the broadest sense; the purest textualists, however, are those who commit themselves to finding accurate meanings for words and phrases without regard for the practical results.

Consequences are the province of legislators. A judge ought to be a linguist and lexicographer rather than a legislator; he or she must be faithful to texts, not accountable to the people as are elected officials. (Leaving aside the issue of elected judges at the state level.) The authors seem to be suggesting that their approach needn’t be controversial. Originalism and textualism are simply names for meticulous interpretive schemes that could lead judges to decisions reflecting either conservative orliberal outcomes. One doesn’t need to be a fan of Scalia to appreciate the hermeneutics in this treatise.

Never have we seen a plainer, more complete expression of originalism or textualism. Reading Law could become a landmark of American jurisprudence, numbered among such tomes as James Kent’s Commentaries on American Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s The Common Law, H.L.A. Hart’s The Concept of Law, and Lon L. Fuller’s The Morality of Law. Although different from these works in important ways, Reading Law is equally ambitious and perhaps even more useful for the legal community, especially on account of its sizable glossary of terms, extensive table of cases, impressive bibliography, and thorough index.

Every judge should read this book; every lawyer who cares about law in the grand sense — who takes the time to consider the nature of law, its purpose and role as a social institution, and its historical development — should read this book as well. If Scalia and Garner are correct that the general public no longer respects the institutions of law, then this book is valuable not only for revealing the root causes, but also for recommending realistic and systematic solutions.


* Originalism and textualism are not the same thing; this review treats them as interchangeable only because Judge Easterbrook’s forward uses the term “originalism” whereas Scalia and Garner use the term “textualism,” but each author appears to refer to the same interpretive approach.

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