Tag Archives: Legal Traditions

“It is by obeying the judgments of our predecessors that we are empowered to make judgments of our own.”

At perhaps one click removed from law and religion proper, but still deeply relevant, is Joel Alicea’s superb essay on originalism and “the rule of the dead” (from which I have drawn the title quote) in the latest issue of National Affairs. Alicea’s piece is particularly useful on the necessary connection of obedience to the will of the dead and the concept of written law (and the disconnection between the concept of written law and obedience to the will of the living). A bit more:

By obeying the dead, the living can demand obedience. As Judge Frank Easterbrook once remarked, “Decisions of yesterday’s legislatures…are enforced…because affirming the force of old laws is essential if sitting legislatures are to enjoy the power to make new ones.” That is, “[p]eople accept old contracts and old laws because they know that this is the only way to ensure that promises to them are kept.” We, the living, accept the binding force of laws passed before our time so that our laws will be obeyed, both in our own time and beyond.

This dynamic between the living and the dead not only undergirds written law; it is foundational to a proper conception of popular sovereignty under the Constitution. Indeed, it is at the heart of what Whittington has called the dualist conception of democratic theory. Under this framework, “the people” exist in their sovereign capacity only when they engage in higher lawmaking — the making and amending of the Constitution. This lawmaking is of a higher order, as it sets the rules by which all other laws can be made and sets the limits of what those laws can do. At all other times and for all other lawmaking, ordinary politics is the norm, and in such circumstances, the people do not act as the sovereign — though they retain the power to reassert their sovereignty at any moment through the process of constitutional amendment. This is not to deny, of course, that the people remain the ultimate source of authority in a polity during a time of ordinary politics; it is simply to say that they and their representatives are acting under or subordinate to the rules that the people established in their sovereign capacity.

This conception of popular sovereignty stems from the same kinds of considerations that uphold written law. In the same way that the dead-hand argument is hostile to any form of written law, saying that the people act in their sovereign capacity in everyday politics is hostile to a written constitution. A constitution is meant to guide and limit ordinary politics, and if ordinary politics were the domain of the people acting as sovereign, then every statute would be the equivalent of a constitutional amendment, and the idea of a written constitution would become meaningless.


These philosophical assumptions underlying written law are the essence of originalism. We must submit to the commands of the dead in order to govern ourselves, and in order to submit, we must understand those commands according to their original meaning. It would be farcical to claim that we are being obedient to a rule if we arrogated to ourselves the power to change the meaning of that rule. It would be tantamount to telling past generations: “We will obey your laws — so long as they mean what we say they mean.” The rejection of the dead-hand argument is therefore not just about defending the validity of written law in general; it is about defending originalism’s core philosophical assumptions.

Similarly, we see that the argument over the dead-hand of the past is about far more than the viability of originalism. At stake is the idea of written law, of popular sovereignty, and of society as an intergenerational partnership between the living and the dead.

Stoner on the Disposition of the Common Law

James Stoner’s work on common law constitutionalism has been deeply influential on my own thinking about the interpretation of the religion clauses, as well as on more general questions of constitutional interpretation. My own approach in fact adopts something like Professor Stoner’s common law constitutional method (though its motivation for adopting that method is different than Stoner’s), distinguishing it from other common law constitutionalist methodologies (e.g., the approach of David Strauss). Here is an interesting post that Professor Stoner has just written on the disposition of the common law (in part it is a response to CLR Forum friend, John McGinnis). A longish bit:

To the authors of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Civil War Amendments, common law meant nothing like “judge-made law,” and the use of the modern supposition to untether constitutional law from the Constitution is unwarranted. Moreover, the original understanding of common law—as the unwritten customary law of England, registered in decisions of the courts, and carried over to the American colonies as an inheritance and adjusted to their circumstances—seems to me essential to the interpretation of the Constitution itself, which includes common-law language and takes for granted that the judicial power it established would largely operate by common-law forms: following precedent, recording judicial opinions, drawing the bench from the bar, employing trial by jury, and adhering to due process in myriad other ways . . . .

Originalism and textualism, for example, derive from maxims you can find in Blackstone’s account of how to interpret statutes, and I think they make sense not as free-standing theories of interpretation but in the context of all Blackstone’s adages, including, for example, that one begin by discerning whether the text declares the common law in writing or remedies some mischief, that one interpret criminal statutes strictly and statutes against frauds liberally, and the like. True, constitutions are not exactly statutes, only similar to them: Like statutes, they are put in writing; unlike statutes, they are made by a constituent authority and cannot be easily changed. Are the powers of government granted in constitutions to be interpreted strictly or liberally? What about rights that are reserved?

These questions fell to judges to decide, reasoning according to “the nature and the reason of the thing,” to borrow Hamilton’s words in The Federalist, and this was something common-law judges were trained to do, bound on the one hand by “strict rules and precedents” (Hamilton’s words again) and accustomed on the other to settling new cases through reasoning by analogy, as Edward Levi nicely explains in his Introduction to Legal Reasoning (Chicago, 1949). Understanding the common-law meaning of “judicial power” in the Constitution resolves what would otherwise be the paradox of judicial review, an unwritten power to enforce a written Constitution. And it makes perfect sense of constitutional passages like the Due Process Clause or the reference to “other rights” in the Ninth Amendment. These are not blank checks given to judges, but indication that there is a rich texture of established though unwritten law that they are charged to remember. Hamilton, again, indicates as much when he writes approvingly of the ability of judges “to mitigat[e] the severity and confin[e] the operation” of “unjust and partial laws.” . . . .

Leaving the Constitution to be interpreted in court by judges trained in common law meant it was in the hands of men who habitually looked to find the law applicable to the case before them, not who set out to replace it. When called to interpret the Constitution, the presumption in favor of the authority of the text and its original intent might be heightened, given its sovereign source, but precisely because the Constitution was meant to endure, its meaning had to be adapted to novel circumstances. One can’t avoid asking what comprises a constitutional search in an age of electronic communications, or what is “commerce with foreign nations, and among the states” when the manufacturing process from design through production is fully globalized and you can complete the purchase of almost any item from across the ocean at any time of day without leaving your home.

By focusing on the individual case, allowing the appeal to reason, settling the meaning of law to make property secure and the application of government coercion predictable, and including rules and maxims that leave individuals free to take initiative while holding them responsible for the consequences of their deeds, the common law was held by its advocates to be a great friend and promoter of human liberty. It had its critics, too, who complained that unwritten law was obscure, too much the preserve of the lawyers’ guild, and its favor for private property and individual liberty were inappropriate in a collectivist age. The abandonment of common-law rules and perhaps above all of the common-law spirit by many in the guild of lawyers over the course of the twentieth century no doubt contributed to the eclipse of common law—Professor McGinnis has valuable insights on this score—but probably more fundamental was the culture’s growing historicism: its skepticism toward any permanent standards of right and wrong, its consequent indifference toward tradition as a repository of wisdom, its expectation, not to say, encouragement of intractable partisan division given the supposition that questions of value cannot be rationally settled. Actually, common law really claimed to be common, to articulate a social consensus, more than it claimed to be unchanging; jury verdicts at common law have to be unanimous, and judges on the losing side of cases decisively settled typically feel constrained thereafter to accept the precedent and direct their argument to new issues, where they hope to limit a bad precedent’s future reach.

McConnell on the Privileges or Immunities Clause as Repository of Traditional Rights

Michael McConnell has a very interesting article just out in the University of Illinois Law Review called, Ways to Think About Unenumerated Rights (one of several papers considering Akhil Amar’s book, The Unwritten Constitution). After criticizing the Supreme Court’s substantive due process jurisprudence as a historically unsupportable source of unenumerated rights, Michael goes on to note two other possible sources of unenumerated rights in the Constitution: the Ninth Amendment and the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment.

In both cases, however, the nature and scope of unenumerated rights are substantially limited. The Ninth Amendment states that the enumeration of rights in the Constitution “shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In contrast to theorists who read the clause to protect a whole suite of positive rights, Michael sees it as protecting negative rights–freedoms from interference–which the people may give up in exchange for more attractive protections from the government. These negative rights are, therefore, violable: “the people decide which of these rights to relinquish in exchange for the protections and benefits of civil society.” All that the Ninth Amendment is doing is not “denying or disparaging” those “retained” rights; it is not enshrining them or giving them the stature of enumerated rights. These “natural” rights control unless “legislative abrogation is clear.”

Michael’s second example of unenumerated rights in the Constitution is even more interesting: the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States….”), which was rendered toothless and superfluous by the Slaughterhouse Cases.

But if one were to give the Clause content, there are two options–an enumerated and an unenumerated possibility. The enumerated possibility is to say that the content of the Privileges or Immunities Clause is the Bill of Rights, now applied against the states. This is the familiar and highly plausible position that the Privileges or Immunities Clause is the true vehicle for incorporation of the Bill of Rights against the states (see, e.g., some of the work of Kurt Lash and Amar himself).

The unenumerated possibility is to say that the content of the Privileges or Immunities Clause mirrors the content of the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV. Some of that content was fleshed out by Justice Bushrod Washington in the federal circuit case of Corfield v. Coryell (1823) (my former constitutional law students will remember this as the “clamming case”). There, Justice Washington wrote that the P&I Clause refers to those unenumerated rights “which are, in their nature, fundamental; which belong, of right, to the citizens of all free governments; and which have, at all times, been enjoyed by the citizens of the several states which compose this Union, from the time of their becoming free, independent, and sovereign.”

But how would one know which sort of unenumerated rights fell into this group? If the Ninth Amendment’s limits are set by the concept of negative liberty, what are the limits on unenumerated rights under this theory of the Privileges or Immunities Clause? The answer is that only those rights that are long-standing, traditionally and broadly recognized, and with deep historical roots qualify:

Taken in a broad spirit, this might be thought to authorize judges to identify those rights that are firmly embedded on our laws and traditions, both as a matter of longevity and as a matter of national consensus—as the Court held in Washington v Glucksberg. This interpretation draws strength from the overall thrust of the Fourteenth Amendment as a nationalization of the content of rights. In effect, when a particular right has been recognized by a large majority of states for a long period of time, judges are empowered to treat it as a “privilege or immunity” of national citizenship and enforce it against outlier states that may depart from that consensus. Rights become national by virtue of time, consensus, and experience. This could provide a stronger explanation for Griswold [v. Connecticut]: because every other state recognized the right of married couples to use contraceptives, and had for many decades, the Court was within its authority to declare Connecticut’s law invalid.

Note, though, that this approach does not give courts authority to engage in contentious moral reasoning or to elevate one side in a reasonable disagreement to constitutional victor. It provides no support for Roe v. Wade, for example. Enforcing national consensus is not an exercise in moral philosophy but of determining the weight of national practice. It is a nationalistic and traditionalist inquiry, not a moralistic or progressive one.

CLR Podcast on Town of Greece v. Galloway

Mark and I have recorded a podcast discussing Town of Greece v. Galloway, the legislative prayer case just argued at the Supreme Court, in the Center’s first in a planned series of podcasts on law and religion cases and issues.

We tried to be fairly complete in our discussion of the case, and I think this podcast is particularly useful for students and others interested in an introduction to the issue of legislative prayer and in some fairly detailed analysis of and commentary about the oral argument.

My Review of “Reading Law” by Justice Scalia and Bryan Garner

Commonweal has posted my review of Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, by Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner. The piece is behind a paywall, I’m afraid. The review reflects on the nature and value of the canons of textual interpretation–the book’s primary focus. Indeed, it might have been better if the canons had been the book’s exclusive focus. The sections devoted to constitutional theory are not the best parts of the book. The review also discusses the sense in which–notwithstanding the skeptical criticism that has been leveled at them throughout the realist period and thereafter–the canons create something like a linguistic tradition for lawyers. Here is a fragment:

Some of the most interesting studies of law approach it as a distinctive tradition. And like many traditions, law has its own language which informs and suffuses the thought of those who think and speak through it. If the language of the law is not preserved—if it decays through lack of use, disregard, or skeptical dismissal as just so much transcendental nonsense—then the tradition of law dies as well . . . .The core aim of the book is to retrieve and systematize one of the law’s most important and enduring linguistic traditions—the canons of textual interpretation. The canons are not rules as much as rules-of-thumb, presumptions about the meaning of legal texts. Skill in legal interpretation involves the capacity to discern when a canon should, and should not, yield to countervailing considerations . . . .

Reading Law is, as the authors put it, a normative treatise that introduces the language of law to an audience for whom it is largely alien while offering a refresher course for attorneys and judges who have forgotten (or who never really learned) their canons. Like all treatises, the point is not to read through from front to back and I cannot recommend marching through the book’s 414 pages (that’s before the appendices). No one who isn’t looking for it will much miss the “Scope-of-Subparts Canon” explaining the relationship of subparts to parts, or the “Punctuation Canon,” which warns against “hostility to punctuation” and whose examples include various obscure nineteenth-century precedents involving the use of semicolons. But lawyers faced with interpretive problems will find in Reading Law a pathway to a set of linguistic precepts that structure and enrich the tradition of American law. That is a worthy contribution.

Law as Tradition: The Inescapability of Tradition

The third feature of law as tradition discussed by Professor Martin Krygier in his article, “Law as Tradition,” besides its pastness and its presence, is its transmission or handing down (“traditus” is often translated as that which is ‘handed’ down, and I have sometimes wondered whether there is a related but somewhat more distant etymological root: ‘tra’ means across, and ‘dita’ means ‘fingers’ in Italian, making ‘tradita’ transliterate to ‘across fingers.’  But probably the root of ‘dita’ is from the Latin, ‘dare’ — to give — making the transliteration, ‘giving across’).  “Traditions,” writes Krygier, “depend on real or imagined continuities between past and present.  These continuities may be formalized and institutionalized as they are in the institutions of law and religion, though they need not be.”  (251) Cultures which have well developed sacred and secular institutions entrust the task of transmission to various sorts of experts (“kings, priests, judges, scholars”), who are arranged in a hierarchy of  tradition-interpreting and transmitting authority.

Krygier makes a nice move at this point.  He writes that the conventional dichotomy between “tradition” and “change” is false because “the very traditionality of law ensures that it must change.  Although authoritative interpreters might police the present to see that it does not stray too far from their interpretation of the past, it is impossible for traditions to survive unchanged.”  Change can occur deliberately (as when, for example, a new revelation or a new legislation is then incorporated into the tradition) or, in the case of written traditions, simply as a feature of the interpretive instability in the reading of a text (not the wild indeterminacy of text, just its lack of fixity).  In written traditions, “the past becomes available for controversy . . . . Written traditions are continually subject to modification.  Their transmission necessarily involves interpretation of writings.  This ensures change.”  (252)  That is because, in a tradition, texts do not stand alone but must be interpreted so as to be consistent and coherent with the tradition itself.  Krygier is not describing only, or even primarily, the interpretive tradition of the common law:

[G]iven the impossibility of univocal interpretation of most complex texts, there is a sense in which legislation forces interpreters to rely more rather than less heavily on tradition than does the common law. For a relevant statute, still more a code, forces itself on an interpreter. Its words cannot be sloughed aside as dicta or dissent; they have to be interpreted. Since their meanings often will be plural, and since later lawyers nevertheless have to give meaning to them, they are bound to repair to interpretations which have become settled and accepted and/or to canons of statutory interpretation which, as we have seen, are highly traditional. (254)

This is an interesting point, and one might extend it to constitutional interpretation.  Here’s a passage from Edward Shils’s wonderful book, Tradition, quoted by Krygier, which seems pertinent to constitutional interpretation today:

It might be the intention of the recipient to adhere ‘strictly’ to the stipulation of what he has received but ‘strictness’ itself opens questions which are not already answered and which must be answered. If it is a moral or a legal code, or a philosophical system, the very attempt by a powerful mind to understand it better will entail the discernment of hitherto unseen problems which will require new formulations; these will entail varying degrees of modification.  Attempts to make them applicable to particular cases will also enforce modification. Such modifications of the received occur even when the tradition is regarded as sacrosanct and the innovator might in good conscience insist that he is adhering to the traditions as received. (Shils, 45)

Law as Tradition: Law’s Presence

Professor Martin Krygier’s description and argument for “Law as Tradition” began with a claim about law’s pastness, but the bare fact of pastness cannot be the end of the story, because much of the past does not figure in any tradition at all.  The second feature of law as tradition that Krygier discusses is law’s “authoritative presence,” and it involves the normative force of the past on the present — when the past, real or imagined, is thought to be of continuing significance to the present (hence the double sense of “presence” in Krygier’s phrase — as meaning both existence and present-ness).  For this reason, law’s traditionality is reflected not only in the pastness of its present, but in the presence of its past — “the extent to which only the presently authoritative past is treated as significant and only to the extent of this present authority.”  (248)  This “presentism” is often heard as the complaint of the historian, but it functions to distinguish the work of the historian from the work of the lawyer:

In seeking to explain ‘Why the History of English Law is not Written’, Maitland suggested that one reason was the lawyer’s peculiar attitude to the legal past:

what is really required of the practising lawyer is not, save in the rarest cases, a knowledge of medieval law as it was in the middle ages, but rather a knowledge of medieval law as interpreted by modern courts to suit modern facts.

Applied to legal history itself, this attitude to the legal past has frequently led to history-as-genealogy or, as the American historian Daniel Boorstin has written, the considerations of legal history as ‘an alchemy for distilling legal principles’ . . . . A similar complaint has recently been made by Douglas Hay [in an essay on criminal prosecutions in England and “their historians”]. When it comes to thinking about the past, one characteristic of ‘thinking like a lawyer’, Hay argues, is what historians call ‘presentism'; ‘the fallacy of working from present concerns to past origins, is anathema to historians, but necessarily half the lawyer’s method’.  What appears to historians as bad history is simply typical of the behaviour of participants within a tradition. Whig interpretations may be unsuccessful history, but they are often very successful law.

When participants in a recorded tradition consult its records, they are rarely concerned to reconstruct the past wie es eigentlich gewesen ist [as it is in actuality].  All developed legal systems, for example, produce rules of statutory interpretation which prescribe and circumscribe the resources on which a lawyer may draw to interpret statutory provisions. A point little remarked upon by lawyers is that these are not rules for which an historian seeking to analyze the origins and purposes of a statute would have much use. Even if he could make sense of the notion of the ‘intention of the legislature’, for example, no historian seeking it (or them) on a particular matter would feel bound to limit himself to the sources or kinds of inference allowed to a judge by whatever rules of statutory interpretation prevail in a particular jurisdiction. Nor should he believe he had found the intentions he was looking for if he did so. An historian, qua historian, is an outsider to the internally authoritative traditions of law, even though he may need to be an empathic outsider. A lawyer is bound to invoke legal rules of interpretation, not because he is an inferior historian, but because, qua lawyer, he is not an historian at all. He is a participant in a legal tradition, for whom statutes are primarily important not as sources of clues to events in the otherwise hidden past, but as authoritative materials from which meanings must be extracted by authorized means, to enable responses to present problems to be fashioned; or at least to be publicly justified to other cognoscenti of the tradition.

Law as Tradition: Law’s Pastness

This is perhaps not directly connected to religion, but — indirectly — the connection could not be much closer.

One of the happy byproducts of a recent exchange with my friend John Inazu was his reference to an essay by Martin Krygier from nearly thirty years ago, Law as Tradition, 5 Law & Philosophy 237 (1986).  Because the essay is not publicly available, and at the risk of provoking the copyright goddess, I thought to post a few portions of it in this and subsequent posts.  The essay is well worth reading in full.  Krygier identifies and discusses three special features of law as tradition: law’s pastness, law’s authoritative presence, and law’s transmission or continuity from past to present.

Here’s the sense of Professor Krygier’s discussion of law’s pastness.  As in every tradition, law records, preserves, and ‘hands down’ across the generations a composite of opinions and values.  But unlike in other traditions, in law the maintenance and transmission of the past is itself institutionalized.  And that institutionalization gives the past a particular kind of power, though the power is of course far from absolute (in part this is because the tradition itself is variegated and not univocal).

Judging, he writes,

that activity so favoured with jurisprudential attention and writings, is an archetypally traditional and tradition-referring practice. For however innovative judges are, their modes of justifying decisions, and therefore the sorts of arguments which must be addressed to them, in fact or hypothetically, differ systematically from those of other decision-makers such as, say, engineers or entrepreneurs, or workers in less self-consciously authority-filled traditions, such as novelists, artists or scientists, who themselves are in no way free from the traditions of their calling. Judging is a specific and characteristic mode of making and justifying practical decisions: a judicial decision is one which is justified publicly by reference to authorized institutional tradition. In those hard cases that lawyers and legal theorists so enjoy to contemplate, the need publicly to justify one’s decision in terms of interpretations of the legal past which seem plausible to experts, remains important long after simple rule-application has ceased to be possible. Doing this involves neither application of a clear unequivocal rule, as in the perhaps mythical easy cases, nor invention ex nihilo, but inescapably (though not only) inter-pretation of authorized institutional tradition. (245)

Urscheler on Legal Traditions in Nepal

Lukas Heckendorn Urscheler (Swiss Institute of Comparative Law) has posted Innovation in a Hybrid System: The Example of Nepal. The abstract follows.

The Nepali legal tradition is a legal hybrid in many regards. Nepal was not colonised by a Western state, and the Hindu legal tradition therefore dominated all areas of law until the middle of the 20th century. Since the 1950s there has been a strong influence of Indian common law. It is probably for this reason that comparative classifications that include Nepal see the legal system as a mixture of common law and customary law. However, other mixtures mark the Nepali legal tradition. French law inspired the ruler in the 19th century, and that influence can still be found in the formal law. In addition, the plurality of Nepalese society made it necessary to provide space for different customary regimes to coexist with the formal Hindu law. When it comes to innovations within the legal system, including international law, the different ingredients interact.

In family-related matters, the case-law of the Nepali Supreme Court illustrates the confrontation between international legal standards and the traditional rules. The Supreme Court has referred to the culturally conditioned discrimination against women and called for a thorough (political) analysis in order to eliminate discrimination without a radical change of culture. In the area of discrimination against homo- and transsexuals the Supreme Court took a more innovative approach. It remains to be seen, however, if such a change is effective beyond the courtroom.

In the area of private financial compensation for wrongs, the formal (written) Nepali law does not have a general concept of tort. Compensation is generally integrated within the ambit of criminal law. Field research indicates that it would be possible to resort to existing customary principles of compensation rather than to the relatively complex common law of torts favoured by some Nepali scholars. However, this approach might not be without difficulty, as it might imply admitting the “superiority” of the customary practices of ethnic groups of lower standing in society.

The example of Nepal shows that innovation in a hybrid system is often marked by the difficulty of – at least apparently – contradictory elements and layers of the legal system. There might be a tendency towards choosing the dominant or the most easily accessible solution. This paper suggests that the hybrid nature of the legal system offers opportunities that could be taken in order to achieve effective change and appropriate solutions.