Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Does Legislative Intent Exist?

Two of the interesting notions in the world of legal interpretation are the existence of legislative intent (maksud pembuat undang-undang) and that such intent is eligible to be used in interpreting ambiguous laws. I too must admit that I once agreed with those notions during my undergraduate days, but later on I changed my position and my encounter with Public Choice theory strengthened my conviction. First of all, legislators (in our case, DPR) are not a single entity. As famously termed by Kenneth Shepsle, a Professor of Government from Harvard University, "congress is a they, not an it". There is a deep insight in that statement with some serious implications.

Some legal scholars believe that legislators have certain intentions when they promulgate a law. Thus, whenever there are ambiguities in the law, judges should try to interpret the text of the law in accordance with the governing legislative intention. But of course, this is far from the truth. Try reading a law and see the elucidation section. Some have explanations, but most of the time, we only see the words: cukup jelas (clear enough). And I can confirm with huge confidence that the term "clear enough" is simply overrated, meaning that what those legislators thought as clear is not clear at all. After all, no language can perfectly express the intention of a single person, what do you expect then from our language in expressing the intentions of 560 people?

The fact that our DPR consists of hundreds of members shows that it is impossible to determine their intention as a whole. There would never be a single unified intention from these people. Each faction has its own interest, and each member of such faction might also have different interests and preferences. The final product, i.e. the law along with its elucidation, does not necessarily reflect the intention of the overall legislators, it is simply the result of various political compromises with all of its flaws and errors. There might be the winning coalition and losing coalition and the law may only reflect the view of the winning coalition.  Not to mention that there are also possibilities of interest groups' involvements in law making process which might jeopardize the interest of many for the needs of the few.

So what is the biggest implication of the above insight? We must understand that since the legislators do not have an unified intention, trying to interpret the laws in accordance with their intention might not really work in practice. A good example is the Constitutional Court decision in the judicial review of Broadcasting Law (Law No. 32/2002), specifically on the authority of the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI) to issue broadcasting licenses for private broadcasting companies. In such decision the Constitutional Court declared that what the legislators intend to say does not mean anything if it is not expressed in the law itself.

As a background, the law says that the authority to issue broadcasting license resides with the Ministry of Communication and Informatics (KOMINFO). However, KPI argues that the legislators actually intend to give such authority jointly to KOMINFO and KPI in its capacity as the representative of the people. After all, KPI has the authority to conduct the preliminary selection process and provide recommendation to KOMINFO. Why then the licensing authority should solely fall into KOMINFO? But as stated by the Constitutional Court, it doesn't matter what the legislators thought about what KPI authorities should be. If they don't put it in the law, they can't say it as a law.

I tend to agree with the Constitutional Court, but I would not stop only on the texts of the law. Even when we refuse to acknowledge the existence of legislative intent, we still need to be practical. In my view, interpretation of the law must consider three main factors: (i) the texts of the law, (ii) the context of such texts in view of the overall provisions of the relevant law, and (iii), the possible consequences of using such context in practice. The law is a product of men and thus cannot and should never be separated from a reality check. Furthermore, with respect to my third point, as I've always stated in my posts, the law should be directed to reach the most efficient result, meaning satisfying the welfare of the society as much as possible with the lowest costs possible.

Using this method of interpretation, the text of the law would still be the primary source of the law, but we will also be less formalistic in interpreting the texts. Instead, judges decision will be guided by how their judgment can achieve the best results for the society welfare by calculating the costs and benefits of the immediate and long term effect of their judgment. No wonder Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his most famous law review article written in 1897, The Path of the Law, argued as follow: "For the rational study of the law the black letter man may be the man of the present, but the man of the future is the man of statistics and the master of economics."

Of course, it is not easy to use this method of interpretation in practice. We tend to narrow this method to simply judging based on the society's sense of justice which is not helpful at all since we really don't have a standard of what could be exactly considered as the society's sense of justice. No wonder judges choose to use legislative intent as a solution when plain meaning method does not work to solve the case.

Right now, I am taking a class on Judicial Decision Making, focusing on corporate law issues, where I act as a justice of the supreme court in the State of Delaware, United States of America. I believe this would be a very good opportunity for myself to test how I will decide the cases using my own legal interpretation method (since we start with a clean doctrinal state) and whether I can consistently apply what I've said in this post. Once I've completed the whole course (it will take around 2 months period), I will update again my view on this issue in a separate posts.

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