Thursday, February 28, 2013

Once Again, In Defense of Legal Positivism

This article is a continuation of my previous article: In Defense of Legal Positivism - A Reply to Iman Nasima. Since Imam has kindly responded to my article here, I think it should be appropriate to press the discussion one step further (though I have to apologize for the huge delay in responding to his second article).

Legal Positivism is Not a Method of Legal Interpretation

The first question that I asked in my previous article is: how critics to Legal Positivism perceive Legal Positivism? Is it a legal theory or method of interpretation? For me, the answer is obvious. Legal Positivism does not deal with method of legal interpretation, it is a theory of law.

Why does this distinction matter? Because from my readings of various people who criticizes Legal Positivism, I get a tendency that they equate Legal Positivism with strict Textualism or Legal Formalism, i.e. that under Legal Positivism, judges tend to interpret the laws solely based on the texts of the formal laws issued by the state, and that these judges do not consider other basic principles such as justice and morality when they can found a governing law in resolving legal matters.

Of course this is completely wrong and shows a lack of understanding of what is Legal Positivism. You cannot make a good critic if you don't understand the concept that you criticize. It will simply be a waste of time for everyone.      

Whose Authority?

This is indeed a really difficult question. In practice, questioning the normativity of law will not be completed without asking who is the authority that must be honored in the first place. This is in line with the support given by Legal Positivism to the Source Thesis, i.e. that the existence of law can be solely derived from its sources and not its contents.

Under the Source Thesis, people can recognize the existence of the law by paying attention to the sources of that law, i.e. the authority who issues the law. HLA Hart tried to explain this thesis through Rules of Recognition, i.e. secondary rules in a legal system that give guideline on when certain rules can be treated as laws.

When certain rules meet the criteria of the Rules of Recognition, those rules will be deemed as laws with all of their authoritative/normative power upon their subjects. The problem is, who stipulates the rules of recognition and why we should follow those rules of recognition in the first place?

At this stage, Legal Positivism as a descriptive theory of law would be unable to answer that question. Why? Because it is a question of fact. Imam correctly shows that there are various competing theories on dealing with the concept of authority and how authorities derive their power.

To give more context on the above discussion, I recently read Justice Scalia and Bryan Garner's  treatise on Legal Interpretation where they said that British and US judges differ in terms of authority. In England, the judges can hold the same position with legislators, so they can make the law and interpret the provisions at the same time. While in the United States, the power to make laws lies with the legislators while judges are required to enforce the laws.

The basis for this separation of power in US (at least according to Scalia and Garner) is to maintain the basic principles of democracy, i.e. that laws should be promulgated by representatives of the people that will be held accountable to their voters, and not by judges who are not appointed through democratic process.

It's an interesting theory of how judges and legislators should behave in a legal system, but I'm not sure that we can consider this as a pure legal theory. It's more of a political theory. There is no legal basis on why judges should behave like what Scalia said nor a rule of recognition for that given the fact that judges in the United States are still debating on their roles in the legal system.

The same thing is also applicable for  Indonesian case. Suppose that judges political power is weak here, would that be a concern of Legal Positivism? I would say no and that would be enough for the purpose of defending Legal Positivism. From the very beginning, what I want to show through my previous article is that the critics misunderstand the issue. If the judicial branch is weak in Indonesia, it does not have any correlation with Legal Positivism as a theory of law. 

How Social Facts Are Determined?

In dealing with Imam's second question, I find it interesting that he made a correlation between public acceptance of judges decision with the normative power of such decision. Should the judges decision be accepted by the majority of the public in order to be eligible to be considered as a valid law?

As interesting as it may be, it is actually not a question that can be answered by Legal Positivism as a descriptive theory of law. It is again, a question of fact. Legal Positivism only says that law is a social fact, that its existence relies on the acceptance of the majority, including the people and legal authorities.

However, Legal Positivism is silent on the actual practices of social acceptance because they can have many different forms. Theoretically speaking, we can have a legal system where court's decisions will be automatically considered as an authoritative source regardless of public acceptance of the content, and it is also possible to have a legal system where in order to obtain validity, a court's decision should be accepted first by the majority of the people. Can we use Legal Positivism to endorse the first system against the second one and vice versa? I don't think so.

In fact, we already have a very good example when we discuss the power of judicial precedents. It is common to aspiring Indonesian law students that in Indonesia (and other civil law countries), unlike in the common law countries, the principle of stare decisis, i.e. that a court's decision will be considered as a binding precedent to be followed by future court decisions, is not applicable. Thus, in Indonesia, future judges are free to disregard previous decisions and make their own decisions for a similar case.

Will Legal Positivism say that common law stare decisis system is better than civil law system? No. Can Legal Positivism explain why Indonesia and civil law countries choose to abandon stare decisis system? No.

But I am confident that Legal Positivism can explain to us that stare decisis is not applicable in Indonesia because most, if not all, of Indonesian legal authorities reject the concept. In other words, under Indonesian rules of recognition, court decisions do not have binding precedent power toward future court decisions (at least as of the date of this article). Can this rule of recognition change in the future? Might be, who knows? 

Can Law and Economics Succeed in Indonesia?
 
Imam claimed in his article that Law and Economics method will fail as long as the judicial power is not strong enough to uphold any form of legal certainty. I do not think so. After all, judicial branch is just a part of the overall legal system and Law and Economics can become a mainstream legal thought through many windows, including the academic world and other branches of government.

When Imam mentioned the names of Posner, Dworkin, Barak, etc, I do not think that he discussed their debates in legal theory but more on legal interpretation method. This is not relevant to Legal Positivism. How the judges should interpret the laws is not a question for Legal Positivism (the same mistake made by Dworkin when he criticized Legal Positivism).

As a descriptive legal theory, Legal Positivism would be more interested on what are the actual methods of interpretation that are acceptable in a legal system. What does this mean? In a situation where there is no clear ground rules for legal interpretation, every system of legal thought can fight for domination.

As I said in my previous article, Law and Economics was not a mainstream thought in the United States prior to the 1970s era. It was thanks to Richard Posner and many other academics and political patrons that Law and Economics could finally gain a dominant position in the US legal thought. We see more judges using economic analysis in resolving cases.

How about in the executive branch? It was Cass Sunstein who brought cost and benefit analysis to the next level in the US government regulatory making process through his office, OIRA. Is this because of Legal Positivim? Of course not, it's a political and academic fight. The same thing can also happen in the legislative branch through political process.

This is what I want to reiterate to the misleading critics of Legal Positivism. If you want to ensure that your personal legal thought (whatever that is) can dominate Indonesian legal thought, it is a waste of time to criticize Legal Positivism because it is not Legal Positivism's mistake in the first place. In short, try other persuasive methods and good luck with that.

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