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)

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