Legal theorists often wonder what we should think about things that are quite a lot like law but are not, in fact, legal systems. I’m not thinking of the rules of board games or the Mafia, but of cases where the similarities are more compelling: soft law, indigenous law, Masonic law, and so on. These have some features of the paradigm case of law and are missing others. But, as HLA Hart pointed out long ago, it would be silly to say they are ‘not law’: the term ‘law’ is quite open and flexible. Anyway, it is too late to say that ‘soft law’ is a misnomer. There are books about it, courses in it, and no doubt someone will soon start to offer degrees in it.
Moreover, such forms of social order can over time come closer to the paradigm case than they used to be. International law, for instance, is now more systematic and (a bit) more efficacious than it was when H.L.A. Hart said, in the 1950s, that it is more like ‘set’ of rules than a ‘system’. As things stand, these are still borderline cases of law, but some of them are on the move. My own preference is to call them ‘para-legal systems’.
Just as a form of social order can become more law-like over time, it can also become less law like. Some jurisprudents think that can happen when law fails to live up to certain moral ideals, such as democracy, liberalism, or human rights. My own view is more parsimonious. I count Roman Law and Canon Law as paradigm cases of legal systems, even though neither of them has much interest in democracy or liberalism, and both are overtly hostile to important human rights. Yet law they are.
But even on the more parsimonious view, other kinds of decay can cause law to unravel. The law can cease to be generally effective. Under this heading we usually think of ‘failed states’, but even when state power gets its way it may nonetheless escape the regulation of law, that is, the positive law of the land. Is there anyone who believes that the widespread use of terror and violence against African-American men is generally in accord with state and federal law in the US, and that their mass incarceration simply reflects their just deserts, legally speaking? Whole social groups in the US live in conditions of near lawlessness, and not because they disproportionately violate the law.
A different kind of decay results when the most basic ground rules of a legal system crumble. I don’t just mean the (formal) Constitution–though in the US that is looking pretty shaky too. Beneath every Constitution there is a constitution: a set of norms, standards, principles and practices that, together, identify the formal Constitution and regulate how it should be applied by judges and others. These norms have always been much less settled in the US than in countries at comparable levels of development: the more extreme American ‘legal realists’ wondered whether there was any settled law or convention at this level. No doubt that was an exaggeration, but there was some truth in it. When the highest officials are deeply divided on the relative importance of text, history, and principle in interpreting a Constitution, the most basic parts of a legal system are in rickety shape.
Now critical observers have a fresh worry, focused on the evident corruption of the Presidency and the Senate. Commentators of all political convictions (though not all commentators of all convictions) agree that they are being badly damaged by their incumbents. Not (just) because of probable unchecked violations of the Constitution, but also because of the toleration of grotesque assaults on the norms that make that document binding as law. American commentators lament a lack of ‘civility’ or a rise of ‘tribalism’ in their country, but a legal system can survive both. What it cannot long survive is official contempt for the informal norms that underpin the Constitution itself, and that is where the US seems to be heading.
It is not only apex officials that are responsible for the basic norms of a legal system. Ordinary lawyers and even, to a lesser degree, law professors and law clerks also play a part. We read that over 2,400 American law professors signed a letter urging Senators to do their duty in good faith and refuse to confirm an accused sexual harasser, a proven liar, a bully, a lickspittle, and a man who is said to choose female clerks who have a certain ‘look’. (Which appears, coincidentally, to be the same ‘look’ that the President prefers among his female attendants and wives.) Like many law professors, I read that list. (I was as surprised by the names that were absent as I was by some of those that were present.) The letter proved pointless. Anyone willing to do to Dr Christine Blasey Ford what President Trump was willing to do, and anyone willing to do whatever Trump wills, is beyond reason or shame, never mind the constraints of law. But I think the existence of the letter shows that one vital sign remains near normal limits. The bar, or at least some influential members of it, understand well what is now at stake and are pushing back. But should they give up, or be sidelined, it will not be long before we should move the US over to the category of ‘para-legal systems’. Quite a bit like law, in several respects, but not actually a legal system.