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Andras Sajo: Militant Rule of Law and Not-So-Bad Law

"In illiberal regimes, the self-corrective mechanisms of the rule of law are gradually eliminated, but the name of the game remains the rule of law," our Senior Research Fellow Andras Sajo writes in the latest DI Working Paper.

The paper provides intellectual arguments and tools from legal dogmatics that can help to counter the rule of law backlash. It argues that resilience can be boosted by a systemic militant rule of law approach. When it comes to restoring the rule of law, legal theory turns to the Radbruch formula (supra-statutory law). This approach remains contested by lawyers who are convinced – following the tradition of positivist legal theory – that invoking this formula is unacceptable because it violates a fundamental requirement of the rule of law, namely that of legality. Irrespective of the value of this concern, Radbruch’s formula is not applicable to the current demise of the rule of law, as the law resulting from cheating and abuse in illiberal regimes does not result in evil law (though it may facilitate such developments). Instead of evil law, we face ‘not-so-bad’ law. Legal imperfections exist in every legal system, and militant rule of law necessitates the systemic revision of these shortcomings in order to preempt the abuses of an anti-formalistic populist regime. In illiberal regimes, the self-corrective mechanisms of the rule of law are gradually eliminated, but the name of the game remains the rule of law. It means that judges still have (some) power to counter the backlash using extant interpretive techniques (for a while).

This article will begin by introducing the concept of not-so-bad (NSB) law as an imperfection of the rule of law. In section two, the validity of NSB laws is discussed by relying on the source theory. It argues that even if validity is a matter of conformity to the source, the source can be understood to contain a legal merit component as determined by the rule of law. Falling short on this legal merit component can constitute a ground for declaring the norm invalid. Section three describes the abuses of the rule of law in illiberal democracies and explains how the NSB law of illiberal regimes does not satisfy the validity requirements of legal positivism. Section four discusses the opportunities open to judges for resisting or undoing NSB law using existing techniques of legal interpretation without violating rule of law principles.

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