Monday, September 16, 2013

Blackstone: Don't Be A Bonehead Legislator



I recently finished William Blackstone's meaty tome Commentaries on the Laws of England: Vol. 1.  Written in 1763, it is considered one of the first popular books written on the subject of English law.  Previous works on the subject were found in obscure and hardly understandable texts from centuries previous.

Blackstone had a brilliant mind and a strong determination to argue for the supremacy of the English system of laws, especially when compared to those of continental Europe of the time.

One of the interesting insights Blackstone shares is the proper role that Legislators play and the proper preparation they should take in administering their work:

"But those on whom nature and fortune have bestowed more abilities and greater leisure, cannot be so easily excused.  These advantages are given them, not for the benefit of themselves only, but also of the public; and yet they cannot, in any scene of life, discharge properly their duty either to the public or themselves, without some degree of knowledge in the laws."  
Keep in mind that not everyone in politics lives a life of leisure.  A flexible schedule and a means of subsistence are required to fulfill the duties of office. These prerequisites qualify many aged yet a few young, like myself, to run for office.  However, I will concede that political life is much easier for the seasoned and affluent than it is for those raising young families.  This was especially so in Colonial Era England. Nevertheless, Blackstone points out, regardless of circumstances, the need for legislators to know about the law.  Blackstone continues:

"But in order to attain these desirable ends, it is necessary that the magistrate should understand his business; and have not only the will, but the power also of administering legal and effectual justice.  Else, when he has mistaken his authority, through passion, through ignorance, or absurdity, he will be the object of contempt from his inferiors, and of censure from those to whom he is accountable for his conduct." 
Indeed, I have seen legislators replaced because those to whom the legislator was accountable questioned the passion or ignorance of the legislator's efforts.  This must have been a more frequent occurrence in Blackstone's day.  Utah has 104 members of it's Legislature (both Chambers) with a population of 2.8 million people.  By comparison, in Blackstone's day, Great Britain had 558 members for a population of 6.5 million.  

Blackstone has this to say about the weighty responsibility of the legislator:

"Yet further, most gentlemen of considerable property, at some period or other in their lives, are ambitious of representing their country in parliament; and those, who are ambitious of receiving so high a trust would also do well to remember it's nature and importance.  They are not thus honourably distinguished from the rest of their fellow subjects, merely that they may privilege their persons, their estates, or their domestics; that they may list under party banners; may grant or withhold supplies; may vote with or vote against a popular or unpopular administration; but upon considerations far more interesting and important.  They are the guardians of the English constitution, the makers, repealers, and interpreters of the English laws; delegated to watch, to check, and to avert every dangerous innovation; to propose, to adopt, and to cherish any solid and well-wighed improvement, bound by every tie of nature, of honour, and of religion, to transmit that constitution and those laws to their posterity, amended if possible, at least without any derogation.  And how unbecoming must it appear in a member of the legislature to vote for a new law, who is utterly ignorant of all the old!  What kind of interpretation can he be enabled to give, who is a stranger to the text upon which he comments!"
Finally, he quips about how the law has endured under the stewardship of legislators:

"The common law of England has fared like other venerable edifices of antiquity, which rash and inexperienced workmen have ventured to new-dress and refine, with all the rage of modern improvement.  Hence, frequently it's symmetry has been destroyed, its proportion distorted, and it's majestic simplicity exchanged for specious embellishments and fantastic novelties."   

In every freshmen class of legislators there is always one or two who feel it is there call in life to make sweeping changes in one aspect of the law or another.  Fortunately, in Utah, unless backed my popular sentiment, most of these aspirations are moderated by the experience and prudent minds of seasoned legislators.

Nevertheless, Blackstone makes some excellent points on being competent in legislative work.  I have done my best to acquaint myself with the many and varied departments of government, their impact on the lives of our citizens, and the policies that will best affect the happiness of people in my district.  While my knowledge isn't yet perfect, it is improving steadily; and for that, I am grateful.  May our current legislators and future legislators be perpetually engaged in preparing their minds to do the people's work.    

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