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Sound Ideas and Absurd Consequences: Reflections of a Legal Historian

  • R. C. Van Caenegem (a1)

During the 60 years that I have been writing – and speculating – on public law (my first book on medieval criminal law came out in 1954), I have been repeatedly struck by a particular phenomenon to which I would now like to draw attention: that sound ideas and useful innovations eventually – when relentlessly taken to their extreme consequences and pushed along the abstract lines of their inner logic – lead to absurd or even nefarious results, defeating the original intention.

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1.Bendersky, J. W. (1983) Carl Schmitt. Theories for the Reich (Princeton).
2.Van Caenegem, R. C. (2002) European Law in the Past and the Future. Unity and Diversity over Two Millennia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 112120.
3.Stolleis, M. (1999) Geschichte des öffentlichen Rechts in Deutschland: III: Staats- und Verwaltungsrechtswissenschaft in Republik und Diktatur 1914-1945 (Munich).
4.Langbein, J. H. (1974) Prosecuting Crime in the Renaissance. England, Germany, France (Cambridge, MA);
Langbein, J. H. (1977) Torture and the Law of Proof. Europe and England in the Ancien Régime (Chicago);
Langbein, J. H. (2002) The Origins of Adversary Criminal Trial (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
5.Nelson, W. E. (2000) Marbury v. Madison, The Origins and Legacy of Judicial Review (Lawrence, Kansas). Judging the constitutional character of laws was only one part of the business of the Supreme Court, which was mainly the highest court of appeal for all sorts of cases, and in no way a Constitutional Court as is, for example, the Bundesverfassungsgerichtshof in Karlsruhe in present-day Germany.
6. On the events before 1931 and the attitudes of Holmes and Brandeis see Freeberg, E. (2009) Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debo, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent (Harvard), and the review-article by A. Lewis (2009) New York Review of Books, 2 July, pp. 44–47. See also A. Lewis (2008) Freedom for the Thought that we Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment (New York).
7.Perry, M. J. (1999) We the People: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Supreme Court (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 151179.
8.Van Caenegem, R. C. (2003) Historical Considerations on Judicial Review and Federalism in the United States of America, with Special Reference to England and the Dutch Republic (Brussels), pp. 15–20 (Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van België voor Wetenschappen en Kunsten. Academiae Analecta, New Series 13).
9.Brennan, W. J. (1986-87) Constitutional adjudication and the death penalty: a view from the Court. Harvard Law Review, 100, pp. 313331.
10.Blick, A. (2010) New Labour and the British Constitution. British Academy Review, 15, p. 7.
11. I wish to thank my Ghent colleague and historian of canon law, Daniel Lambrecht, for providing useful documents on this matter.
12.Cassese, S. (2009) La storia, compagna necessaria del diritto. Le Carte e la Storia. Rivista di Storia delle Istituzioni, 15, pp. 511.
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European Review
  • ISSN: 1062-7987
  • EISSN: 1474-0575
  • URL: /core/journals/european-review
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