Review of Beyond Common Knowledge, Edited by Erik J. Jensen and Thomas C. Heller.
Stanford University Press: Palo Alto, Cal., 2003. Pp. 456. $70.00 (cloth).*
Following in the Stanford tradition of socio-legal studies, Beyond Common Knowledge brings together an impressive array of international scholars and practitioners for a timely study of judicial reform and “rule-of-law assistance” (“ROLA”). Much of rule-of-law literature relies on insufficiently documented and often arid doctrinal approaches to the rule of law. In contrast, Beyond Common Knowledge places empiricism at the center of comparative legal scholarship to understand what courts and their alternatives actually do and what is actually happening within ROLA. This collection of studies from around the world successfully engages both scholars and policymakers in an empirically enlightened reassessment of what ROLA actually is and of what it can and therefore should be. While Beyond Common Knowledge makes an important contribution to the ROLA debate by introducing an empirical approach, the full value of an empirical inquiry will not be realized unless complemented by a strong normative argument. To deliver tangible outcomes in the area of development, global poverty, and inequality, ROLA should be conceived within a critical pragmatic approach that integrates empirical insights with progressive normative views. In this Book Review, I advocate for an approach that combines empiricism, normative critique, and pragmatic advocacy to articulate and advance a more progressive ROLA framework and agenda.
Beyond Common Knowledge is a collection of essays and case studies analyzing rule-of-law reform and the role of judicial systems and their alternatives across the world. These studies seek to test widespread doctrinal hypotheses about the role of legal and judicial systems in economic growth and democratic politics and assess the current practice of ROLA. What is unique about the book is its openly empirical approach that seeks to move ROLA discourse beyond discussions about the philosophical meaning of access to justice and the rule of law or the political biases of ROLA discourse. In classic law and society fashion, each author in this volume supports his or her analysis with empirical research, country or cross-country case studies of judicial systems, and a strong emphasis on political economy analysis. The various studies offer insightful conclusions, and some provoking thoughts. They include a case and methodology for evaluating systems of justice through public opinion polls (José Juan Toharia, chapter1); a comparative law and society study of judicial systems in Western Europe (Erhard Blankenburg, chapter 2); empirical assessments of informal justice (Marc Galanter and Jayanth K. Krishnan, chapter 3) and special consumer courts (Robert S. Moog, chapter 4) in India; innovative approaches to empirical research about the Chinese judiciary (Donald C. Clarke, chapter 5 and Hualing Fu, chapter 6); political economy analyses of ROLA (Jensen, chapter 10, and Heller, chapter 11); judicial reform programs in Latin America (Linn Hammergren, chapter 9, on Latin America generally, Carlos Pena Gonzalez, chapter 7, on Chile, and Héctor Fix-Fierro, chapter 8, on Mexico).
Beyond Common Knowledge addresses ROLA’s uneven empirical record and calls for its systematic evaluation through new empirical research standards. These standards can examine what courts and their alternatives actually do and monitor and measure the progress of ROLA reforms. Pointing generally to the limited impact of and resources for judicial and legal reforms, the book calls for a more “modest” and “thin” ROLA agenda that would focus on less ambitious intermediate level outcomes, such as improving court transparency and court management for everyday cases. The book argues for a shift away from ROLA’s “judicial centrism” and the doctrinal belief in independent judiciaries, for ROLA actors to recognize informal and alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) processes outside of the formal judicial system, and for a deeper understanding of local legal culture and political economy.
Although the authors in Beyond Common Knowledge assess and criticize the gap between articulated ROLA goals and practice, they self-consciously prioritize a “realistic” and improving-the-record approach to meeting modest, intermediate level rule-of-law objectives as the way ahead. Hence, with the notable exception of Heller’s postscript chapter, which articulates a paradigm for governance and ROLA within existing institutional “ecologies,” the authors in this volume fall short of articulating a strong normative framework for ROLA.
Part I of this Book Review will discuss the broad outline of a critical pragmatic approach to ROLA that combines the empiricism found in Beyond Common Knowledge with a normative vision for attacking global poverty. Part II explores “selling” pro-poor programs within ROLA standard packages. Part III concludes. . . .
* This excerpt does not include citations. To read the entire article, including supporting notes, please download the PDF.