Comparative Law vs. International Law

It has happened to me numerous times: after explaining to a friend, neighbor or simple acquaintance that I am interested in comparative legal issues, I get the reaction “So you are doing international law!” Well, not quite. Hence, in this article, I would like to examine the relationship between comparative law and international law and why they are so often lumped together – not just in conversations, but also when it comes to law degree programs or law journals.

Theoretically, international law and comparative law are two very different things. Comparative law is a legal discipline with its own history, methodology, philosophy and approach. In contrast, international law is a body of law that you can even further divide into public international law – the law governing international institutions and agreements between states – and private international law – conflict of laws on an international level.

Practically, however, one (international law) depends on the other (comparative law). For private international law, this is kind of obvious. Private international law (which is mostly a term used in continental Europe) uses comparative law knowledge to determine how the applicable law would solve an international legal issue and if the outcome would be in accordance with the ordre public.

Maybe a little bit less evident, public international law also benefits from comparative law knowledge and methodology when it comes to either creating or interpreting international legal agreements. Thus, Professor Blakesley writes

[To] understand international law properly, to be able to negotiate, litigate, or even to communicate effectively in the arena of international law, it is necessary to understand that its origin and discipline, its philosophical context, and the mindset of many of its practitioners is “civilian” or a variation on that theme rather than common law in inspiration. To practice international law well, one should also be a comparativist.

Dan E. Stigal, referring to the decision of the Supreme Court in Medellin v. Texas (2008), even goes one step further and argues that international law usually needs to be implemented by individual states and such implementation relies upon domestic law mechanisms. Thus, knowledge of foreign law is important to determine the outcomes of cases involving international treaties (like the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations in the Medellin case).

In sum, international law greatly benefits from comparative law knowledge and methodologies. Still, I would like to also stress the importance of comparative law as a distinct legal discipline that helps to understand, appreciate and preserve the diversity and richness of the legal systems of the world.

Bibliography

  • C. Blakesley, Introduction at 4, in: The International Legal System, 5th edition (Blakesley et al., 2001).
  • W.E. Butler, International Law and Comparative Law 49-52, in: Encyclopedia of Public International Law, 10 (Bindschedler et al, ed., 1988).
  • Dan E. Stigal, The Nexus Between Comparative Law and International Law, at ComparativeLawBlog (2010), last checked 8/10/2019.

The United States Supreme Court and Foreign Law

With this post, we quickly set aside the issue of interdisciplinarity in comparative law and focus on applied comparative law in a broader sense. Specifically, I would like to look at the question whether the United States Supreme Court (and courts in general) should consider foreign law and practices.

In this regard, Justice Breyer of the United States Supreme Court just published his book The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities. The book essentially is a commented synopsis of recent Supreme Court decisions that mention foreign law. Most of these decisions concerned the interpretation of international treaties or statutes where consideration of foreign law is fairly accepted. Sometimes, however, foreign law was consulted on questions relating to the United States constitution and its interpretation. In particular, issues relating to national security and antitrust triggered a look across borders, but also questions about gay rights and the death penalty.

According to Justice Breyer, foreign law – while by no means binding – could be quite “instructive” in cases involving questions of constitutional interpretation in general and more specifically questions relating to the Eighth Amendment and the death penalty.

“It [the Eighth Amendment] uses the word ‘unusual,’ and the founders didn’t say unusual in what context.”

Generally, judges – and lawyers – across borders could learn from each other. Unfortunately, drawing inspiration from abroad is still very limited – not just for ideological reasons, but also because of lack of understanding foreign law and its terminology.

Bibliography

  • Adam Liptak, Justice Breyer Sees Value in a Global View of Law, The New York Times, September 12, 2015 (available here)

Interdisciplinarity – Lessons from Applied Comparative Law

In my previous post, I pointed out that comparative law could benefit from other disciplines. Such incorporation of external research needs to be done in a way that makes it acceptable from a legal standpoint. And principles of (applied) comparative law may just be the key – admittedly a somewhat circular reasoning, but nevertheless something worth looking into.

Applied comparative law considers the question of legal transplants, i.e. which legal provisions could be transferred from country A to country B. In order to determine which law should be transferred, lawyers have to figure out the overall best solution by taking into account what is reasonable and just. Here, the issue of cultural and ideological discrepancies arises: because what works well in country A does not necessarily be acceptable in country B. So in the end, lawyers have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether the prima facie better law is in fact ideal in the country it should be adopted.

So what does this previous paragraph tell us about interdisciplinary comparative law? Adopting an idea or reasoning from another discipline might just be similar to transferring legal provisions from country A to country B. Thus, any effort in incorporating interdisciplinary research has to determine on a case-by-case basis whether a particular idea from another discipline is reasonable and just in the particular comparative law research at hand. In this regard, Giesen proposes a (non-exhaustive) set of questions that any lawyer who considers empirical research should ask himself before incorporating this research into his work: 

– whether the empirical work is in fact relevant for the question of law that arises,
– whether the work is up to the current state of the art in the field methodologically, as well as regards its research design, etc., and its implications,
– whether (more generally) the research is valid and reliable,
– whether there is conflicting empirical work on the same issue,
– whether the study has been replicated and confirmed or not,
– whether the study is but one building block of a larger set of studies needed for policy implications,
– whether the researcher is both an expert and objective and independent, and so on.

The advantage of this approach is that it may help prevent premature adoption of empirical ideas into comparative law research. 

Bibliography

  • Ivo Giesen, The Use and Incorporation of Extralegal Insights in Legal Reasoning, 11 Utrecht L R 1-18 (2015).
  • Konrad Zweigert & Hein Kötz, An Introduction to Comparative Law 33-47 (1998).