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Oxford Professor Touts Complex Government

For The Heights

Published: Sunday, September 23, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01


Emily Fahey / Heights Staff

The Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy welcomed Jeremy Waldron, the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford University and professor of law at New York University, to Boston College last Thursday. Waldron’s lecture was titled “The Separation of Powers in Thought and Practice,” and focused on the importance of the separation of the three branches of government in the United States, and its implications for our nation’s political process now and in the future.

Waldron is an international legal expert. He asks big questions that are often considered unanswerable. For example, “What is the nature of political representation?” or “What are rights for and how can they meet our nation’s goals in the face of unrelenting bitter disagreement?”

During the lecture, Waldron gave bold answers that shine new light on the landscape of political and moral theory. Waldron emphasized that the principle of separation of powers needs to be understood as a political principle for evaluating the legal and constitutional arrangement of the state, though the Constitution itself makes no references to the principle.

 “The fact that the separations of power is not a legal principle does not mean that we have to confine it to some shadowy realm of an ethical principle or a moral idea,” Waldron said. “In some sense it is a moral principle, but the point is that it has an important canonical place in the tradition in political thought.”

The separation of powers is one principle among many, such as the division of power, checks and balances, bicameralism and federalism. These principles work as a package separately and together, but Waldron emphasized that the separation of powers has its own intrinsic value.

“[The separation of powers] must be given its due — it may convey important ideas about our constitution that are not conveyed by others. It may do some distinct work which is not done by others,” Waldron said.

Waldron explained that the normal picture of our society is one where its laws will be passed by our legislature, and then those laws will be passed onto the courts to be considered and interpreted in the context of disputes, and then the determination of the courts will be enforced, upheld, and implemented by the agencies of the executive branch.

“The image is rather like an assembly line, with various functional points on the assembly line,” Waldron said. “Enactment, adjudication, enforcement.”  
Waldron’s major point was that America’s political process is not something that is compressed or undifferentiated in the exercise of power, but rather an articulated and laborious process.     
This process is crucial to our democracy. When we act in a constitutional democracy, power is to be exercised in pages, by one agency after another. This process takes an incredible amount of effort and time.

Critics of Waldron say that in our modern age, we need a system that can rapidly create and implement laws. The process Waldron describes is often cited as outdated, or thought of as a nice idea, but something that is unpractical for our day and age.

Waldron disagrees. He stated that we need to be governed in a laborious sort of way. We need a place to debate and vote, to approve and reject legislation. The value in the articulated process must not be compromised.

“If we do not respect this laborious process,” Waldron said, “we risk the integrity of our American constitutional system.”

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