Book Review – The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law

The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law, by Albie Sachs. Oxford University Press (2009), 306 Pages. Hardcover, $25.00,  ISBN 9780199571796.

In the process of conceiving this book, Justice Albie Sachs—who served on South Africa’s first Constitutional Court from 1994 until his retirement in 2009—asked himself: “How do I actually make my decisions and write my judgments?” The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law is a lively and elegantly written exploration of this question; it is a series of interlinking chapters held together by the thread of Sachs’ broad and varied experiences as a lawyer, anti-apartheid activist, participant in the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, co-drafter of South Africa’s constitution, and Justice on the Constitutional Court.

Each chapter of The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law speaks in some way to the role that intuition and/or empathy plays in the judicial process. Collectively, Sachs’ ruminations reveal his conviction that law can affect human dignity, as well as cultural and political institutions, in a positive way. The writing is clear and accessible, and the scope is broad; the book is therefore suited to a correspondingly wide audience. It will appeal to lay persons, as well as to students and scholars interested in jurisprudence, the relationship between narrative and the law, the role of constitutional law in the consideration of human and socioeconomic rights, and modern South African history.

Most of the chapters contain excerpts from select cases that Sachs heard during his time on the bench, each of which is preceded by a brief and useful summary of the issues and the court’s holding. These landmark decisions, such as the Grootboom case—which addressed housing rights for squatters who had no hope of access to public units—established new standards for the South African parliament to follow. These cases often spoke directly to the differing roles of courts and legislatures in dealing with questions of human dignity, social and economic rights, same-sex marriage, terrorism, and capital punishment.

Two chapters—”Tock-Tick: The Working of a Judicial Mind” and “Reason and Passion”—focus primarily on the workings of a judge’s mind. In the former chapter, Sachs notes that he once opened a case with the words, “Every judgment I write is a lie.” The “falsehood” arises not from the decision’s content but from its form. The rational, ordered appearance of the final written judgment, Sachs says, gives the misleading impression that it was arrived at “purely on rational autopilot,” and belies the “jumbled process” involved in coming to a decision.

In “Reason and Passion,” he refers with approval to former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brennan’s thesis that all judges participate in an “internal dialogue of reason and passion” that is central to the vitality of the judicial process. Awareness of one’s intuitive, passionate, and empathetic sensibilities, Sachs says, is therefore something to be nurtured. He goes on to describe the startling, intuitive insights that came to him in odd places—e.g., in the bath tub or during a conversation at a restaurant. These revelations, of course, were built on the foundation of hours of rational investigation, reading, research, and debates with colleagues, but it was only in some unguarded moment at some distance from the rational process—in some “transcendental meditational state,” as he puts it—that his most crucial insights would emerge.

While the book functions in part as a narrative of Sachs’ experiences, it is not a chronological memoir. Pivotal events in his life—his time in solitary confinement, losing an arm and partial vision in a car bombing, meeting the man who planned the car bombing, and his participation in drafting the South African Constitution—are either referred to briefly or discussed in more detail with the primary purpose of setting up the themes or judgment excerpts to be addressed in the particular chapter.

Those desiring a more traditional narrative may find the structure—a nonlinear linking of chapters with excerpts from crucial judgments—a bit jarring. To be sure, the unconventional format breaks up the flow of the narrative to some extent. On the other hand, the “nonlogical” order of the book mirrors the often messy, nonrational nature of judicial practice that Sachs is describing and effectively illustrates the blurred lines between life and law.

The reader emerges from the book with a glimpse into the complexities of the judicial process, along with a better understanding of some of the major issues facing modern South Africa, its democracy, and its Constitutional Court. In the meantime, Albie Sachs is revealed a wise, empathetic, and spirited advocate for the idea that law can have a transformative impact on society.

Sunil Rao is foreign law librarian at University of Wisconsin Law Library in Madison.

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