‘Void ab initio’: a legal history
“He who has real power is also capable of determining concepts and words,” wrote Nazi constitutional theorist Carl Schmitt. “Caesar dominus est supra grammaticam (Caesar is also the lord of grammar).”
Schmitt is studied not as a grammar Nazi but for the import of his most famous words in the very first line of his “Political Theology” (1922): “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” A true sovereign wields unchecked power to name friends and enemies of the state.
Solicitor General Jose Calida may not have read Schmitt in law school, but his use of the Latin maxim void ab initio in Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV’s amnesty case is textbook Schmittian grammar. It is what the President says it is.
In 1941, the German Jewish émigré Ernst Fraenkel published in the United States his book, “The Dual State,” showing how the Nazis applied Schmitt’s ideas to seize control of German administrative and judicial bodies.
The legal scholar described two contrary features of Hitler’s government: There was the “normative state,” the formal constitutional norms for civil and political rights, and the “prerogative state,” with its arbitrary exercise of power. Fraenkel’s study shows the gradual surrender of the normative state to the prerogative state by German lawyers, legal scholars and judges after Hitler declared martial law on Feb. 28, 1933.
For one, German courts considered martial law a political act outside their jurisdiction. Schmitt argued that the grounds for martial rule in Article 48 of the Weimar constitution cannot limit the Führer’s own prerogatives. If the constitution provides but two grounds for martial law—rebellion or invasion—he may disregard it. Or he may hold that terrorists who lay siege to Berlin are committing rebellion, even if it means treating them as a political group, as long as he gets his martial law.
Hitler had argued that he is the societal order. Thus, he who opposes the president opposes law and justice. Yet many believed him. Every governmental action must align with the goals of National Socialism, a “religion without a god.”
In 1929, professor Carl Bilfinger wrote that international law is limited by reservations on national security. Schmitt agreed, saying the reservations are more important than the treaty. Both scholars would be fine with the Philippine withdrawal from the International Criminal Court as a sole executive prerogative.
There was only muted resistance to this system, like a lower court ruling that a composer is entitled to royalties for his music aired by radio stations, rejecting arguments that the stations — since they also aired Nazi propaganda — were exempt from royalty fees.
Otherwise, democratic institutions toed the line. Across Germany, the prerogative state reduced the rule of law to its arbitrary and irrational diktat.
Even civil servants were denied access by the courts to their own official records in disputes with their superiors (sounds familiar?). A 1935 decision of the Prussian Supreme Administrative Court abolished Article 129, Section 3 of the constitution guaranteeing the right, as it contradicted the Nazi “leadership principle.”
The Prussian Supreme Court also held that all religious activities must meet government regulations; if not, believers may be guilty of stoking “indirect Communist danger.”
In 1938, another court convicted a minister of breaching the peace for praying for prisoners held by the Nazis. Fraenkel noted how the highest court of Bavaria erased the fundamental principle of double jeopardy, punishing anew a man who had already served his sentence for “high treason.” The principle is merely procedural, it so held.
All eyes are now on the Makati City Regional Trial Court Branch 148, and the Supreme Court: Is ne bis in idem, as the principle is said in Latin, also void ab initio, as the President says?
By 1936, “the resistance of traditional law-enforcing bodies was weakened.” We all know what happened to German Jews — they lost their right to property, and their very own lives. For, by simply being born into a race not of their own choosing, they rendered their right to exist void ab initio.
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Romel Regalado Bagares is a lawyer who daydreams of happily spending all his waking hours as a clueless academic.
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