The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law

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From a young age Albie Sachs played a prominent part in the struggle for justice in South Africa. As a result he was detained in solitary confinement, tortured by sleep deprivation and eventually blown up by a car bomb which cost him his right arm and the sight of an eye. His experiences provoked an outpouring of creative thought on the role of law as a protector of human dignity in the modern world, and a lifelong commitment to seeing a new era of justice established in South Africa.

After playing an important part in drafting South Africa's post-apartheid Constitution, he was appointed by Nelson Mandela to be a member of the country's first Constitutional Court. Over the course of his fifteen year term on the Court he has grappled with the major issues confronting modern South Africa, and the challenges posed to the fledgling democracy as it sought to overcome the injustices of the apartheid regime.

As his term on the Court approaches its end, Sachs here conveys in intimate fashion what it has been like to be a judge in these unique circumstances, how his extraordinary life has influenced his approach to the cases before him, and his views on the nature of justice and its achievement through law.

The book provides unique access to an insider's perspective on modern South Africa, and a rare glimpse into the working of a judicial mind. By juxtaposing life experiences and extracts from judgments, Sachs enables the reader to see the complex and surprising ways in which legal culture transforms subjective experience into objectively reasoned decisions. With rare candour he tells of the difficulties he has when preparing a judgment, of how every judgment is a lie. Rejecting purely formal notions of the judicial role he shows how both reason and passion (concern for protecting human dignity) are required for law to work in the service of justice.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"If I still had responsibility for the English judiciary I would encourage every judge for whom I was responsible to read this book. I am sure it would improve their understanding of what the job really involves and what justice is about." - Lord Woolf, from the preface

"The Strange Alchemy of Life and [Albie Sachs'] fascinating and honest account of how his own thinking, emotions and experiences contributed to some of the most startling, original, adventurous, far-reaching and moving decisions taken by any court in the world." - Marcel Berlins, The Guardian

"Mr Sachs's book is not just an appeal for sympathy for poor old judges who have to make difficult decisions but an invitation for public understanding of the abstract strengths as well as the humanity of the process." - John Forsyth, The Scotsman

"Sachs is a credible champion of those values not merely because his biography so faithfully embodies them, but also because of the candor and sincerity that characterize his writing-legal opinions as well as prose...makes a compelling case for the inextricable links between a biography and the bench." -Ryan Thoreson, Boston Review

"There is no more heroic, compassionate, or creative lawyer than Albie Sachs, and his book offers the gift of his vivid and humane first-hand account of serving as a judge, interpreting South Africa's post-apartheid Constitution, and pursuing justice on and off the bench." -Martha L. Minow, Jeremiah Smith Jr. Professor of Law and Dean of the Faculty of Law, Harvard Law School

"Sachs looks forward to a South African Constitutional Court doing justice for all...worth stealing a moment to heed Sachs's warning...poignant..."-Newsweek

"Sachs emerges from his narrative as an empathetic and humanistic judge deeply committed to a democratic South Africa. And besides, it is hard not to like a man who admits to doing his best thinking in the bathtub." -Foreign Affairs

"His arguments about the nature of judging and the role of dignity in the law will attract the attention of legal experts. Meanwhile, anyone with an interest in South Africa will appreciate Sachs' justification for explicitly including socioeconomic rights in the South African constitution and his analysis of the logic behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission."
--Nicolas van de Walle, Foreign Affairs

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199571796
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 8/3/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Albie Sachs is a Justice on the Constitutional Court of South Africa.

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Table of Contents

1. Tales of Terrorism and Torture
2. Tock-Tick: The Working of a Judicial Mind
3. A Man Called Henri: Truth, Reconciliation, and Justice
4. Reason and Passion
5. Laughing Matters
6. Reason and Judgment
7. The Judge Who Cried: The Judicial Enforcement of Socio-Economic Rights
8. Human Dignity and Proportionality
9. The Secular and the Sacred: The Dual Challenges of Same-sex Marriage
10. The Beginning and the End
Epilogue and Thanks

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted June 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer


    If you love justice as much as you abhor and detest injustice, you will be deeply moved by this engrossing 300 page jurisprudential memoir by Albie Sachs. The same is true for judges who, in the words of our former Lord Chief Justice, Harry Woolf, believe judging is much more than merely deciding cases! Yes, this is one of the few entertaining books which can be classified as a work on judicial reasoning and how a judge might decide from the insider perspective.

    So, every judge should be encouraged to read it, continues Lord Woolf, adding 'I am sure it would improve their understanding of what the job really involves and what justice is about.

    Sachs is a doughty and courageous fighter in the struggle for justice in South Africa under the malevolent apartheid regime which made that country a world pariah. Following the release of Nelson Mandela in 1994 - who can forget that day - Sachs played an important role in drafting South Africa's post-apartheid Constitution and was appointed by Mandela as a member of its first constitutional court.

    With the startling lucidity which characterizes his writing, Sachs reveals what it was like to be a judge in circumstances which are particularly unique, especially in view of the fact that he was himself a victim of apartheid.

    As an advocate at the Cape Bar from the age of 21, he defended people charged under racist statures and repressive security laws, incurring the wrath of the authorities. He was subjected to banning orders, placed in solitary confinement for two spells of detention and exiled in 1966. After working for some 20 years in the UK and Mozambique, he was seriously injured by a bomb.

    Now as his term on the Constitutional Court nears its end, Sachs looks back on his extraordinary life, writing with passion and insight about the ways in which his experiences have influenced his judicial approach and his views on the nature of justice.

    When one has suffered oneself under an irrational and oppressive regime, including detention and torture, one's personal and judicial outlook will inevitably be influenced accordingly.

    'It was the worst moment of my life,' recalls Sachs, describing a particularly appalling incident of torture. 'It was not a hypothetical situation of the kind that some academics conjure up when discussing the costs and benefits of the government using torture,' he comments, 'the practice was systematic, it was organized, it was condoned, it was part of policy.'

    Policy makers worldwide, even in the enlightened democracies, who have been tempted to believe that there are pros as well as cons which justify torture in whatever form, should read this powerful and enlightening book.

    And 'how do life experiences affect legal decision making?' asks Sachs in the preface. 'The answer,' he concludes, 'is in unexpected ways.' Yes, this is a book for the jurisprudent's jurisprudent and great for students and legal philosophers alike in 21st century.

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