This article is written by Vallika Varshri, a student at Jindal Global Law School.
The Supreme Court of India under Weber’s Theory of Authority: Where does India’s Apex Court Derive its Power and Legitimacy From?
According to Weber, human actions are motivated by the desire to acquire more and more power (Jain, 2012). He says power comes in archetypes- traditional (based on customs), charismatic (power closely related to influence of a person) and rational (derived from rules, norms and law) (Williams, 2003). He distinguishes authority from power authority is a variety of power- distinguished by the “probability that a command with a given specific content will be obeyed by a given group of persons” (Rigby, 1966).
Weber believed that the development of conceptual tools by sociologists was an essential function, and thereby developed the ideal type. Ideal types are mere heuristic devices used to study ‘slices of historical reality’ which can be used by social scientists or researches to draw a comparison between the ideal type and the real case (Ritzer, 1992).
For Weber, authority was simply dominion which was exercised legitimately. According to Marx, legal authority was authority based on rational grounds i.e. “on a belief in the legality of enacted rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands” (Ritzer, 1992). Legal-rational authority of Marx can be summed up as authority empowered by ‘formalistic belief in the content of the law (legal) or natural law’. In this structure, obedience is not given to a specific leader but a set of uniform principles (Williams, 2003).
Since the Supreme Court of India has been established under the Constitution of India, it can be said to be a legal-rational authority. People hold a formalistic belief in the natural law- they can be said to give legitimacy to the authority of the court due to the principles of legality it’s based upon. The structure and authority of the court is not merely restricted in definition to constitutional provisions- it has been developed through legislations, precedents as well as constitutional amendments. These thereby further legitimise authority and reinforce the people’s belief since the court is allowed to take decisions on the people’s behalf in the form of precedents and other judgements.
Weber talks about the rights of those elevated to authority under such rule to issue commands. In the context of the Court, this role can be attributed to judges. The judges are the enforcers of the constitution of the India and thereby fill the shoes of the authority figure in the structure. This authority of the judge is legal according to Weber’s model since the source of their power is the Constitution which mandates how this power may be used by judges.
Despite the division of authority in neat categories, Weber himself conceded that no authority structure could be exclusively bureaucratic. In fact, due to the rich and intricate nature of the subject, an inter-relation between the three types of authority exists. According to Blau, the three types of authority may be re-enforced by traits that differentiate it from other types (Williams, 2003). This implies that a particular authority type can lose its power to another type by transitioning into it (Williams, 2003).
As we have previously stated, a judge of the SC exercises legal authority in giving a judgement- this is because a judgement is determined on the merits of its legal principles and is therefore rational. Blau talks about how a legal-authority is both dynamic and impersonal. A judgement may be dynamic since when determined on a different set of facts, the same legal principles may affect different judgements differently. The Supreme Court of India is based on the common law system. This implies the authority and execution of power does not rest entirely on substantive law but also on precedents. Here, udges may exercise a certain amount of discretion derived from personal authority. However, this does not make them lose their authority since the structure allows for such deviations. The structure of the court does not fall neatly into the category of rational-legal authority, thereby begging the question- which type of authority does the Supreme Court of India fall under?
Some might argue that the authority of the Supreme Court may be charismatic. Charismatic authority can be said to be based on the ‘affectual’ attitude of people, based emotional considerations, which legitimises the validity of what is newly constructed or a model of imitate. Charismatic authority is said to be the purest form of authority in the sense as it claims the right to break through all existing normative structures. Further, the relationship between charismatic authority and the normative order in society is said to follow charismatic development i.e. norms can be understood to have their legitimacy in affectual attitudes of people (Spencer, 1970).
This means that whatever the people accept as truth as said by the leader due to the leader’s persuasive or dominant nature becomes social reality. An example of this in the SC of India would be the development of the system of PILs under Justice P.N. Bhagwati. He was able to reform the whole structure of the court, even though this judgement lacked a legal or rational basis, due to his pursuance of the matter and people’s belief in it. While PILs had no legal basis, today it forms one of the core functions of the courts by manner of legitimacy derived from charismatic authority alone.
The legitimacy of the system of personal law in India is based off in traditions and customs, since people have believed for a long time that these traditions are right and have therefore followed them. In fact, we can talk about how the authority of courts to legitimise personal laws, despite their going against certain other foundational and constitutional legal principles, is a manifestation of Weber’s traditional form of authority (Spencer, 1970).
A singular entity, at first glance seemingly falling under one category, when viewed under an analytical lens is anything but that. Its structure is neither simple nor singular, it is a complex and nuanced system consistent of many layers. The SC is not merely a rational-legal authority but is in fact a combination of all types of Weber’s authority- charismatic, traditional and of course, rational-legal. This further implies the relation between an ideal type (and Weber’s theory of authority is said to be a sociological tool under it) and reality as it exists. We see that the two may not align directly, thereby demonstrating how ideas are not able to fully capture the essence of realities since reality does not exists in vacuums. Reality is thereby not singular, is it is an amalgamations of numerous ideas, thoughts, people and structures and while ideal types may be constructed by sociologists as a tool to study reality, reality is, as Charles Cooley puts it, “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am”.
Jain, M. (2012), Introduction to Political Theory, New Delhi: Book Age Publications .
Ritzer, G. (1992), Chapter 4: Max Weber, Sociological Theory, New York: McGraw Hill, pp. 119-121.
Spencer, M. E.(1970), ‘Weber on Legitimate Norms and Authority’, The British Journal of Sociology, 21(2), pp. 123-134
William, D. (2003), ‘Max Weber: Traditional, Legal-Rational and Charismatic Authority’, Akron, Ohio: The University of Akron .
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