Kelsen, Heller and Schmitt: Paradigms of Sovereignty Thought

David Dyzenhaus


Eyal Benvenisti has sought to provide an optimistic account of international law through reconceptualizing the idea of sovereignty as a kind of trusteeship for humanity. He thus sketches a welcome antidote to trends in recent work in public law including public international law that claim that international law is no more than a cloak for economic and political interests, so that all that matters is which powerful actor gets to decide. In this Article, I approach his position through a discussion of the debate in Weimar about sovereignty between Carl Schmitt, Hans Kelsen and Hermann Heller. I try to show that Heller’s almost unknown legal theory might be helpful to Benvenisti’s position. Heller shared with Schmitt the idea that sovereignty had to have a central role in legal theory and that its role includes a place for a final legal decision. Indeed, much more than Schmitt, Heller regarded all accounts of sovereignty as inherently political. However, in a manner closer to the spirit of Kelsen’s enterprise than to Schmitt’s, he wished to emphasize that the ultimate decider — the sovereign decision unit of the political order of liberal democracy — is entirely legally constituted. Moreover, Heller argued that fundamental principles of legality condition the exercise of a sovereign power in a way that explains the specific legitimacy of legality and which might supply the link between sovereignty and ideas such as trusteeship and humanity. 

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