Historian Neil Oliver authored an interesting 2013 book The Vikings— A New History which described a legal system in ancient Iceland controlled by a single elected “law speaker”, but also voted upon by all free men. Here’s the pertinent excerpt:
“The Iceland Althing met for 15 days every year, at the time of the summer solstice, and one of the most important tasks was the election of the sogumadhr—the law speaker. For a society without a written language, memory was key, and the man who could recite the law acted with the authority of a judge. A written body of laws emerged in Iceland eventually—called , inexplicably, the Gregas or Grey Goose law—but at first the whole lot of it was learned by heart and remembered by just one man at a time.
Each party to a dispute… agreed to accept whatever judgement was handed down. As well as the wisdom of the law speaker, decisions depended upon the votes of all free men. In a system that was essentially one man, one-vote, majority and consensus were all.
By the time the German historian Adam of Bremen came to write about the ways of the Icelanders in the second half of the eleventh century, he was able to say: “They have no king, only the law.”
Civilizations and legal systems have advanced since those times. We no longer live in small groups and villages and relationships have become more complex.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to muse about what results might be produced if judges’ decisions would be subject to popular ratification. For instance, what if U.S District Court’s chief judge Jane Magnus-Stinson’s January, 2017 ruling denying the requested injunction (seeking an order to temporarily stay the planned destruction of the mature woods at Crown Hill cemetery in Indianapolis) had been subject to popular review and vote? Would her ruling have been sustained? Would the people have allowed the destruction of the mature woods to needlessly proceed? Not very likely. Not if they were adequately educated about the issues, the facts, and the alternatives, as well as the appealing prospect of the emerging legal doctrine of the inherent rights of nature.
Perhaps we should consider amending our judicial procedures to follow the Viking system to provide for popular review, especially in cases of natural heritage and ecological protection and sustainability.