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I·CONnect

Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Prelude to the End of Mandatory Minimums in Canada?

On Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada may have signaled the imminent demise of mandatory minimum sentences. In Nasogaluak, a unanimous Court expressed deep reservations about the current sentencing regime in Canada.

Earlier, the Court of Appeal had declared that sentencing judges were bound by the statutorily prescribed mandatory minimum sentences, and therefore could not exercise any discretion to depart from them.

The Supreme Court did not accept such uncompromising restrictions on the judicial function.

Quite the contrary, wrote the Court, a judge may defensibly exercise her discretion to depart from the statutory mandatory minimum sentences in cases where there is evidence of “some particularly egregious form of misconduct by state agents in relation to the offence and to the offender” (para. 64).

The Court’s spirited defense of judicial discretion also doubled as an unmistakable rejection of the position advanced by the state, which argued that allowing a judge to exercise her discretion to reduce a sentence below the mandatory minimum “would undermine the principles of proportionality and parity” (para. 28). Not so, retorted the unanimous Court.

This is a significant development in the continuing evolution of Canadian criminal law. Yet we cannot be certain whether it signals the end of mandatory minimums.

On the one hand, the Supreme Court of Canada has, in this latest case, taken it upon itself to defend the discretionary prerogative of judges. The Court’s statements echo the very same themes that the Supreme Court of the United States articulated in Booker in 2005, which sounded the death knell for mandatory minimum sentences in the United States.

But, on the other, the Court ultimately ruled for the state, finding that this particular case did not present an instance where the judge would have been justified in departing from the statutorily mandated minimum sentence.

One thing, though, is certain: this is an area of Canadian law worth following closely.

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“Decolonizing” Justice in Bolivia?

President Evo Morales and his party MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo -Movement Towards Socialism) retained the presidency and won a comfortable supermajority in both chambers of Congress in the elections held last December 6, 2009. The consequences of that unquestionable triumph are beginning to be felt in Bolivia. A law passed last week, as several news services report, allows President Morales to directly appoint judges to fill the vacancies in the country’s Supreme Court (five, 41 %),the Constitutional Tribunal (five with their respective substitutes, 100%), and the Judicial Council (three, 75 %).In addition, that law ratified the interim Attorney General in his post and gave him the capacity to designate prosecutors in the regions where there local chief prosecutor office is vacant.

The government explains that these presidential designations are temporary and limited: the designees will serve until judicial direct elections are held on December 5, 2010; and, in the case of the Constitutional Tribunal, it is allowed only to decide cases that were filed no later than February 6, 2009. The explicit aim of the government’s law is to solve the huge amount of cases pending, update the judicial system and leave it up and running for the first elected judges that will take their posts at the end of this year. When announcing the appointments last week, President Morales added that these designations mark the beginning of the process that will “decolonize justice in Bolivia”.

Critics do not completely share the efficiency, neutrality, and revolutionary reasons given by President Evo Morales. True, ten more months with the top judicial institutions out of work would put the system in the brink of a disaster. However, it is important to remember that at least some of the causes of the huge backlog can be found in the undue interventions by President Morales’ previous government (2006-2008) in top judicial institutions. During those years, given that the government lacked the necessary 2/3 supermajority in the Senate to unilaterally appoint judges, it simply failed to fill the vacancies. Moreover, the government also used other more overt interventions such as impeachments, forced resignations, and even direct threats. With the use of these methods, the government completely dismantled the Constitutional Tribunal, and partially intervened also in the Supreme Court and the Judicial Council.

More important, among the cases filed before February 6, 2009 that the appointed Constitutional Judges will solve there are a few but important politically charged cases, which raise neutrality concerns. These cases include decrees passed by Morales in his previous administration, and also cases that the governors of the provinces dominated by opponents to Morales government (i.e. Santa Cruz, Chuquisaca, Tarija, Beni, and Pando) submitted to the Constitutional Tribunal asking it to ratify the constitutionality of the referenda on the autonomy of their regions. Interestingly, the Attorney General just ratified by Evo Morales will, also during this year, continue the prosecution of political figures that openly oppose the government such as the case against former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada as well as cases against the very same regional governors who have been accused by the government of illegally funding the referenda that called for the autonomy of their regions.

It will be very interesting to follow closely the politically charged cases that the judicial designees will decide during the months they will be in office. This will allow us to make an empirically grounded evaluation of president Morales’s intentions regarding the “decolonization” of justice in Bolivia. Also, and perhaps more important, the performance of the current judges will send a strong signal to the Bolivian citizens about their justice system. Remember that those citizens will eventually vote to elect their judges at the end of this year.

JRF*

*I thankfully acknowledge the valuable discussion with, and information shared by Law Professor Neyer Zapata Vázquez from the Universidad Mayor de San Simón in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

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Published on February 21, 2010
Author:          Filed under: Bolivia, hp, judicial appointments, Julio Rios-Figueroa, Latin America
 

Niger: Another Term Limit Violator Bites the Dust

Niger’s coup d’etat on Thursday has provoked widespread international reaction, as the country has been suspended from the African Union and the coup leaders condemned by Ban Ki-Moon, the EU and ECOWAS. Citizens of Niger, on the other hand, seem to be fairly happy about the development. Last year, President Mamadou Tandja sought to amend the constitution to allow himself a third term in office, and promptly disbanded the constitutional court when it ruled against his attemnpt. He then called a snap referendum on the issue (see earlier discussion here), intimidating the opposition and probably rigging the outcome. The country’s politics have been frozen since.

I can only hope that this is one of the situations in which the international community “condemns” the coup-makers with a wink and a nod. Condemnation is appropriate to incentivize the return to democracy, but seems inappropriate if motivated by moral approbation about the removal of Tandja. Everything now depends on how the coup-makers live up to their name, the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy.

More broadly, the removal of Tandja illustrates the risks involved in suspending term limits. To be sure, many popular and democratic leaders (think Cardoso in Brazil and Menem in Argentina) will amend the constitution to stay in office, and it is not clear as a normative matter that this is a bad thing. In Africa, however, there seems to be a trend for leaders elected during the third wave of democratization to backslide once in office, and to refuse to step down once their initial term draws to a close. Since 1990, term limits have been relaxed in at least Algeria, Cameroon, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Namibia, Togo, Tunisia and Uganda.

Our ongoing research on the topic suggests that about 80% of leaders who attempt to overstay their term are successful in their attempt. Given these odds, its perhaps not surprising that Mamadou Tandja thought he could get away with his faux referendum last year. But sometimes just proposing a relaxation is a risky strategy–just ask Manuel Zelaya.

–TG

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Published on February 20, 2010
Author:          Filed under: hp, niger, Tom Ginsburg
 

Czech court outlaws extreme right party

As reported in several media outlets (e.g. here), the Czech Republic’s Supreme Administrative Court has banned the far-right Workers’ Party, established in 2003. The court held that the party advocates a dangerous xenophobic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi agenda and thus poses an intolerable threat to Czech democracy. Perhaps some of our readers in the Czech Republic can add some imprtant details on today’s ruling, its conxtext and reasoning.

This appears to be an interesting ruling in several respects, in addition to the obvious question of constitutional democracy’s boundaries of self-defence. First, the rise of extreme right wing, radically nationalist, anti-immigrant, xenophobic parties in European politics is a phenomenon that stretches from France to Austria to parts of post-communist Europe. The troubled history of 20th century European politics is well known in that respect. A core justification of judicial review in the post-World War II era points to the utter failure of weak courts with non meaningful review powers to block the rise of Nazism and fascism in their early days. Second, the increasing number of high court rulings on disbandment of political parties, e.g. in Spain (the Basque party Herri Batasuna; approved by the ECtHR in 2009), Turkey (19 times since 1983, most recently the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party DTP), and Belgium (the Flemish right-wing separatist Vlaams Blok Party), not to mention countries where popular political movements are outlawed in the first place (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt). And to these scenarios we can add banning on corruption or on violation of election law charges of popular parties or elected political leaders (e.g. Thailand of the last few years). Third, the Czech Republic has an interesting recent history with respect to party politics in the courts. In 1993, for example, a law declaring the entire communist regime era illegal and illegitimate was passed, and even survived a constitutional scrutiny. Finally, it is not clear just how effective such bans on radical political parties actually are beyond the powerful symbolic statement itself. At least in the case of Belgium, the banned party resurfaced a few months after the ban, this time under a different name (Vlaams Belang) and with a slightly toned down platform.

RH

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Published on February 18, 2010
Author:          Filed under: Czech Republic, Ran Hirschl
 

Canadian Religion Cases

The Supreme Court of Canada in October of 2009 issued an important freedom of religion decision in Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37. The Court rejected arguments that the Hutterites should be exempt from having photographs on their driver’s licenses. The Colony argued that the requirement violated their sincerely held religious beliefs. The Court ruled that Alberta’s interest in preventing identity fraud and theft, as well as promoting roadside safety, were sufficiently powerful justifications. Thus, Alberta satisfied the proportionality test under Canadian constitutional law. The dissenters argued that 700,000 Alberta residents don’t even have driver’s licenses, and that the Hutterites received an exemption for 29 years without significant consequences. Moreover, the dissenters said this placed a burden on the Colony that outweighed the benefits. The various opinions are quite detailed and this is just a summary of the major points.

It’s interesting to compare this case to the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2006 decision in Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, 2006 SCC 6. There the Court granted an exemption that allowed a 12 year old Sikh boy to wear a dagger to school despite a contrary weapon policy. The dagger, known as a kirpan, is a Sikh religious object that must be worn by someone like this boy. The Court there said the school could never attain absolute safety, that methods could be instituted to ensure the dagger was not dangerous (e.g. sealing it under the pants of the boy), that the boy had never been a behavior problem, that the boy would face an irreconcilable conflict between his religion and the school code otherwise, and that Canada’s multi-cultural values were at stake.

The question then becomes whether the Court in the Hutterian case can distinguish Multani. The Court said the Hutterian case involved a “complex regulatory response to a social problem,” Par. 37, not the use of a penal type code. Multani also involved only granting an exemption for one person. Yet there seem to be tensions. The Court in the Hutterian case said the goal was to reduce the risk of identity fraud “as much as possible”, Par. 59, whereas the Court in Multani said schools only need try to be reasonably safe.

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Published on February 15, 2010
Author:          Filed under: Mark Kende hp
 

A New Constitution in the Dominican Republic

The process of constitutional change in the Dominican Republic, which I mentioned in a previous post, has successfully come to an end. On January 26th, after a long, thorough, and civil process (characteristics that have been conspicuously absent in the region’s recent wave of “constitutional revolutions” in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador) a new constitution was promulgated in the Dominican Republic. Well, the Dominicans call it new but it really was a huge amendment process carried through in all its steps precisely as the Constitution of 1966 prescribes. Our colleagues Elkins, Ginsburg, and Melton (2009, 55) distinguish a constitutional amendment from a replacement if the actors claim to follow the amending procedures of the existing constitution. The weird thing in the Dominican Republic is that the actors call it a new constitution although they followed to the letter the amending requirements of the previous constitution. This is, thus, a tricky and fun case to measure constitutional endurance.

The reforms were proposed by current president, Leonel Fernández, whose party has 68%of the seats in the Senate and 54% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, a cozy majority to pass laws but not constitutional amendments which had to be negotiated with other political forces. The reforms obtained the support of the second biggest party in the final vote, the Reformist Christian Party (PRC). According to some observers, the price for the consent of the PRC may be the inclusion of the most polemic change in the constitution: the protection of life since the moment of conception.

Regarding the judiciary, the reforms created a Constitutional Tribunal and strengthened the instruments for constitutional review. One innovation in the judicial system is the creation of a judicial council plus a so-called council of magistrates. The first is composed by members of all levels of the judiciary and has with vast powers to nominate and oversee the performance of lower court judges. The second is composed by members of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches and will designate judges for the Supreme Court and Constitutional Tribunal.

Some other interesting features of the new Dominican constitution are the inclusion of instruments of direct democracy, referendum and plebiscite, as well as a requirement of an approbatory referendum for future constitutional amendments that change fundamental rights. Regarding the torny issue of presidential reelection, Art. 124 states that “the president will be elected for a four year term and can not be elected for the following constitutional period”. Whether Leonel Fernández will step down in 2012 or will argue that he can run for his first term under the new constitution is to be seen.

JRF

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Is the Filibuster a Constitutional Convention?

Jake Tapper, ABC’s Senior White House Correspondent, reported yesterday that momentum is building behind the effort to change the current United States Senate rules which authorize the use of the filibuster. The filibuster is a procedural device whose consequence is to require supermajority support in order to vote on a legislative proposal.

Some, notably Senator John Cornyn, have argued that the filibuster is inconsistent with the fundamental majoritarian premises of the American Constitution. Others, like constitutional law giants Erwin Chemerinsky and Catherine Fisk, have taken the contrary view that the filibuster serves an essential countermajoritarian function. Both of these points merit serious thought and discussion. But allow me to set those aside for the moment.

Let us instead ask another question: has the filibuster, which is only a rule of Senate procedure, hardened into a constitutional convention?

Conventions arise in many ways, most typically in the political arena, when political actors agree by accession, repeated use, or acquiescence to abide by a particular political practice. We learn from the influential British public law scholar, Joseph Jaconelli, that a constitutional convention is a social rule that prescribes standards of behavior, allocates power among the institutions of the state, and moreover controls the exercise of that power. Most importantly, though, a constitutional convention is both non-justiciable in the judicial forum and therefore subject to evolution or revision by the political process itself.

In one respect, the filibuster appears to meet the basic condition of a constitutional convention. First, it was birthed in, and has grown, from political practice. Second, it allocates and controls power. And, third, it governs how political institutions interact, both intra-institutionally and inter-institutionally. 

On the other hand, the filibuster may not qualify as a constitutional convention because it emerges from nothing more than the rules of Senate procedure, and is therefore something that may be repealed or revised in the normal course of Senate business.

Neither of these perspectives resolves the question, certainly not conclusively nor even satisfactorily. And perhaps that is the point to discern from the very nature of a constitutional convention. 

Constitutional conventions endure only as long as they are worth enduring. Conventions are creatures of politics, and survive only to the extent the political will exists to breathe continuing legitimacy into them. Conventions are at once durable and adaptable, and they stand simultaneously in law and politics. 

And so perhaps it matters less whether the filibuster is indeed a constitutional rule than whether it continues to be deployed by political actors, and perceived by their constituents, as a legitimate political practice.
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Myanmar’s Constitution: Born to Fail?

In this interesting op-ed, Arnold Corso suggests that the answer to the question in the title is “yes.” The Myanmar constitution–17 years in the making–was produced in a behind-the-scences process with no public participation. It is fairly inflexible as well. Although it has a good deal of detail which we find to be associated with enduring constitutions, Corso predicts that on balance it was born to fail.

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Published on February 10, 2010
Author:          Filed under: hp, Myanmar, Tom Ginsburg
 

Constitutional courts in hot political water in Bosnia & Herzegovina, and in the Republic of Macedonia

Several of the now independent countries, once republics of the former Yugoslavia are a constant source of politically signficant constitutional jurisprudence. The last week provided two illustrations. As our avid readers will recall, the European Court of Human Rights held last December that the “consociational” or “power-sharing” pact in Bosnia-Herzegovina (one of the outcomes of the 1995 Dayton Accords dealing with parts of the former Yugoslavia) unduly discriminated against politicians representing ethnic and religious minorities not included them in that pact. This brought to the fore the familiar tensions in post-conflict settings between a pragmatic, realist approach to constitutional power-sharing and a more principled or idealist approach to constitutionalism.

As expected in such a charged setting, the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina finds itself quite often in a boiling political cauldron. Its jurisdiction and composition were redefined in the Dayton Accords. By convention, two judges come from a Bosniak background, two of Croatian background, two of Serbian background (representing the largely Serb Republika Srpska), and three are internationally renowned jurists who cannot be citizens of Bosnia & Herzegovina or of any of its neighbouring countries. Currently, these are Prof. David Feldman (Cambridge), Prof. Constance Grewe (Strasbourg), and Tudor Pantiru (of Romanian-Moldovan decent, and former judge of the European Court of Human Rights). Judgments are published in Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian and English (just think of, say, USSC rulings published in 4 languages). The ECtHR ruling brought about talks on a constitutional amendment that could change the post-Dayton status quo. This may, under one scenario, lead to the elimination of the international judges component. In the meantime, the vast majority of the Court’s rulings are unanimous, probably in order to enhance the Court’s legitimacy and signal institutional unity in a political system that is anything but united.

In the last few days alone, the Court dismissed two showcase challenges to core constitutional provisions, one launched by the Bosnian member of the tri-partite presidency, the other by the Croat member of the presidency. It also contemplated its position with respect to the public appearances of one the Court’s own judges, Krstan Simic (of Serbian descent), who prior to his appointment to the Court in 2007, served, inter alia, as a prominent defence counsel (most notably, for Biljana Plavsic) before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Perhaps our readers in B&H can shed some more light on these cases.

Meanwhile in the Republic of Macedonia, a new lustration law came under constitutional scrutiny. The law has been advocated by the right-wing nationalist government and opposed by the SDSM (Social Democratic) party, a “third-way” successor of the communist party from the Yugoslavia days. The Constitutional Court temporarily froze several articles of the lustration law while it considers whether it would be constitutional to apply lustration to secret service informants active from 1991 onward, after Macedonia had declared its independence. The right-wing government attacked the Court for its decision to suspend parts of the lustration law, suggesting the opposition has an undue impact on the Court, while the center-left opposition said the government merely tries to intimidate the Court and to pave the way for an approval of the all-out lustration. Either way, the judicialization of politics, writ extra large. And that’s only one week in the life of these two constitutional courts.

RH

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Published on February 8, 2010
Author:          Filed under: Bosnia, Macedonia, Ran Hirschl
 

Summer Programs in Comparative Constitutional Law

As the summer season approaches, so too are deadlines for enrolling in summer law school programs. 
For students interested in comparative constitutional law, here is a useful list of summer law school programs in comparative and international law. 
Let me highlight just a few options for students:

  1. Howard University School of Law’s Comparative and International Law Program in South Africa, featuring a course taught by South African Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs
  2. William & Mary Law School’s Summer Law Program in Spain, which includes a course entitled Introduction to Civil Law and Comparative Constitutional Law
  3. Gonzaga University School of Law’s Florence Summer Law Program, where Amy Kelley will teach a course on comparative rights and governmental structure
  4. Widener University School of Law’s Nairobi Institute, whose flagship offering is a course in comparative constitutional law
  5. Southwestern Law School’s Vancouver Summer Law Institute, in which I will offer a course in comparative constitutional law.
I wish all students a fun, productive, and fulfilling summer.
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Published on February 6, 2010
Author:          Filed under: education, hp, Richard Albert, summer law programs