Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Term limits declared unconstitutional in Nicaragua

Current Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, elected in 2007 for a 5 year period, filed an amparo suit before the Constitutional Chamber of the Nicaraguan Supreme Court arguing that a 1995 constitutional amendment that imposed limits to indefinite reelection violates his constitutional rights. The Constitutional Chamber decided yesterday that it is unconstitutional to prohibit the reelection of the president of the Republic.

Daniel Ortega is the former leader of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), the liberation army that fought against the long dictatorship established in Nicaragua by the Somoza family. After the transition to democracy in 1985, Daniel Ortega was elected president for a 5 year period until 1990, when his party lost the election against the opposition lead by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. It took Daniel Ortega seventeen years to go back to the presidency and now it seems that his plans are not to leave it that easily. Ortega was trying to get the necessary votes in the National Assembly to reform Article 147 of the Constitution and allow for his reelection, but was simultaneously pursuing a judicial strategy, which now seems to have worked best.

In declarations for a local newspaper, the president of the Constitutional Chamber, Rafael Solís, argued that their decision was supported by similar recent decisions by the Costa Rican Constitutional Chamber (the well-known Sala Cuarta, that made possible the re-election of current President Oscar Arias) as well as the decision by the Colombian Court allowing for the re-election of current president Álvaro Uribe. The Nicaraguan Supreme Court en banc, composed by sixteen magistrates, still has to ratify the decision made by its Constitutional Chamber.


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Published on October 20, 2009
Author:          Filed under: hp, Julio Rios-Figueroa, Latin America, Nicaragua, term limits

Jamaican PM wants constitution to ban gay marriage

In our large project on the characteristics of written constitutions of independent nation-states, one of the questions we included was whether or not the constitution provided for gay marriage. We were somewhat surprised to learn that the only place with a clear constitutional right to gay marriage was our survey instrument! Indeed, the handful of constitutions that speak to the issue choose to ban gay marriage. Now the Jamaican Prime Minister wants to adopt a constitutional ban on gay marriage as part of a larger amendment of the Charter of Rights.

The American experience, and perhaps global experience, seems to be that courts are leading the way on the issue of gay marriage, with legislators much more cautious or even hostile. Perhaps that is unsurprising, but it speaks to the limits of reliance on legislative leadership on human rights. Professor Tushnet’s observation of a correlation of “Weak Courts, Strong Rights” may apply to only a limited subset of rights claims.

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Published on October 16, 2009
Author:          Filed under: gay rights, hp

The Debate about a Rights Charter in Australia – Part 2

Yesterday, the Australian government released the Report of the National Human Rights Consultation Committee, on whether Australia should make changes to its current system of human rights protection. See

The Report contains 31 distinct recommendations for change in this area – some of which are clearly quite minimalist (e.g. recommendations about the desirability of increasing education about human rights and a federal government “rights audit). Other recommendations, such as the recommendation that the government adopt a UK-style model of rights charter (what the Committee calls a “dialogue” model) also purport to be minimalist in flavor but have the potential to have a profound effect on how the Australian High Court approaches the interpretation of statutes, and therefore also on the true capacity for Australian parliaments to engage in dialogue with the High Court (see further my article to this effect, forthcoming in the Federal Law Review). Certain ancillary recommendations the Committee makes in this context, such as the recommendation that only the High Court should have the power to issue declaratory remedies under such a charter (recommendation 29), also seem likely to worsen, rather than mitigate, this danger of substantive dialogic failure. The Report itself also fails almost entirely to acknowledge these dangers.

Given the target audience of the Report (a somewhat skeptical cabinet and general public), it is, of course, understandable that the primary focus of the Report is on making the case for a rights charter – by arguing, for example, that such a charter has the capacity to improve government decision-making, Australia’s international standing and promote a stronger “culture of rights”. It is nonetheless disappointing, given the length of the Report, that the Committee did not find space to address this kind of concern about a UK rights model. They seem to assume that the only real objection to such a model is that it may do too little to entrench (judicial interpretations of) human rights, rather than too much (see e.g. Report, 14.1); or at a minimum that by labeling their model “dialogic”, they can avoid this latter result. It is not just the American in me which doubts this …. There is a growing literature in the UK, Canada and Australia, as well as the U.S., which shows that as an ideal constitutional dialogue is not only highly contested, but also difficult to achieve.

Rosalind Dixon

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Published on October 9, 2009
Author:          Filed under: Australia, bill of rights

State constitutions database

We sometimes call attention to important resources for constitutional research. One is the database at the University of Maryland on state constitutional design, available here. There is increasing attention devoted to state constitutions, which provide interesting though imperfect analogues to national constitutions. For more on the relationship between the two, see Dan Rodriguez excellent post.

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Published on October 8, 2009
Author:          Filed under: hp, state constitutions, Tom Ginsburg

Constitutional convergence, international law, and … local government law?

Wherever there is government, there is by definition also constitutional law, in the sense of a set of legal rules, practices, and institutions that define and allocate public power. Everyone knows that constitutional law is not a phenomenon that occurs exclusively at the nation-state level. But that does not mean we are always mindful of all the levels at which constitutional law is generated. In the United States, the tendency is to focus on federal and state constitutional law; likewise, in Europe, the focus is on the law of the member states and that of regional bodies such as the European Union and the Council of Europe. But the full range of jurisdictions that possess what can be called constitutional law is wider than that. At one extreme is a city charter; at the opposite extreme is the United Nations Charter.

An increasingly evident phenomenon is the breakdown in the traditional distinctions between these levels: consider, for example, the increasing tendency of international law to impose both rights and responsibilities upon individuals as opposed to states. As these distinctions break down, it becomes easier for bodies of constitutional law at different levels of the hierarchy to influence, and even converge with, one another. But it is rare to observe direct interaction between bodies of law at distant levels of the hierarchy: it is not customary to see local governments, for example, responding directly to international legal mandates. The hierarchy itself mediates the impact that different levels have upon one another.

It cannot be taken for granted, however, that this hierarchy will continue to insulate the constitutional law of non-contiguous jurisdictions. In its own truly characteristic, why-am-I-not-totally-surprised-this-is-happening-in-Berkeley way, the City of Berkeley is demonstrating the possibility of level-skipping influence between non-contiguous jurisdictions. It has announced its intention to comply with United Nations human rights treaties, a development that the UN appears to welcome.

Here are some highlights from the story reported by both the UN Wire and the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Berkeley would become the first city in the United States to independently try to comply with U.N. treaties on torture, civil rights and racial discrimination, if the City Council passes a measure on the issue tonight.

The measure would require the city to file biennial reports to the United Nations on how – or whether – the city meets international human rights standards. In Berkeley, that could include its record on homelessness, the achievement gap among different racial groups at Berkeley High and the presence of John Yoo, a UC Berkeley School of Law professor and Berkeley resident who authored the Bush administration’s justification for torture. …

Berkeley would be the first city in the country, and possibly the world, to submit its compliance records to the United Nations, said Yves Sorokobi, a U.N. spokesman in New York.

‘We welcome citizen participation in trying to uphold these treaties, but in general they are directed toward countries,’ he said. Berkeley ‘has taken the lead here.’ …

Some on the City Council said they’re not sure Berkeley needs to comply with treaties to which the United States has already agreed. … There’s also the possibility that Berkeley might not be in compliance with the treaties, a potential embarrassment for a city that prides itself on civil rights and progressive politics.”

Your move, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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The Debate about a Rights Charter in Australia – Part 1

Earlier this week, the National Human Rights Consultation Committee in Australia submitted its final report to the Australian government about whether Australia should adopt a national statutory rights charter, and if so, in what form– see Earlier this week, the National Human Rights Consultation Committee in Australia submitted its final report to the Australian government about whether Australia should adopt a national statutory rights charter, and if so, in what form– see

What the government ultimately chooses to do in this context will be of significant comparative interest because Australia is currently one of the only constitutional democracies without a comprehensive written rights charter – and thus an interesting test case for the hypothesis of increasing constitutional convergence (see e.g. interesting recent work on this issue by David Law and Mark Tushnet).

The Consultation Committee’s report, however, is also of independent interest for what it reflects about the breadth of current commitments, across the globe, to extensive community consultation in the drafting of constitutional or even quasi-constitutional documents. Unlike in many post-conflict settings such as Iraq and Afghanistan (for a great treatment of consultation in this context, see e.g. recent work by Jennifer Widener), widespread consultation in this context in Australia was not a political necessity – but rather a clear choice. It was also, to my knowledge, far more extensive and interactive than any previous such process in Australia – lasting almost 8 months and involving a 3 day public hearing in the capital, 66 community roundtables in 52 locations and 35,000 written and online submissions (including one from this author).
What the Australian community ultimately said in this process will also be extremely interesting to read, and understand, when the government finally releases the Committee’s report – as a test case for the more general possibility of truly meaningful and informed community consultation on constitutional issues.
-Rosalind Dixon

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Published on October 1, 2009
Author:          Filed under: Australia, bill of rights, consultation

Egypt’s New Chief Justice

Over the summer a new chief justice was appointed to the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt (the SCC). The appointment of Farouk Sultan was controversial in Egypt. Justice Sultan does not have a distinguished judicial background and is widely thought to lack independence from the executive . The appointment raises all sorts of interesting questions about the rule of law in Egypt and, more broadly about the types of pressure that can lead a government that had once experimented with limited judicial independence to apparently give up entirely on the ideal.

Since Egypt’s SCC is not best known court in the world, let me give some background on the Court, explain why the appointment of Justice Sultan has been so controversial and then muse upon the possible lessons to be drawn from this appointment.

Comparative constitutional scholars over the past five years have become interested in the phenomenon of judicial review in autocratic countries. (This is different from the study of judicial review in new democracies—a phenomenon that has in recent years also come to be examined by numerous scholars) The phenomenon of judicial review in an authoritarian state raises all sorts of interesting questions. Why would an autocratic leader or party create a court with the power to overturn legislation that the autocrat, in its wisdom, has decided to impose? One possible answer is that the autocrat does not expect the court to have any independence or power. But, in fact, in some countries, the courts actually do seem to have acted in an independent manner and have overturned laws that the autocrats, in their wisdom, enacted. Some of these courts seemed genuinely to annoy the executives who had caused them to be created. So what explains the executive’s willingness to create courts that had the power to rebel? What caused these courts actually to do so? And what have been the longer-term ramifications of their decision to cross the executive?

Those interested in these questions have often looked at the history of Egypt’s SCC for insight. A constitutional court was created in the 1970s by an autocratic government. Its structure was revised in 1980. In the 1980s and 90s, it began to embark on a path of liberal activism which was unwelcome to the executive. Over the past 10 years, it has come under sustained (and quite effective) pressure from Egypt’s authoritarian executive and the executive dominated legislature. The executive response to unwanted action by the Court ranged from the subtle (pressure on NGOs that generated the litigation that allowed the Court to act) to the not-so-subtle (appointing loyal outsiders to replace the retiring Chief Justice and then dramatically increasing the size of the court to pack it with unaggressive jurists). With these changes, the Court fairly quickly ceased to be an independent and activist institution. The SCC came to be a reliable ally of the executive and has suffered a diminution of prestige.

A number of scholars have done important work on the Court, and they have proposed slightly different answers to the question of why it was created, how it came for a time to exercise some independence and why the government has been so effective in supressing the Court. The debate that has emerged has been very productive and has helped us better understand the dynamics that may be at work when authoritarians create courts with a degree of judicial independence. Nathan Brown and Tamir Moustafa have done particularly thorough work, both in monographs and in articles, some of which are available on the Web. (For those who don’t have the time to engage with these bodies of work as completely as they deserve, I recently published an article in the Journal of Comparative Law. In it, I summarize some of the conclusions that they have drawn about the Court and add my own views about the Court’s creation and career.)

One question that has divided observers is whether the Court might reemerge as a liberal and independent voice. Those who harbored hopes it might have suggested out that the government’s attempts to rein in the SCC has had real costs for the Egyptian executive. I, for example, have argued that one of the reasons the Court was allowed occasionally to act independently was because it provided legitimacy for all government acts that the court did not strike down—and the overwhelming majority of acts fell into this category. Assuming this is correct, the decision to suppress the Court thus could only be made if the executive felt that the costs of judicial independence outweighed the benefits to legitimacy that the Court could provide. But the Egyptian government’s own behavior suggests that it has been concerned at least to some degree about the costs of suppression. Most important, even as it suppressed the SCC, Egypt continued to pay lip service to the ideal of judicial independence. I have nursed the hope that the pressures that led the Egyptian government publicly to speak in support of judicial independence might lead that government actually to rebuild it.

But the appointment of Farouk Sultan suggests that the government is no longer interested even in paying serious lip service to the ideal of an independent constitutional court. Nathan Brown is one of the few Western analysts to comment on the appointment of Farouk Sultan to be Chief Justice of the SCC. His post on the Abu Aardvark blog can be found at

It is worth a read. Brown explains clearly why Justice Sultan is viewed by so many Egyptians as wholly lacking in independence. The executive must know that a court led by Sultan will invariably be viewed with distrust. Yet the executive still went ahead and appointed him. Why would he do this? The Court has not made much, if any, trouble for the administration over the past five years. Why would President Mubarak wreak further damage on an institution that could provide him with some much-needed legitimacy?

As Brown notes in his post, the best possible explanation for the Sultan appointment lies in the fact that the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt is not only the sole judicial organ with the power of constitutional review. Its Chief Justice is also empowered to oversee presidential elections. Furthermore,the court might be the final arbiter of electoral disputes that involve constitutional claims. Egypt is scheduled soon to hold an election that will probably result in a transition of power from the long-ruling President Hosni Mubarak to somebody else. That somebody else may quite possibly be Mubarak’s son Gamal. It may be someone else. But the election is in any case likely to be controversial and, thus, potentially dangerous to the current elites. As recent elections in Iran and Afghanistan have shown us, elections can be a remarkable opportunity for an opposition to embarrass a ruling party, and the potential for embarrassment becomes much greater if, as in Afghanistan, the bodies entrusted with investigating evidence of electoral fraud are even marginally independent. Even barring a reversal of reported results, tribunals with a conscience can cast doubt on the degree to which the government is supported and, of course, on its behavior. President Mubarak apparently wants at the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court a sympathetic figure. Justice Sultan is surely not the only such figure available. But as Brown notes, Sultan may be the only one who will reach mandatory retirement age a few months after the elections. This means that if Sultan is Chief Justice, Mubarak’s successor will be able to appoint a new Chief Justice fully loyal to him–something that should enhance the stability of the fledgling regime.

If this is correct, and most Egyptians think it is, then the need to have a sympathetic figure overseeing the upcoming elections has driven the Egyptian executive to appoint a Chief Justice who is likely to weaken further the reputation and prestige of an already beleaguered Supreme Constitutional Court. In the process, the current government has forgone the opportunity to rebuild its own legitimacy and, one assumes, that of its successor.

This is interesting, if a bit depressing. It raises intriguing questions about constitutional design. As a matter of constitutional design is it a poor idea in autocracies or new democracies to make a stand-alone constitutional court the final arbiter of election disputes? Many courts have this responsibility, and perhaps it is a dangerous one. Whatever pressures a government may have to interfere with the operation of an independent court will be magnified if the court plays a dispositive role in electoral politics—with potentially sad consequences.

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North Korea’s Cryptic Reforms

The South Korean press has just published text from amendments to the North Korean Constitution adopted this April. The Constitution apparently promotes Kim Jong-Il from Dear Leader to Supreme Leader; it also beefs up the role of the National Defence Commission, chaired by Kim. Commentators also note new emphasis on Kim’s doctrine of “military first” and so assume that the reforms are designed to consolidate the role of the military in the wake of Kim’s stroke last year.

We know little about the timing of constitutional reforms in authoritarian countries generally, much less stalinist one. But the history of Soviet constitutions suggests correlation between constiutional change and leadership change. New leaders sought to put their imprint on the national constitution. The North Korean case may have more to do with consolidating power to assure the succession of Kim Jong-Un, the Supreme Leader’s third son and designated successor, in the event something happens to Kim Jong-Il.

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Published on September 29, 2009
Author:          Filed under: hp, North Korea, Tom Ginsburg

Constitutional Change in the Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic is going through a lengthy and important constitution-making process that will probably conclude before the end of this year. Several interesting issues have been raised by this process. For instance, the very question about whether the final product is going to be a new Constitution or an amendment to the Constitution of 1966. On the one hand, the changes are so thorough that the final product will be very different from the previous constitution. On the other hand, the changes are being carried out following to the letter the requirements for constitutional reform established in the charter of 1966 (Arts. 116-118). How many changes to an existing constitution amount to actually creating a new constitution? The current Dominican Constitution entrenches in Art. 119 the form of government (“civil, republican, democratic, and representative”) and Art. 120 explicitly forbid any other way to amend the constitution and even its temporal suspension under any circumstances. Thus, one answer may be that as long as the changes are executed according to established procedures and they do not alter crucial features of the form of government, the Constitution will continue to be that originally enacted in 1966.

Beyond the philosophical question regarding the identity of a Constitution, the current constitution-making process in the Dominican Republic has produced other interesting debates. For instance, on the creation of a judicial council and its powers, on whether to create a constitutional chamber within the Supreme Court or rather to establish an autonomous Constitutional Tribunal, and on the inclusion of rights such as the right to life. Indeed, the fact that this process has not produced headlines in major newspapers around the world (unlike those in Bolivia and Ecuador) is in itself good news and a reminder that important constitutional overhauls can also happen without a crisis in the Latin American region. Current Dominican Republican president, Leonel Fernández, has until now averted the temptation to include demands for indefinite reelection and other conflictive issues that have created constitutional crises in other countries (most recently in Honduras). In future posts I will give account of some of the debates surrounding the constitutional change in the Dominican Republic.


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The Spanish Constitutional Court faces direct democracy

The Spanish Constitutional Court is about to render one of the most important decisions in its history. The case concerns the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, a region in Spain that has traditionally had a strong nationalist movement. Under the Spanish Constitution of 1978, Spain was divided into 17 Autonomous Communities. Each Community has its own Statute of Autonomy that specifies a particular level of self-government and establishes its basic governmental institutions. Catalonia obtained its Statute of Autonomy in 1979. After a long and politically controversial process, a new and more ambitious Statute was enacted in July 19, 2006 to replace the earlier one.
The new law was passed by both the Catalan Parliament (by a supermajority) and the Spanish Parliament. The Spanish Parliament was deeply divided about the new Statute, however. While the governing Socialist party and its allies voted in favor of the Statute that the Catalan Parliament had proposed (although important amendments were introduced) , the Partido Popular in the opposition was strongly against it. The opposition argued that the new Statute deeply offended the principle of equality of Spanish citizens and the principle of the unity of Spain. At a more technical level, the Partido Popular found many parts of the Statute to be contrary to the Spanish Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.
After a majority of the Spanish Parliament voted in favor of the new Statute, a referendum was held in Catalonia on June 18, 2006. The turnout was not high for Spanish standards: only 48% of citizens with the right to vote participated. A large majority of those who did vote, however, approved of the Statute: 73% voted yes, while only 20 % voted no. (The rest were blank votes:5%, and null and void votes: 0,8%).
After the referendum, the Statute took legal effect. The Partido Popular then decided to bring a constitutional challenge against it. Under the Spanish Constitution, a qualified minority of the Spanish Parliament (50 deputies or 50 senators) are entitled to challenge statutes before the Constitutional Court. This is an abstract review procedure that allows the Court to strike down laws that are unconstitutional even if they have not yet been applied to any particular case.
The Court is aware that its decision is going to have an enormous political impact. The case raises many interesting issues of a foundational kind for a theory of constitutional democracy. Let me mention two of them.
First, it seems reasonable to request actors to be consistent when they make their claims. One of the features of deliberative democracy is that participants are expected to take arguments seriously before decisions are made. Arguments can only be taken seriously, however, if participants are prepared to apply them in a consistent fashion. Similarly, the constitutional court is supposed to be a “forum of principle” (to use Ronald Dworkin´s expression) where claims are to be supported by reasons that one is ready to apply in a coherent manner. Now, the problem with the Partido Popular´s challenge against the Catalan Statute is that a similar new Statute has been enacted for Andalusia (another region in Spain), this time with the political support of the Partido Popular. It just happens that several provisions of the Andalusian Statute are similar to some of the provisions of the Catalan Statute that have been attacked by the Partido Popular on constitutional grounds. Obviously, this unprincipled way of acting has been widely criticized in Catalonia -it seems to reflect some sort of anti-Catalan feeling. The problem, however, is whether the Court should pay attention to this inconsistency. Should the Court disregard the Partido Popular´s arguments, given this party´s inconsistent behaviour? If the Court holds the view that it should focus on the legal arguments, no matter how inconsistent the plaintiff has been, the question, then, is this: what will happen with the Andalusian provisions, if the Catalan provisions are struck down? Technically, under Spanish Constitutional law, only the Catalan provisions will be affected. The similar clauses of the Andalusian Statute will remain good law, unless someone challenges them. But who will challenge them? The only possibility will be for ordinary judges to send constitutional questions to the Constitutional Court in the context of ordinary cases. Whatever the final outcome of this process is, there is no doubt that the Partido Popular´s inconsistency has greatly complicated things.
The second interesting issue that has been debated is this: is it acceptable for the Constitutional Court to pass judgment on a law that has been approved not only by two democratic Parliaments (the Catalan and the Spanish Parliaments), but also by the people themselves in a referendum? There is no doubt under Spanish law that the Court is legally entitled to control the constitutionality of any Statute of Autonomy, even if a referendum has been held for its enactment. Is it “legitimate”, however, for the Court to have been given such great power? In a democracy, shouldn´t the people have the last say?
Some voices in Spain have been raised to question the Court´s legitimacy in a case like this. They sometimes refer, for comparative purposes, to the French Constitutional Court´s case-law, under which a law enacted through a procedure where the French people have directly participated is immune from judicial review. The Court, indeed, has held that it lacks authority to check such a law under the Constitution, since the people is sovereign. (That holding was first announced in a decision of November 6, 1962, and was reinforced in a decision of September 23, 1992). The problem, however, is that the French Court refers to a decision made by the sovereign people -the French-, while the Statute of Autonomy was not approved by the sovereign people -the Spanish people-, but by a fraction of the sovereign people -only Catalan citizens participated in the referendum. In the United States, for example, federal courts have sometimes struck down state laws (ordinary laws or constitutional amendments) that were approved by the citizens of that state in a referendum. I am sure that similar cases have arisen in other countries. (It would be interesting to gather some examples through this blog).
Maybe the question is not a matter of legitimacy but of deference. It is legitimate, one may say, for the Spanish Constitutional Court to examine the validity of the Catalan Statute, but it should do its job in a very deferential manner, given the democratic procedure that was followed to get it enacted. Is this view plausible?
These and other issues have generated big controversy in Spain. To make things more complex, some days ago (September 13, 2009), an informal referendum, organized by a private association, was held in a small Catalan village (Arenys de Munt). The issue was whether Catalonia should declare its independence from Spain. Although only 41% of voters participated, those who did were overwhelmingly in favor: 96%. This is totally unrepresentative of Catalan public opinion, for the majority of Catalans are against independence. Other informal referenda will be held in other villages in the next weeks or months, however, or so it seems. The nationalist parties in Catalonia (even the moderate and widely supported Convergència i Unió) seem to be sympathetic with the actors that have initiated this process. What should we make of these developments? Is a signal being sent to the Constitutional Court, in order to make clear that a decision that sharply limits the scope of self-government (as defined by the new Statute of Autonomy) will not be easily swallowed by Catalans? What will happen if the Court strikes down some parts of the Statute? The current government in Catalonia has had to state that it will comply with the decision, but there is a strong current of opinion in Catalan society that takes compliance to be unjustified. The legitimacy of the Court in a democratic system is thus in question.
I hope to keep you informed about these developments in my next posts.
Victor Ferreres Comella

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Published on September 23, 2009
Author:          Filed under: constitutional theory, hp, Spain, Victor Ferreres Comella