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Constitutional Courts and Democracy. Facets of an Ambivalent Relationship

Part of the Legisprudence Library book series (LEGIS,volume 3)


This chapter addresses the ambivalence of judicial review as a safeguard for and constraint on democracy. On the one hand, constitutional review provides an important safeguard for rights and procedures which are essential to democracy. On the other hand, an institution which is able to protect democratic rights and principles will necessarily – at least now and then – come to be seen as overreaching, and thereby itself intruding upon principles of democracy. The chapter also draws attention to factors promoting the institutionalisation of constitutional adjudication worldwide, and to institutional frameworks shaping the more or less activist approach of courts in constitutional matters. It shows why German democracy has fared well, so far, with a powerful constitutional court which has, to a certain extent, assumed the role of a guardian of rational lawmaking, and why there is no “one and only” proper solution to the democracy dilemma implicit in the question of constitutional review.


  • Constitutional courts
  • Judicial review
  • Democracy
  • Interpretation
  • Standards of scrutiny
  • Ambivalence
  • Federalization
  • Proportionality
  • German Federal Constitutional Court

Anna Schöneberg, student assistant, and Ines Bergmann have helped to adapt citations to the style guide. Jonathan Sheehan (UC Berkeley, currently like the author a Fellow of Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin) has kindly answered questions about language. Many thanks!

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  1. 1.

    For alternative – strong or weak – forms of such review see Tushnet (2008: 18 et seq.). The above definition includes courts that are not specialized in constitutional review.

  2. 2.

    Waldron (2006), concerning judicial review in countries with basically functional legislative institutions; Waldron acknowledges that judicial review may be in place where this condition is not met.

  3. 3.

    Bork (2003). By contrast, Hirschl (2004) sees the transfer of power which judicially administered constitutionalism implies as the result of a self-interested strategy of conservative ruling elites designed to insulate their hegemonial position against democratic majorities.

  4. 4.

    On constitutional jurisdiction as a safeguard of the democratic constitutional system see Böckenförde (1999: 10 et seq.); for more extensive analysis of the role of the German FCC with respect to the consolidation and quality of democracy in Germany see Kneip (2009, 2013).

  5. 5.

    On the tradition of confronting “law” and “politics ” in German constitutional thinking see Haltern (1998: 81 et seq.); Kau (2007: 130 et seq.).

  6. 6.

    See Lübbe-Wolff (1990). For the jurisprudential background Gusy (1985).

  7. 7.

    Cf. Burchardt (2004: 32 et seq.).

  8. 8.

    This is common wisdom and one of the reasons why the FCC, in spite of its rather extraordinary role in the German political system, is accepted as an integral part of it. As an illustration, see the following remarks from a presentation of the FCC on the website of the German diplomatic missions in France: “Quel est le point commun entre les missions de l’armée allemande à l’étranger, le droit à l’avortement, la fermeture des magasins le dimanche, le traité européen de Lisbonne et le montant de l’aide sociale ? Dans tous ces domaines, les responsables politiques allemands ont, un jour, dû se plier à un arrêt de la Cour constitutionnelle fédérale. Cette dernière veille au respect de la Loi fondamentale. Mais ses arrêts revêtent parfois une grande portée politique. Ainsi, en 2011, elle examinera la constitutionnalité du plan de sauvetage de l’euro, mis en place en mai 2010. Historiquement, le rôle qui est assigné à la Cour constitutionnelle fédérale est la conséquence des expériences vécues entre 1930 et 1945. En 1949, les pères de la Loi fondamentale ont ainsi voulu fixer des limites au pouvoir politique au sein de l’État. Pour ce faire, ils ont doté la Cour constitutionnelle fédérale de compétences étendues, exposées dans l’article 93 de la Loi fondamentale…”, at (retrieved 30 August 2015). For the establishment of the FCC as a reaction to the atrocities of the Nazi period see Benda/Klein (1991: 1, 7); Anzenberger (1998: 6–7). When in 1951 the law on the FCC was passed, vesting the court with the power to hear individual constitutional complaints, a strong safeguard for and symbol of the rule of law was also favored in opposition to Bolshevism, see Deutscher Bundestag, minutes of the 112th session, 18 January 1951, 4195 (4218 C) (

  9. 9.

    On that remark and its background Bommarius (2009: 219 et seq.).

  10. 10.

    Günther (2004).

  11. 11.

    Even in Switzerland, however, the supremacy of all federal law over cantonal law is buttressed by federal judicial review. For an example see below, text with note 31.

  12. 12.

    The constitutions of 1791 and 1795 explicitly ruled out judicial review of legislative acts, see Kielmansegg (2013: 148).

  13. 13.

    For details on the successive development of competences of the Conseil Constitutionnel see Stirn/Aguila (2014: 633 et seq.); on the question prioritaire de constitutionnalité Walter (2015).

  14. 14.

    See Lübbe-Wolff (2011: 133–137).

  15. 15.

    Joop (2006: 588 et seq.).

  16. 16.

    Bickel (1986).

  17. 17.

    In some cases, a mere signalling function may have been dominant, instead, see Stone Sweet (2012: 820).

  18. 18.

    von Andreae (2005: 490 et seq., 495 et seq.).

  19. 19.

    Judicial review as established by the HRA is therefore classified as a weak form of review, see Tushnet (2008: 24, 27 et seq.).

  20. 20.

    Decision n° 74–54 of 15 January 1975,

  21. 21.

    See Walter (2015: 93 et seq.).

  22. 22.

    Art. 148 (3) of the Constitution of the Turkish Republic. For details see Göztepe (2010: 693 et seq.); Göztepe (2015: 487 et seq.).

  23. 23.

    C-106/77, Simmenthal II, ECR 1978, 629.

  24. 24.

    In both cases, the standard against which national statutory law is measured is not national constitutional law but transnational law. Review of compatibility with EU law comes closer to traditional judicial review by constitutional courts in that it has immediate consequences for the applicability of legislation which is found incompatible.

  25. 25.

    For the case of the German FCC see Lübbe-Wolff (2011).

  26. 26.

    For the relationship between public support and the power of a constitutional court see Vanberg (2005: 119 et seq.), concerning the German FCC.

  27. 27.

    The French Conseil Constitutionnel , for instance, has one month, or even just eight days in cases that have been declared particularly urgent, to decide in cases of a priory control of constitutionality (Art. 61 (3) of the Constitution of the French Republic) and three months to answer a question prioritaire de constitutionnalité (Loi organique no 2009–1523 du 10 décembre 2009 relative à l’application de l’article 61–1 de la Constitution). Such time constraints put a narrow limit on what the court for which they hold can do.

  28. 28.

    Renate Jaeger, former ECtHR judge, has suggested a 2/3 majority requirement for decisions of the European Court of Human Rights holding legislation incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, Jaeger (2014a: 9 et seq.). For critical comments on the suggestion that a qualified majority ought to be required for FCC decisions see von Danwitz (1996: 481 et seq.); Sacksofsky (2014: 716 et seq.).

  29. 29.

    Tushnet (1999). Bickel (1986), at 22, suggests that judicial review might also promote sloppiness on the part of the legislature with respect to the constitutionality of its acts. This is definitely far from reality. Legislatures are much more afraid of being corrected by judicial review than they would, absent judicial review, be afraid of producing unconstitutional law. The effect of judicial review is that parliaments pay more attention, not less, to the compatibility of legislation with the constitution; cf., for the German parliament, Landfried (1994: 117).

  30. 30.

    I myself have more often found decisions of the German FCC overly activist than overly restrained.

  31. 31.

    For relevant institutional details in the German case and for the nature of the nexus between institutional framework conditions and judicial attitudes see Lübbe-Wolff (2014a: 509 et seq.).

  32. 32.

    That seems to be the prevalent perception in Germany. In opinion polls, the FCC usually ranks as the most highly trusted public institution or as one of the most highly trusted public institutions (together with the president of the republic and, notably, the police). For the empirical data see Limbach (1999: 7–8); Vorländer (2006: 199); Köcher (2014); Bruttel/Abaza-Uhrberg (2014: 510 et seq.).

  33. 33.

    BVerfG, Order of 5 April 1952, 2 BvH 1/52, 1 BVerfGE 208. For more controversial judgments invalidating 5 %- and 3 %-thresholds in the German EP election laws see BVerfG, Judgment of 9 November 2011, 2 BvC 4/10 et al., 129 BVerfGE 300, and BVerfG, Order of 26 February 2014, 2 BvE 2/13 et al., 135 BVerfGE 259. Observers have spotted in the latter decisions a lack of understanding of the importance and democratic dignity of the EP on the part of the majority of FCC judges. The 2011 judgment on the 5 %-threshold contains passages on which such an assessment might be based. It should be noted, however, that these passages, as well as similar ones, are absent in the order concerning the 3 %-threshold, and that a passage in an FCC judgment does not necessarily express the opinion of most of the majority judges in the relevant case (why that is so, is explained in Lübbe-Wolff 2014a).

  34. 34.

    BVerfG, Judgment of 19 July 1966, 2 BvE 1/62 et al., 20 BVerfGE 119 at 132, with further references; cf. also BVerfG, Order of 21 February 1957, 1 BvR 241/56, 6 BVerfGE 273 at 279 et seq., concerning equal treatment of political parties, irrespective of whether or not they are represented in parliament, with respect to tax deductibility of donations to them.

  35. 35.

    For a short account of some important FCC decisions on broadcasting see Kommers/Miller (2012: 510–518).

  36. 36.

    BVerfG, Judgment of 2 March 1977, 2 BvE 1/76, 44 BVerfGE 125 at 147et seq.

  37. 37.

    To pick just a few recent examples: BVerfG, Order of 17 June 2009, 2 BvE 3/07, 124 BVerfGE 78 at 114 et seq.; BVerfG, Order of 1 July 2009, 2 BvE 5/06, 124 BVerfGE 161 at 188; BVerfG, Judgment of 19 June 2012, 2 BvE 4/11, 131 BVerfGE 152 at 194 et seq., all concerning governmental disclosure or sufficiently early disclosure of information (to MPs, party groups or a parliamentary investigation committee, respectively).

  38. 38.

    For a short account of some important FCC decisions on freedom of the press see Kommers/Miller (2012: 502–5 10).

  39. 39.

    See Lübbe-Wolff (2011).

  40. 40.

    Swiss Federal Court, Judgment of 27 November 1990, BGE 116 Ia, 359.

  41. 41.

    For an overview of the application of the principle of proportionality by the FCC, and for and criticism that has been voiced against the Court’s case-law see Lübbe-Wolff (2014b).

  42. 42.

    For paramount importance of the preventive rather than the repressive effects of the Court’s case-law cf. also Grimm (2001: 28). For the preventive role of national constitutional courts in an international human rights context Jaeger (2014b: 127).

  43. 43.

    See, e.g., Kneip (2009: 311). Kneip advocates strict scrutiny with respect to legislation directly affecting the “core of democracy”, and counts fundamental liberties, but not constitutionally guaranteed social rights, among the core elements of democracy. For a more restrictive view of the core elements of democracy that should be protected by constitutional adjudication see Waldron (2006).

  44. 44.

    This might include matters where self-interest of ruling majorities concerning the chances of competitors for power is involved (this is why FCC scrutiny has been strict in the much-debated decisions on electoral thresholds in the national legislation on EP elections, see BVerfG, Judgment of 9 November 2011, 2 BvC 4/10 et al., 129 BVerfGE 300 at 322, and BVerfG, Order of 26 February 2014, 2 BvE 2/13 et al., 135 BVerfGE 259 at 289), the protection of structural minorities (cf. BVerfG, Order of 7 May 2013, 2 BvR 909/06 et al., 133 BVerfGE 377 at 408, with further references, concerning differentiated standards of review with respect to discrimination), and matters which are by nature or circumstances disadvantaged with respect to the chance of becoming politicised.

  45. 45.

    For an example see, BVerfG (Plenary), Order of 2 July 2012, 2 PBvU 1/11, 132 BVerfGE 1 at 23, declaring that only strict construction of a constitutional norm is appropriate where that norm was adopted after extensive debate by way of political compromise in a highly controversial matter.

  46. 46.

    On the comparison of a democratic society subjecting itself to constitutional review to Ulysses tying himself in order to be able to resist the seductive chant of the sirens see Cassese (2011: 7 et seq.).


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Lübbe-Wolff, G. (2016). Constitutional Courts and Democracy. Facets of an Ambivalent Relationship. In: Meßerschmidt , K., Oliver-Lalana, A. (eds) Rational Lawmaking under Review. Legisprudence Library, vol 3. Springer, Cham.

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