Transnational Constitutionalism and a Limited Doctrine of Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendment

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Authors: David Landau, Rosalind Dixon

DOI: 10.21128/1812-7126-2016-2-32-63

Keywords: constitutional comparativism in justice; constitutional control; protecting democracy; unconstitutional change of the Constitution


A deep tension exists in many parts of the world between commitments to democracy and procedures for constitutional amendment. Amendments are frequently passed that follow formal democratic procedures but are aimed at achieving anti-democratic or “abusive” constitutional aims – i. e., to help powerful presidents extend their term in office, to remove parliamentary or federalism-based checks on executive power, and to narrow or suspend basic human rights protections. Limiting a power of constitutional amendment, therefore, can have clear democratic benefits. One way to do this is via a judicially enforceable doctrine of “unconstitutional constitutional amendment.” While such a doctrine may not be a complete solution to anti-democratic uses of constitutional amendment powers, it can create an additional hurdle to change. But such a doctrine should be approached with caution from a democratic perspective, because it can also create a significant roadblock to the legitimate use of amendment procedures as a means of overriding courts decisions deemed unreasonable or unacceptable by a majority of citizens. In order to promote democracy rather than undermine it, any doctrine of unconstitutional constitutional amendment must be limited in scope. This article argues that because threats to a democratic order are so varied, and can be altered or staged by would-be authoritarian actors, limiting the doctrine to a narrow set of institutional provisions or principles defined ex ante is unlikely to be a stable solution. Instead, courts must rely on a broader doctrine that is nonetheless limited to constitutional amendments that clearly pose a substantial threat to core democratic values. This article also argues that an effective way to limit the use of such a doctrine is by tying its use to transnational constitutional norms. Engagement with transnational constitutional law will help to limit both the kinds of principles courts define as fundamental and the sorts of institutional changes that are alleged to pose a substantial threat to those principles. The article shows how engagement with transnational materials can serve as a workable check on a doctrine of unconstitutional constitutional amendment, helping to separate cases where the doctrine must be deployed to defend democracy from cases where its use is unnecessary. Key words: unconstitutional constitutional amendment, protection of democracy, constitutional review, comparative method in constitutional justice.

About the authors: Rosalind Dixon – Professor of Law, University of New South Wales, Faculty of Law; David Landau – Mason Ladd Professor and Associate Dean for International Programs, Florida State University College of Law.

Citation: Dixon R., Landau D. (2016) Transnatsional'nyy konstitutsionalism i ogranichennaya doktrina nekonstitutsionnogo ismeneniya konstitutsii [Transnational Constitutionalism and a Limited Doctrine of Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendment]. Sravnitel'noe konstitutsionnoe obozrenie, no. 2, pp. 32–63. (In Russian).


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