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The Center for Constitutional Transitions at NYU Law & Democracy Reporting International Briefing Papers

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Sujit Choudhry
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The independence of the judiciary gives concrete expression to two essential elements of democracy, namely the rule of law and the separation of powers. In a constitutional democracy, the political process and any state function must take place within the confines of the law. Judges are tasked to uphold the rule of law. To ensure that they do so without improper influence, they must be independent from the executive and legislative branch of power. Their role for democracy is particularly important in safeguarding human rights. Under international law the following working definition of judicial independence can be discerned: an independent judiciary must (a) be impartial; (b) approach cases in an unbiased manner; (c) display no prejudice; (d) be politically independent; and (e) operate without fear. This Briefing Paper sets out international standards for judicial independence
The establishment of a judiciary with the power of constitutional review—determining whether government actions comply with the constitution’s provisions—is now considered a standard component of a democracy. It is increasingly common to entrust the power of constitutional review to a specialised constitutional court that can issue authoritative decisions on the constitutionality of laws and government actions and can interpret the constitution’s provisions. A constitutional court can play many important roles, including reviewing the constitutionality of legislation, protecting individual rights, providing a forum for the resolution of disputes in a federal system, enforcing the separation of powers, certifying election results, and assessing the legality of political parties. Establishing a court with the power to review the constitutionality of laws and government actions provides political parties and groups with a form of “insurance” for future scenarios in which they may not be in government and want to make sure that a government formed by their opponents acts within the limits of the constitution. A constitutional court is a means of institutionalising the commitment made by all parties when drafting the constitution to abide by its provisions. Furthermore, foreign investors often regard an independent and well-functioning judiciary as a sign of a country’s stability and investment potential. There are many options in designing a constitutional court, yet some recommendations can be made on a number of key design questions: the relationship between ordinary courts and constitutional court; court membership; jurisdiction; access; and remedies.