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Mining for Gold: The Constitutional Court of South Africa's Experience with Comparative Constitutional Law

35 Pages Posted: 23 Jul 2008  

Ursula Bentele

Brooklyn Law School

Date Written: July 22, 2008


Despite a long history of referring to foreign law in its opinions, the Supreme Court's recent citations to such sources have caused heated controversy. Critics warn of threats to sovereignty as well as serious flaws in the way judges use outside authority. Largely missing from this debate is any probing examination of the actual practice of engaging with foreign authorities. This article attempts to fill the empirical void by analyzing closely one court that has used foreign law extensively: the Constitutional Court of South Africa.

The author conducted interviews with eight former and current justices who discussed both the value gained from the practice of engaging with foreign law and their ways of addressing the concerns expressed by American critics. Whether identifying universal norms, engaging in a dialogue to help clarify an issue, or gaining insight into comparable constitutional provisions, these justices see clear benefits from exploring the opinions of constitutional courts in other parts of the world. Yet they approach such outside sources with great care, fully aware of the potential hazards of transplanting foreign legal concepts and conscientiously avoiding selective citation only to favorable outside authorities. Detailed analysis is provided of several cases containing significant references to foreign law, along with commentary from the justices on how particular opinions were enriched by examination of other courts' treatment of the same issues. These findings bear on the current debate and, in a world where many other high courts engage in constitutional comparativism, suggest that the United States Supreme Court would do well by joining the conversation.

Keywords: foreign law, jurisprudence, comparative, constitutional interpretation

Suggested Citation

Bentele, Ursula, Mining for Gold: The Constitutional Court of South Africa's Experience with Comparative Constitutional Law (July 22, 2008). Brooklyn Law School, Legal Studies Paper No. 113; Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

Ursula Bentele (Contact Author)

Brooklyn Law School ( email )

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