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The Counter-Majoritarian Difficulty and the Road Not Taken: Democratizing Amendment Rules

34 Pages Posted: 2 May 2011 Last revised: 6 Apr 2015

Joel I. Colón-Ríos

Victoria University of Wellington - Faculty of Law

Date Written: May 1, 2011

Abstract

Discussions about the democratic legitimacy of judicial review of legislation are usually framed in terms of the so called ‘counter-majoritarian’ difficulty, the idea that judicial review is a deviant institution in a democracy. How can a country be considered democratic if a group of non-elected judges have the faculty to strike down laws that have been adopted by a majority of the elected representatives of the people? In framing the question in those terms, however, we tend to forget that there is nothing in the counter-majoritarian difficulty suggesting that judicial review of legislation is necessarily problematic from a democratic perspective. An institutional arrangement that gives judges the faculty to strike down laws inconsistent with the constitution only creates a counter-majoritarian difficulty if the constitution cannot be amended by simple majorities. In not paying proper attention to the role played by a rigid amendment process in the existence of a counter-majoritarian difficulty, this paper will argue, we have missed the opportunity of democratizing processes of constitutional reform in important ways while at the same time maintaining in place a system of constitutional review in which judges retain the ability of striking down legislation.

The idea of giving simple majorities the possibility of having the final word on the meaning and scope of rights is of course not new. In fact, it is the basic feature of the weak system of judicial review now present in several commonwealth countries. However, such a system does not go beyond courts and legislatures, beyond legal and political constitutionalism, and it is therefore open to the same types of critiques advanced by defenders of strong judicial review against systems of legislative supremacy. This paper defends the view that in a democratic society, deliberation and decision-making about the meaning and content of the constitution should extend beyond the ordinary institutions of government. Under that conception, a more democratic approach to the counter-majoritarian difficulty would provide popular majorities (as opposed to legislatures) with the faculty to amend the fundamental law in order to respond to a judicial decision that invalidated an ordinary law. For example, citizens could be able to engage in the activity of constitutional reform through non-constituent assemblies, triggered by popular referendum and having the specific mandate of deliberating about the judicial decision in question and the power to propose constitutional changes that would be subject to popular ratification.

Keywords: judicial review, constitutional change, weak judicial review, strong judicial review, democracy, popular participation, popular initiatives, constitutional review, constitutional interpretation, popular constitutionalism

Suggested Citation

Colón-Ríos, Joel I., The Counter-Majoritarian Difficulty and the Road Not Taken: Democratizing Amendment Rules (May 1, 2011). Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, Vol. XXV, No. 1, 2012; Victoria University of Wellington Legal Research Paper No. 20/2013. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1828423

Joel I. Colón-Ríos (Contact Author)

Victoria University of Wellington - Faculty of Law ( email )

PO Box 600
Wellington, 6140
New Zealand

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