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Márton SULYOK: On Methodologies, Findings and “Contextual Determinants”

Comments Inspired by some Evidence on Constitutional Courts


In their book titled High Courts in Global Perspective (Evidence, Methodologies and Findings) published in 2021 by University of Virginia Press, the editors provide constitutional and political science scholars the map to a treasure trove of empirical and quantitative sources and findings put together to provide insight (from a birds-eye point of view) into the strengths and weaknesses of research on “specialized constitutional courts […] playing a growing role in the review of both proposed and enacted laws” (p. 1.), or “specifically constructed to review the constitutionality of legislation and ultimately regulate the boundaries of political institutions”. (p.1.) Exchange of ideas on the operation of high courts and desirable reforms to their composition and competences is a dominant discourse in today’s world, especially when it comes to constitutional courts, and this book serves all stops of this discourse.


Nuno Garoupa, the lead editor, is not an unknown “contextual determinant” of American scholarship directed at the global study and understanding of the composition and operation of apex (i.e. high) courts in the national and international environment. His academic footprint is driven by examining judicial power and behavior(alism) – namely activism –, judicial politics, as well as procedural issues like the economic theory of exclusionary rules or voting procedures in terms of constitutional review, or quantitative approaches to constitutional courts in Western Europe. Rebecca D. Gill and Lydia B. Tiede are both professors of political science working with the comparative study of judicial institutions, judicial selection, judicial behavior and decision-making. The combination of their viewpoints and approaches makes the book a valuable resource supporting research directed at understanding the inner workings of and external influences on the judiciary.


In framing my review, I would like to go back to 2011, because it was then – exactly ten years before the publication of this book –, when Garoupa published a paper with Tom Ginsburg (another well-known “contextual determinant” of constitutional law scholarship) on how constitutional courts built their reputation. In this paper, they first argued that such courts that were “specialized”, because they have been created based on the 1920 Kelsenian model, which leads to two consequences – them being wedged between two dimensions: the political and the judicial. Their key argument was that these courts are inevitably political actors (being created by political institutions through political processes) as their actions of norm control (acting as what relevant academic literature calls “negative legislators”) also have political consequences. Moreover, they added that the model’s application in the different countries highly depends on local conditions.


As admitted in its Introduction, High Courts in a Global Perspective was originally intended as a collection of “draft papers, conversations and commentary” compiled in a research project funded by the US National Science Foundation, but it does much more than starts the conversation on high courts in a global perspective. Where possible, the book, its editors and the authors apply on analogies to the legal and constitutional system and doctrine of the United States to provide context for their understanding of the basic tenets of these structures.


Based on the above-mentioned qualities, this volume intends to offer a comprehensive methodological summary and commentary of globally available data on judicial behavior and relevant organizational patterns. It provides detailed insight – through sixteen chapters – into various aspects of the judicial realm such as (i) looking at patterns and indicators of various types of judicial behavior from New Zealand to India, (ii) providing insight into some of the burning questions scholars have thus far ventured to ask and answer in terms of two European (international) apex courts (the ECtHR and the CJEU) in an academic assessment of their success, e.g. by looking at the effect of judgments on national legal systems and the importance of national jurisdictions, or the application and citation of these judgments by (inter)national supreme and constitutional courts.


At times, the top-down, birds-eye perspective on global literature and research efforts directed at the various judicial systems presented in the book and its chapters produces such statements like “existing data neglect important areas of institutional activity entirely”, talking about the absence of specific research into the workings of the EU General Court. Not to argue with the fact that the EU General Court’s activity could be subject to more comprehensive research corresponding to some of the methodological avenues presented by the book, but it should be noted that huge areas of the EU General Court’s institutional activities are adequately dealt with by some contemporary scholars in Europe. This research also delves into questions that are treated by the authors, so one should not forego the conclusion that entire segments of the General Court’s work are neglected by scholarship. Maybe international scholarship (outside of Europe) is what is lacking to a greater extent thereby not informing extrinsic views on the operation of this supranational judicial entity, which can be construed as a problem regarding the goals of the book itself.


Regardless, the book is a well of meticulously thought-through and logically constructed “scholar’s guide” on how best to look at the operation of these courts from a comparative perspective. The rigor with which the editors construct the internal cohesion of the layers of methodological argumentation is exemplary. Hall and Wright argue in California Law Review (2008) that “[l]egal scholars, the mockingbirds of the academy, are great borrowers of scholarly methods. We experiment with the tools of historians, economists, sociologists, literary theorists, moral philosophers, and others, often to great effect. Yet despite these innovative efforts to study legal doctrines and institutions through different lenses, legal scholars have yet to identify their own unique empirical methodology.” In furthering this effort to create a unique empirical methodology, this book can certainly be considered a guiding light.


In addition to all this, the book addresses another challenge in terms of similar research: the lack of adequate information and data for in-depth empirical and quantitative studies. The book offers a well-rounded summary of empirical literature on Eastern Europe (p. 189-192), and sets a priority for future research in Europe: to address “data availability and publicity”. From my time working with the EU Fundamental Rights Agency between 2015-2020 as a member of the Management Board, I have first-hand experience on how absence in terms of vital data may disrupt otherwise quintessential work in monitoring best practices in that field, but we can imagine how this is reflected in terms of the intimate workings of the judiciary, whether we focus on “judicial behavioralism” or “content analysis”, as explained and promoted by Hall and Wright in their work cited above.


Hall and Wright this method of “content analysis” best fitting to projects that look into „(1) the bare outcomes of legal disputes, (2) the legal principles one can extrapolate from those outcomes, and (3) the facts and reasons that contribute to those outcomes and principles.” They also refer to Barry Friedman’s statement in his piece on Taking Law Seriously that „it is almost impossible to study law in a meaningful way without some attention to the [content of] opinions that contain these justifications."


With this in mind, I would like to mention that not too long ago the creation of a database has been put in motion – spearheaded by the Hungarian Constitutional Court – called ECCN, European Constitutional Communication Network. (Expected to be operational by mid-2022.) Methodologically speaking, ECCN focuses on uncovering patterns and causal links across and between different national constitutional jurisdictions in Central and Eastern Europe. Its purpose is to enable a better understanding of local, national, regional specificities (previously dubbed as “contextual determinants”). In doing so, the database pools cases primarily from the constitutional jurisprudence of about a dozen Central and Eastern European EU countries that are in the center of public and therefore academic attention. In this effort, ECCN intends to enable the user to uncover and understand patterns of reasoning, thereby facilitating comparative constitutional research and application of law with such mindset. (So far, there is only one similar initiative known on the European level, the so-called CODICES, which is operated by the Council of Europe, casting a much narrower net, due to the limited scope of data available and the larger number of Member States concerned.)


In addition, ECCN also intends to open a window into any eventual “contextual determinants” of the operation of the high courts issuing the decisions selected and registered, the database may also be useful in pointing to traces of “constitutional convergence”, a theory thoroughly analyzed by Dixon and Posner. They argued in 2011 that while some find that the constitutional law of states is and should inherently be independent of the constitutional law of other states, there are concurrent opinions which put forth that “constitutional law of one state inevitably influences, and should influence, constitutional law in other states.”


I think that this must then be true to “applied constitutional law” as well, and this is what the ECCN projects intends to shed light on by providing a tool of learning for European courts in the region, enabling them to engage in judicial dialogue through their cases and their reasoning. Through such an effort, maybe some regional commonalities might emerge as well (beyond certain local conditions and national specificities) that will point to the fact that when certain constitutional law problems may be similar or the same in certain states, then it stands to reason that correlation between their constitutional legal solutions is to be expected as well. And this is particularly true if they are closer together due to a shared or similar historical past, or economic and social – contextual – determinants.


This brings me to my second point regarding the book, being that Garoupa, Hill and Tiede also call attention to the importance of having in-depth knowledge on regional and national specificities when analyzing high courts. In a very important part of the book, authors Bagashka and Garoupa talk about Constitutional (and Supreme) Courts in Europe (pp. 186-199). They react to current trends in relevant literature disserting on the politicization of the institutions of what I call “constitutional justice” by admitting that factual conclusions can only be drawn in this context in command of a “deep understanding of contextual determinants.” Most possibly the “local conditions” argument already elaborated by Ginsburg and Garoupa (see: above) reverberates in this thought, which I characterized above as regional and national specificities. But even if this is not the case, to my mind, it is indubitably true that without intimate knowledge of the internal workings of the legal, political and constitutional arrangements and structures that support and sustain these judicial institutions (i.e. the determinants of the context) that are specific to the country (and sometimes the region) no conclusive findings can be produced.


Unfortunately, as it can be seen from many current trends in mainstream constitutional discourse, the time that would be necessary to gain an actually deep understanding of these historical, cultural or even political and constitutional – contextual – determinants (i.e. the European concepts of constitutional identity) of certain legal systems is something of a luxury that seems not to be afforded to and by many. I can only hope that methodologically sound projects like the ECCN that was presented above will help avoid the further increase of such tendencies and push critics not just to “talk the talk”, but also to “walk the walk”.

 

Márton SULYOK, lawyer (PhD in law and political sciences), legal translator. As a graduate of the University of Szeged, he has been working for his alma mater in different academic and management positions since 2007. He is currently a Senior Lecturer in Constitutional Law and Human Rights at the Institute of Public Law of the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences (Szeged), and the head of the Public Law Center at MCC (Mathias Corvinus Collegium) in Budapest. He previously worked for the Ministry of Justice in Budapest and has been an Alternate Member on the Management Board of the Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union (2015-2020). E-mail: msulyok@mcc.hu

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