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Nonconstitutional Amendments

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 July 2015

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The constitutional text in a constitutional democracy does not necessarily constrain constitutional change. Quite the contrary, constitutional change in a constitutional democracy often occurs in ways that depart from the rigid procedures governing constitutional amendment enshrined in the text of the constitutional.

In this article, I illuminate this peculiar phenomenon in comparative perspective, drawing from the constitutional traditions of Canada, Germany, India, South Africa and the United States. In addition to illuminating distinctions in the amendment practices of liberal democratic constitutional states, I deploy those contrasts as a springboard to substantive insights about fundamental principles of statehood, namely sovereignty and legitimacy.

Research Article
Copyright © Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 2009

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For helpful comments on earlier drafts, I thank Bruce Ackerman, Richard Bronaugh, Katherine Cornett, Allan Hutchinson, Daryl Levinson, Jason Marisam, Vinay Sitapati, Mark Tushnet and the editorial team at the Canadian Journal of Law & Jurisprudence. I am also grateful to La Fondation Baxter & Alma Ricard for so generously supporting this project.

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5. Constitution of the United States, art. I, § 7, cl. 2.

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27. Constitution of Canada (Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (U.K.), 1982, c.11.). It is by design that I have highlighted the Constitution Act, 1982, instead of the founding Canadian text (the British North America Act, later renamed the Constitution Act, 1867 (U.K.), 30 & 31 Vict., c. 3, reprinted in R.S.C. 1985, App. II, No. 5.). The year 1982 marked the approval of new textual constitutional procedures for constitutional amendments in Canada. Prior to then, the Canadian experience with constitutional amendments was assuredly not in conformity with the textual model of constitutional amendment. Not only does the adoption of the Constitution Act, 1982, itself belie the textual model but it is moreover a well-worn view that, between 1867 and 1982, Canadian courts transformed the Canadian state from its original design as a tightly centralized state to a dramatically decentralized judicially reconstructed state. See, e.g., Aroney, Nicholas, “Formation, Representation and Amendment in Federal Constitutions” (2006) 54 Am. J. Comp. L. 277 at 296-98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar For perhaps the most illuminating examination of this point within the larger context of constitutionalism, see Hutchinson, Allan C., Evolution and the Common Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) at 20609.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

28. Constitution Act, 1982, s.52(3).

29. See, e.g., Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, Ch. VIII, art. 128; Constitution of Brazil, Title IV Ch. 1, § VIII, Subsection II, art. 60; Constitution of Italy, Pt. II, Title VI, § II, art. 138; Constitution of Japan, Ch. IX, art. 96; Constitution of Mexico, Title VIII, art. 135; Constitution of Portugal, Title II, arts. 284-86.

30. Canada is not the only state to establish different amendment thresholds for different types of amendments. See, e.g., Constitution of Paraguay, Pt. II. Ch. IV Title IV arts. 289-90; Constitution of Switzerland, Title IV Ch. 2, arts. 138-40; Constitution of Spain, Part X, §§ 166-68.

31. Constitution Act, 1982, s.38(1).

32. Ibid. at s.42(1).

33. The various standards for amending the Canadian Constitution have, on some occasions, led to uncertainty as to which particular amending formula applies to a given constitutional amendment. Perhaps the most salient example is the current debate in Canada concerning whether Senators should be directly elected in provincial elections. See, e.g., Barmak, Sarah, “Why the Senate Deserves PropsToronto Star (9 March 2008) D1 Google Scholar; Bryden, Joan, “Harper’s Bill to Limit Terms for Senators Sidelined; Top Court Ruling Needed, Grits SayGlobe and Mail (7 June 2007) A10 Google Scholar; Delacourt, Susan, “Ontario Bluntly Rejects Proposal to Reform SenateToronto Star (22 September 2006) A7.Google Scholar

34. Constitution Act, 1982, 41(a)-(e), being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (U.K.), 1982, c.11.

35. Ibid. s.44.

36. See, e.g., Constitution Act, 1999 (Nunavut) (authorizing representation in the national legislature for the new territory of Nunavut); Constitution Amendment Proclamation, 1993 (New Brunswick Act) (establishing English and French as official languages in the province of New Brunswick); Constitution Act, 1985 (Representation), 33-34-35 Elizabeth 11, c. 8 (authorizing the national legislature to readjust provincial representation).

37. But one can of course also discern very strong tinges of the textual and substantive models of constitutional amendment in the American constitutional tradition. The constitutional text prescribes a method for constitutional amendment. See Constitution of the United States, art V (“The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.”) Scholars have also posited a substantive floor below which amendments to the United States Constitution cannot fall. See, e.g., Rawls, John, Political Liberalism, 2d ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996) at 23139 Google Scholar; Schaffner, Joan, “The Federal Marriage Amendment: To Protect the Sanctity of Marriage or Destroy Constitutional Democracy?” (2005) 54 Am. U. L. Rev. 1487 at 1493-97Google Scholar; Rosen, Jeff, “Was the Flag Burning Amendment Unconstitutional?” (1991) 100 Yale L.J. 1073 at 1084-86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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52. The National Environmental Policy Act may be another example of a superstatute. Chen, Jim, “Legal Mythmaking in a Time of Mass Extinctions: Reconciling Stories of Origins with Human Destiny” (2005) 29 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 279 at 292.Google Scholar

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67. Constitution of India, Part XX, § 368(1).

68. Constitution of India, Part XX, § 368(2). The Indian Constitution requires sub-national legislatures to ratify certain types of amendment. See Constitution of India, Part XX, § 368(2)(a)-(e).

69. For an excellent discussion of the role of Indian Supreme Court in reviewing constitutional amendments, see Dhar, Pannalal, Indian Judiciary (Allahabad, India: Law Book Co.; Delhi: Distributors, Universal Book Traders, 1993) at 185203.Google Scholar Turkey may have recently become the latest constitutional state to join the family of substantivist states. In July 2008, the Turkish Constitutional Court invalidated a constitutional amendment. See Ataman, Ferda & Gottschlich, Jurgen, “Angst in Ankara: Turkey Steers Into a Dangerous Identity CrisisSpiegel Online International (June 6, 2008)Google Scholar, available at,1518,558099,00.html (last visited Sept. 30, 2008). As of the time this article went to press, the Turkish Constitutional Court had not yet issued its reasons explaining either the basis upon which it struck down constitutional amendments or from where it derives this extraordinary authority. See “Two Crucial Rulings Due in November” Turkish Daily News (10 September 2008), available at (last visited Sept. 30, 2008).

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72. Ibid. at para. 599 (Shelat & Grover JJ.); Ibid. at para. 682 (Hegde & Mukherjea JJ.); Ibid. at para. 1171 (Jaganmohan Reddy J.).

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85. Constitution of India, Part XX, § 368(5).

86. Minerva Mills, supra note 83.

87. Ibid.

88. para. 3 (Bhagwati J., concurring in part, dissenting in part).

89. Ibid.

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96. Constitution of South Africa, Chapter 4, § 74, cl. 3(a).

97. Constitution of South Africa, Chapter 1, § 1.

98. See Constitution of South Africa, Chapter 1, § 2.

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113. Ibid. at paras. 482-83.

114. Ibid.

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119. German Basic Law, Part VII, art. 79(1)-(2).

120. Ibid. at Part I, art. 1(3).

121. Ibid. at Part II, art. 20(3).

122. See, e.g., Constitution of the United States, art. V (making equal state suffrage in the Senate una- mendable); Constitution of Djibouti, Title XI, art. 88 (barring any amendment undermining pluralist democracy); Constitution of Namibia, Chapter XIX, art. 131 (making all fundamental rights and freedoms unamendable); Constitution of Norway, art. 112 (declaring that no amendment shall alter the spirit of the constitution); Constitution of Romania, art. 152 (prohibiting any amendment to the official state language); Constitution of Turkey, Part I, arts. 2, 4 (banning amendments seeking to change the secular nature of the state).

123. German Basic Law, Part II, art. 20(1).

124. Ibid. at Part VII, art. 79(3).

125. Ibid. at Part I, art. 1(1)-(2).

126. Ibid. at Part I, arts. 1(3), 20(3).

127. See European Arrest Warrant Act Case, 2 BvR 2236/04 (18 July 2005) at para. 71.

128. See Eavesdropping Attack Case, 109 BverfGE 279 (3 March 2004). For a concise history of the amendment, see Scheppele, Kim Lane, “Other People’s Patriot Acts: Europe’s Response to September 11” (2004) 50 Loy. L. Rev. 89 at106-07Google Scholar; Killean, James J., “Der Grosse Lauschangriff: Germany Brings Home the War on Organized Crime” (2000), 23 Hastings Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 173 at 195-97.Google Scholar

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131. Ibid. (adopting the view of the Bavarian Constitutional Court).

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133. Kommers, supra note 130 at 48.

134. 3 BVerfGE 225 (1953).

135. 30 BVerfGE 1 (1970).

136. 84 BverfGE 90 (1991).

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161. Constitution of the United States art., amend. XII (revising presidential election procedures).

162. Constitution of the United States art., amend. XXV (requiring congressional confirmation to fill vice presidential vacancy).

163. Constitution of the United States art., amend. XVII (providing for direct election of United States Senators).

164. Constitution of the United States art., amend. XX (reducing time between election and instalment of new Congress).

165. Constitution of the United States art., amend. XXIII (extending franchise to residents of District of Columbia).

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