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From an unconstitutional constitutional amendment to an unconstitutional constitution? Lessons from Honduras

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 March 2019

DAVID E LANDAU*
Affiliation:
Florida State University, College of Law, Roberts Hall, Room 316, Tallahassee, FL, USA
ROSALIND DIXON*
Affiliation:
University of New South Wales, The Law Building UNSW, Room 366, Sydney NSW2052, Australia
YANIV ROZNAI*
Affiliation:
Radzyner Law School, The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya, Israel

Abstract:

The unconstitutional constitutional amendment doctrine has emerged as a highly successful, albeit still controversial, export in comparative constitutional law. The doctrine has often been defended as protecting a delegation from the people to the political institutions that they created. Other work has noted the doctrine’s potential utility in guarding against abusive constitutionalism. In this article, we consider how these justifications fare when expanded to encompass claims against the original constitution itself, rather than a later amendment to the text. That is, beyond the unconstitutional constitutional amendment doctrine, can or should there be a doctrine of an unconstitutional constitution? Our question is spurred by a puzzling 2015 case from Honduras where the Supreme Court held an unamendable one-term limit on presidential terms, as well as protective provisions punishing attempts to alter that limit, to be unconstitutional. What is particularly striking about the case is that these provisions were not later amendments to the constitution, but rather parts of the original 1982 constitution itself. Thus, this article examines the possibility of ‘an unconstitutional constitution’, what we predict to be the next trend in global constitutionalism.

Type
Special Issue: The Ideologies of Global Constitutionalism
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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References

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9 See Roznai, Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendments (n 1).

10 Ibid 15–38. On the rise of constitutional entrenchment see also Hein, M, ‘Impeding Constitutional Amendments: Why Are Entrenchment Clauses Codified in Contemporary Constitutions?’ Acta Politica (First Online: 25 February 2018).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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18 For an exploration of the normative arguments for and against the judicial enforcement of implicit substantive constraints on formal constitutional change, see Yap, PJ, ‘The Conundrum of Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendments’ (2015) 4(1) Global Constitutionalism 114.Google Scholar

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20 Ibid.

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26 Dixon and Landau (n 5).

27 Ibid.

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31 See Landau, D, Roznai, Y and Dixon, R, ‘Term Limits and the Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendment Doctrine: Lessons from Latin America’ in Baturo, A and Elgie, R (eds), Politics of Presidential Term Limits (Oxford University Press, Oxford, forthcoming 2018).Google Scholar

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35 Ibid 78–83 (‘In our case, the Supreme Court of Justice has been categorical in recognising that sovereignty is the will of the people and that it is regulated only by the original constituent power; the derived constituent power in general is subordinated to the principle of sovereignty and cannot contradict it.’).

36 Art 239 was amended in technical respects by subsequent decrees, but the core aspects of the existing provision are identical to those in the original 1982 constitution.

37 Constitución de la República de Honduras [Constitution] art 239 (Hond).

38 Ginsburg, T, Elkins, Z and Melton, J, ‘On the Evasion of Executive Term Limits’ (2011) 52 William and Mary Law Review 1807, 1810.Google Scholar The authors remark there that the origins of such a ‘poison pill’ provision are uncertain, though the general institution may be traced to fifth century BCE Athens (referring to Doron, G and Harris, M, Term Limits (Lexington Books, Lanham, MD, 2001) 5.Google Scholar

39 Provisions of the criminal code backed up this prohibition as well. Art 330 of the 1983 Penal code makes it punishable with 5–10 years in prison to promote presidential re-election.

40 For descriptions of the chain of events see di Iorio, M Cáceres, The Good Coup: The Overthrow of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras (CCB Publishing, British Columbia, Canada, 2010) xiv–xx;Google Scholar Llanos, M and Marsteintredet, L, ‘Epilogue: The Breakdown of Zelaya’s Presidency: Honduras in Comparative Perspective’ in Llanos, M and Marsteintredet, L (eds), Presidential Breakdowns in Latin America. Causes and Outcomes of Executive Instability in Developing Democracies (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY, 2010) 229–38;Google Scholar Ruhl, JM, ‘Honduras Unravels’ (2010) 21(2) Journal of Democracy 93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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42 Ibid. This conclusion was not however unanimous. See Sanchez, O, ‘A “Coup” in Honduras? Nonsense’ (2 July 2009) The Christian Science Monitor, <https://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2009/0702/p09s03-coop.html>;Google Scholar Walsh, FM, ‘The Honduran Constitution is Not a Suicide Pact: The Legality of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya’s Removal’ (2010) 38 Georgia Journal of International and Comparative Law 339, 357.Google Scholar

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48 Decision of 22 April 2015, section 14.

49 Ibid section 18.

50 Ibid section 29.

51 See ‘Honduras: Hernández busca la reelección y la oposición explora una posible alianza’ 13 March 2017) CNN Espanol, <http://cnnespanol.cnn.com/2017/03/13/honduras-hernandez-busca-la-reeleccion-y-la-oposicion-explora-una-posible-alianza/>.

52 Ibid section 18 (noting that all the provisions involved had the ‘same rank and constitutional vigilance’, but that the Court could ‘choose one interpretation over another or even apply one norm over another or disapply one’ in order to maintain ‘the articulation and coherence’ of the constitutional text).

53 ADIN n. 815-3/DF, DJU de 10.05.96, p. 15131; cited in Melo, AZ, ‘A limitação material do poder constituinte derivado’ (2008) 8(1) Revista Mestrado em Direito 31, 48.Google Scholar

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57 See e.g. Sachs, A, ‘South Africa’s Unconstitutional Constitution: The Transition from Power to Lawful Power’ (1997) 41 St. Louis University Law Journal 1249; Albert (n 6) 178–82.Google Scholar For a discussion on the nature of the constitution-making power in South Africa see Botha, H, ‘Instituting Public Freedom or Extinguishing Constituent Power? Reflections on South Africa’s Constitution-Making Experiment’ (2010) 26 South African Journal on Human Rights 66.Google Scholar

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65 Ibid 80.

66 See Segura, R and Bejarano, AM, ‘¡Ni una asamblea más sin nosotros! Exclusion, Inclusion, and the Politics of Constitution-Making in the Andes’ (2004) 11(2) Constellations 217.Google Scholar

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68 See Landau and Dixon (n 7); Landau (n 4).

69 Interestingly, the most common methods executives seeking to overstay their term limits are constitutional amendment and thereafter constitutional replacement. See Ginsburg, T, Elkins, Z and Melton, J, ‘Do Executive Term Limits Cause Constitutional Crises?’ in Ginsburg, T (ed), Comparative Constitutional Design (Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, 2012) 350, 362 n 12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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73 See above Pt III.

74 See Decision of 22 April 2015, section 10.

75 Ibid section 15.

76 See Roznai, Y, ‘Unconstitutional Constitutional Change by Courts’ New England Law Review (forthcoming 2018) (copy with authors).Google Scholar

77 See e.g. Dixon, R, ‘Updating Constitutional Rules’ (2009) The Supreme Court Review 319.CrossRefGoogle Scholar But see Marshfield, JL, ‘Court and Informal Constitutional Change in the States’ New England Law Review (forthcoming 2018)Google Scholar (copy with authors) (Marshfield provides qualitative illustrations regarding cases in which courts, in US state level, have engaged with informal constitutional change, regarding double-jeopardy protections, civil rights, the judicial branch, taxation and finance, voting and executive power. Marshfield also demonstrates how courts provided a restrictive constitutional interpretation to the right to a trial by jury).

78 See above Pt III.

79 See text accompanying (nn 107–08) for further discussion.

80 See Decision of 22 April 2015, section 18.

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88 Roznai (n 83) 594–5 (arguing that ‘in the internal espace juridique (contrary to the external one) any arguments that supranational law prevails over domestic constitutional law are commonly based on the constitution itself, which may grant to certain international or regional law a normative status higher than domestic law. However, that constitution may be amended or replaced by a new constitution, so as to loosen or even exclude such superiority.’).

89 See Hond. Const., art 15.

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96 1993 South African Constitution, CP II.

97 On insurance theories of judicial review and constitutions, see Ginsburg, T, Judicial Review in New Democracies: Constitutional Courts in Asian Cases (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003) 25;Google Scholar Dixon, R and Ginsburg, T, ‘The Forms and Limits of Constitutions as Political Insurance’ (2017) 15(4) International Journal of Constitutional Law 988.Google Scholar

98 Dixon and Landau (n 5). On transnational legal norms as checks on behavioural biases see also Jackson, VC, Constitutional Engagement in a Transnational Era (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010)Google Scholar (arguing that ‘comparison can be a useful way to achieve some reflective distance, improving impartiality and objectivity about interpretive questions’).

99 Ibid.

100 Ibid. See also McConnell, SA, ‘The Return of Continuismo?’ (2010) 109(724) Current History 7480.Google Scholar On the distinction between Presidential and Parliamentary systems with regard to term limits see e.g. Linz, JJ, ‘The Perils of Presidentialism’ (1990) 1(1) Journal of Democracy 51;Google Scholar Linz, JJ, ‘Democracy’s Time Constraints’ (1998) 19(1) International Political Science Review 19.Google Scholar

101 See Decision of 22 April 2015, section 10.

102 See e.g. Corrales, Jj and Penfold, M, ‘Manipulating Term Limits in Latin America’ (2014) 25(4) Journal of Democracy 157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

103 See European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission), Report on Term-Limits Part I – Presidents, Study No. 908/2017.

104 Ibid.

105 Ibid.

106 Roznai, Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendments (n 1) 15–38.

107 Ibid, 30–1. See generally Kantor, H, ‘Efforts Made by Various Latin American Countries to Limit The Power of the President’ in Lijphart, A (ed), Parliamentary versus Presidential Government (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992) 101;Google Scholar Fombad, C and Inegbedion, NA, ‘Presidential Term Limits and Their Impact on Constitutionalism in Africa’ in Fombad, C and Murray, C (eds), Fostering Constitutionalism in Africa (Pretoria University Law Press, Pretoria, 2010) 1.Google Scholar

108 See e.g. Ginsburg, T and Elkins, Z, ‘Ancillary Powers of Constitutional Courts’ (2008) 87 Texas Law Review 1431, 1446–9Google Scholar (showing that the power to ban anti-constitutional political parties is a common power for constitutional courts around the world).

109 See e.g. Refah Partisi (the Welfare Party) and Others v. Turkey [GC] – 41340/98, 41342/98, 41343/98, European Court of Human Rights, Judgment 13.2.2003 [GC]; see also Issacharoff, S, Fragile Democracies: Contested Power in the Era of Constitutional Courts (Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, 2015);Google Scholar Tyulkina, S, Militant Democracy: Undemocratic Political Parties and Beyond (Routledge, Abingdon, 2015);Google Scholar Fox, GH and Nolte, G, ‘Intolerant Democracies’ (1995) 36 Harvard International Law Journal 1.Google Scholar

110 See Ragone (n 33).

111 Ibid.

112 Tribunal Constitucional Plurinacional, Sentencia Constitucional N. 84 of 2017, (28 November 2017).

113 See Verdugo, S, ‘How the Bolivian Constitutional Court Helped the Morales Regime to Break the Political Insurance of the Bolivian Constitution’ Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law (10 December 2017) <http://www.iconnectblog.com/2017/12/how-the-bolivian-constitutional-court-helped-the-morales-regime-to-break-the-political-insurance-of-the-bolivian-constitution/>.Google Scholar

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