Taking Integrity Seriously: Justice Kate O’Regan on the Constitutional Court of South Africa

On his blog “Constitutionally Speaking”, South African law professor Pierre de Vos has just published an excellent piece on the role and work of the Constitutional Court of South Africa: Justice Kate O’Regan‘s Helen Suzman Memorial Lecture, held in Johannesburg on 22 November 2011. “A Forum for reason: Reflections on the role and work of the Constitutional Court” is strongly suggested reading for anyone interested in comparative constitutionalism and the role of courts in constitutional democracies.

© Rechtskulturen / Maurice Weiss (Ostkreuz)

Kate O’Regan, who was appointed to the bench in 1994 by Nelson Mandela and retired in 2009, provides not only an introduction into the constitutional role of the Constitutional Court and an assessment of its work in the first 17 years of its existence. Her lecture is also a pointed contribution to an ongoing debate in South Africa’s public sphere, fueled in recent months by critical comments by ruling party politicians blaming the courts for interfering with the power of the executive and legislature to make what is referred to as “policy”.

From a comparative perspective, the number of judgements handed down by the Johannesburg Court since its establishment in 1994 seems relatively low: 422 judgements, a rate of under 25 a year. Yet,

“the issues that have come before the court in its first 17 years have been some of the most difficult considered by courts anywhere. They have ranged from issues that have attracted much public comment, such as the constitutionality of the death penalty, gay marriage and some high profile criminal matters, to grappling with issues relating to the interpretation and protection of social and economic rights, where there is no tried and tested path, to the questions of constitutional structure and relationship that involve interpretation of the provisions of the Constitution other than the Bill of Rights ...

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