Democratic Constitutional Change: Assessing Institutional Possibilities

In Thomas Bustamante and Bernardo Gonçalves Fernandes (ed.), Democratizing Constitutional Law: Perspectives on Legal Theory and the Legitimacy of Constitutionalism. Cham: pp. 185-212 (2016)
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This paper develops a normative framework for both conceptualizing and assessing various institutional possibilities for democratic modes of constitutional change, with special attention to the recent ferment of constitutional experimentation. The paper’s basic methodological orientation is interdisciplinary, combining research in comparative constitutionalism, political science and normative political philosophy. In particular, it employs a form of normative reconstruction: attempting to glean out of recent institutional innovations the deep political ideals such institutions embody or attempt to realize. Starting from the assumption that contemporary constitutional democracies are attempting to realize the broader ideals of deliberative democratic constitution (ideals outlined briefly in the first section), the paper proposes an evaluative framework, comprised of six criteria, for assessing various mechanisms of constitutional change. It argues that democratic forms of constitutional change embody six distinct ideals—operationalizability, structural independence, democratic co-authorship, political equality, inclusive sensitivity, and reasons-responsiveness—and that these ideals can be used to gauge the normative worth of different mechanisms for carrying out such change. The framework is developed with reference to recent constitutional developments (e.g., in Venezuela, South Africa, Columbia, Bolivia, and Iceland) highlighting distinct criteria and showing how they appear to capture the general direction of institutional innovation. The paper conjectures that the set of six criteria yield the best normative reconstruction of the crucial ideals embodied in the constitutional change mechanisms of contemporary constitutional democracies, and so, ought to be used for purposes of evaluating institutional design proposals.

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Christopher Zurn
University of Massachusetts, Boston


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