Journal Article

Principle and pragmatism on the Constitutional Court of South Africa

Theunis Roux

in International Journal of Constitutional Law

Published on behalf of The New York University School of Law

Volume 7, issue 1, pages 106-138
Published in print January 2009 | ISSN: 1474-2640
Published online November 2008 | e-ISSN: 1474-2659 | DOI:
Principle and pragmatism on the Constitutional Court of South Africa

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  • Constitutional and Administrative Law
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Though lacking in public support, the Constitutional Court of South Africa (CCSA) today finds itself in a position of relative institutional security. At the same time, it has built up an enviable reputation among constitutional courts in new democracies for the technical quality of its jurisprudence or legitimacy in the legal sense. This essay attempts to explain how this situation has come about by developing a theoretical account of the relationship between legal legitimacy, public support, and institutional security, and then using this account to interpret the CCSA's record from 1995 to 2006. The defining feature of South African politics over this period has been its domination by a single political party. In this context, the theoretical account suggests, the CCSA should largely have been able to ignore its lack of public support in favor of managing its relationship with the political branches. In particular, one would expect the CCSA to have traded off gains in legal legitimacy, achieved by principled decision making, against considerations of the likely impact of its decisions on its institutional security. An examination of some of the CCSA's major decisions reveals that it, indeed, has acted strategically in this way, both in politically controversial cases, where it has used its flexible separation-of-powers doctrine to avoid direct confrontation with the political branches, and in more routine cases, where it has developed a number of context-sensitive review standards.

Journal Article.  15816 words. 

Subjects: Constitutional and Administrative Law ; UK Politics

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