The Idea of Socratic Contestation and the Right to Justification: The Point of Rights-Based Proportionality Review

Law and Ethics of Human Rights 4 (2):142-175 (2010)
The institutionalization of a rights-based proportionality review shares a number of salient features and puzzles with the practice of contestation that the Socrates of the early Platonic dialogues became famous for. Understanding the point of Socratic contestation, and its role in a democratic polity, is also the key to understanding the point of proportionality based rights review. To begin with, when judges decide cases within the proportionality framework they do not primarily interpret authority. They assess reasons. Not surprisingly, they, like Socrates, have been prone to the charge that they offend the values and traditions of the community. The article discusses four types of pathologies that occasionally infect democratic decision-making that rights-based proportionality review is particularly suited to identify. But more basic and equally important is a second kind of justification: Proportionality-based judicial review institutionalizes a right to contest the acts of public authorities and demand a public reasons-based justification. Having a legal remedy that allows for the contestation of acts by public authorities before an impartial and independent court and demanding its justification in terms of public reason is as basic a commitment of liberal democracy as the right to vote. The real question is not whether judicial review is democratically legitimate, but how judicial institutions ought to be structured to best serve their democracy-enhancing and rights protecting purpose. If Socrates was right to insist that the practice of contestation he engaged in deserves the highest praise in a democratic polity, it is equally true that a well structured and appropriately embedded court engaged in rights based proportionality review deserves to be embraced as a vital element of liberal constitutional democracy
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DOI 10.2202/1938-2545.1047
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