Conference: Defending Human Rights in Times of Constitutional Crises

Friday, May 18, 2018 to Saturday, May 19, 2018

Friday and Saturday, May 18–19, 2018
Wilder House | 5811 S Kenwood Ave | Chicago


Organized by Monika Nalepa (Political Science) and Tom Ginsburg (Law) under the Pozen Center faculty research project, “Defending Human Rights in Times of Constitutional Crises.”


About the Conference

Since 2015, a constitutional crises has been unfolding in Poland. After gaining a parliamentary majority in the 2015 elections, the ruling Law and Justice party, PiS, began implementing its far-reaching program of judicial reform. What started as a reshuffle and reorganization of the Constitutional Tribunal is now threatening judicial independence and the basic principles upholding rule of law in Poland. These threats include proposed judicial reforms aimed at “flattening” the structure of the judiciary and accelerating disciplinary action towards justices, potentially leading to hundreds of judges losing their jobs. Disciplinary measures in particular range from warnings to salary cuts. Further changes include the possibility of disciplining a retired judge, who could be denied his pension for unethical behavior. Moreover, the right to discipline judges, which is now initiated by a special ombudsman for discipline, upon the recommendation of the National Council of the Judiciary, would be transferred to the Minister of Justice.


Concerns about the effects of the constitutional crises in Poland are emblematic of a larger set of concerns about constitutional crises in new democracies. In countries with a long established tradition of judicial independence, constitutional courts do not need to intervene all that frequently to exert their power. The sheer anticipation of their intervention is enough to prevent the executive from going down the path of unconstitutional legislation. However, in young democracies, the anticipation of having key pieces of legislation struck down serves as a temptation for ruling governments to weaken the constitutional court. How can those seeking to defend human rights in new democracies respond to these moments of constitutional crisis?


The goal of this conference is to explore the effectiveness of different responses to instances where constitutions are in jeopardy, particularly when the courts themselves (and their independence) are the targets of executive encroachment. The dilemma of how to guarantee individual rights at times of constitutional jeopardy is a universal one and is equally relevant in the established democracies of the US or Western Europe. However, because young democracies are more sensitive to such crises, examining the ways in which human rights can be protected in these places can provide a laboratory for designing and studying such responses in more mature democracies.


For more information on the conference, as well as a link to register, please visit the conference website.