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Threats to courts – threats to democracies 

Hertie School and Centre for Fundamental Rights co-host event with international supreme court judges on the role of courts in protecting democracy.  


On 8 February, under the title “Judging in a constitutional democracy”, the Hertie School and its partners invited four former and current judges from three national supreme courts and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to discuss the challenges of judging in a constitutional democracy. The four invited panellists were Justice Daphne Barak-Erez, Supreme Court of Israel; Judge Ivana Jelić, ECtHR; Prof. Andreas Paulus, Former Justice of the German Federal Constitutional Court; and Justice Daniela Salazar Marín, Constitutional Court of Ecuador. The event was chaired by Professors Başak Çalı (Hertie School) and Nora Markard (University of Münster). 


“As we look around the world, there is no doubt that democracies are under threat,” commented Hertie School President Cornelia Woll, who opened the panel together with her Humboldt University Berlin counterpart Julia von Blumenthal. Çalı then began the discussion by noting that judging always takes place under pressure, even in ordinary times. Yet “these are no ordinary times”, she said, citing increased political pressures including court packing and the harassment and intimidation of judges. 


Protesters temporarily disrupt the event 


The conversation was interrupted at the outset by a group of protesters, who demanded to read a statement. This was accepted, and one of the protesters read a ten-minute statement criticising the Israeli state, the Israeli Supreme Court and the organisers of the event. The organisers then offered the protesters to either stay and permit the event to continue, or to leave the auditorium. This was met with persistent interruptions and commotion. Following several unsuccessful efforts to start the conversation on stage, the event was suspended. A joint statement from the co-hosts, Humboldt University and the Hertie School, has been issued here.

Participants and guests then gathered in Humboldt University’s Thaer Hall. There, the conversation on "Judging under pressure" was resumed with an audience of over 100 people. The discussion included reflections and questions about the role of judges under pressure, a call for the protection of democracy, and thoughts on the importance of enabling political debate and dissent.

Reflections on the role of courts in democracies 


Daniela Salazar Marín kicked off the discussion by underlining that while some of the challenges facing constitutional courts are universal, others are unique to specific regions or countries. “When we think about what kind of court is worth preserving, it is certainly not a court without courage, without principles, or one that does not uphold the values of democracy,” she asserted.

Daphne Barak-Erez then reflected on the vital role of judges in safeguarding freedom of speech, a cornerstone of democracy. In addition, she stressed the need for judges to adapt to the evolving realities of the information age. “We should continue writing our professional opinions, but at the same time also engage in a more effective dialogue with the public. We should think about how to give the public tools to understand our decisions, and thus bring our message to it.”  

Ivana Jelić highlighted the role of the ECtHR in protecting democracy through law. She emphasised the importance of preserving a plurality of voices and the centrality of anti-discrimination laws.

Andreas Paulus elaborated further on the role of courts in protecting minorities. “Democracy is not the rule of the majority over the minority. It is about representing all citizens equally. When lawmakers forget minorities, it falls upon the courts to protect them," he stated.

The event was the third in the Hertie Futures Forum series celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Hertie School. It was jointly organised by the Hertie School's Centre for Fundamental Rights and the University of Münster, and was hosted by the Integrative Research Institute Law & Society (LSI) at Humboldt University Berlin.  


The conference, convened by Professors Başak Çalı (Hertie School), Nora Markard (University of Münster) and Cathryn Costello (University College Dublin and Hertie School), was organised to pay tribute to the outstanding contributions that Professor Susanne Baer, former Justice on the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany and Professor of Public Law and Gender Studies at Humboldt University Berlin, has made to the doctrine and scholarship of fundamental rights and to the practice of judging.

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