theory

Constitutional Change and Amendment: Are we restrained by ourselves or other people?

The precommitment theory by famous Norwegian political theorist, Jon Elster presupposes that the acquisition of greater choice, and freedom, is not always desirable (Elser, 1979). At a later stage, one might need to limit himself to a certain course. This denies him the option to choose a specific act or course and thus provides for rationality as time goes by; one may think that X is the right course now, but worry that when the opportunity to choose Y arises, one might choose Y instead. This makes choosing Y impossible, more difficult, or less likely to allow for the prevalence of rationality regardless of intervening factors.

From independence, most countries in Africa have had their Constitutions changed or amended so as to accommodate new ideals and values. The Gambia is no exception to this. But what constitutes change? Where does the authority to bind people of these changes come from? It is one thing for A to bind himself and another for a group of people to be bound my Constitutional provisions. Two notions are already well known; First, a Constitution binds everyone, including the minority. Second, Constitutional commitments are vague. Free speech, and rule of law are examples. This vagueness comes in two spheres; committing a right with one hand and making it all together more problematic and impossible to achieve. This makes Constitutions contentious and political documents. The Constitution of The Gambia reads “We the People.” because it was enacted by the majority but it somehow is taken as the general will of the people only because the majority endorsed it.

"We the people of The Gambia have accomplished a great and historic task. We have had our say on how we should be governed. For this Constitution contains our will and resolve for good governance and a just, secure and prosperous society. " - Preamble of the  1997 Constitution

"We the people of The Gambia have accomplished a great and historic task. We have had our say on how we should be governed. For this Constitution contains our will and resolve for good governance and a just, secure and prosperous society." - Preamble of the 1997 Constitution

The division in Constitutional amendments are not internal but rather, they are divisions between the majority and the minority. Constitutions that are strong, will always bind generations to come to the ideals and values of those that came before them without their vote or consent.  As stated by George Washington to the framers of the US Constitution, “I do not think we are more inspired, have more wisdom, or possess more virtue, than those who will come after us” (Ackerman, 1991) It is not clear to me why one generation is at liberty to bind a future generation but what I do know is that it is possible for a particular generation to want to continue practicing the ways and appreciate the values of the past.

The interesting argument here is not just the mere fact that Constitutional commitments are binding on everyone including the minority who didn’t consent to the change in the first place; rather the commitment would be to bind other people who would challenge another person’s view. Those that drafted the Constitution may not worry about their own acts or omissions in certain times instead they would be worried about others who don’t even share the same values as them. The Constitution commitment then “changes from a technique of simple self-binding into a restrain on opposition to certain contested political values”. Society will always disagree both in “calm” and “lucid” moments, hence, the viewpoint that commitments are entrenchments of partisan politics” (Waldron, 1998). This then makes Constitutional commitments anti-democratic which further raises a “counter majoritarian difficulty” so long as it holds back the popular will of the people.

Considering the question of who makes a Constitutional commitment, it is expected that the majority that consents to the ethos of the Constitution are cognisant of what it is that they have agreed to commit to. A commitment to Constitutional rights such as free speech is vague and abstract. Interestingly, Justice Marshall has pointed out that hate speech laws should be focused “on the nature of the ideas expressed, rather than on the likely effects of the expression”.[1]  There is however a difficulty in applying this distinction. A person that is committed to free speech is bound to accept or reject it without realising the practicability of the right. This is where judicial review comes in.  By committing to the right to fair trial, “the people” of The Gambia consented to the use of strict rules of evidence that would offer a frustrating position to any prosecution.  An argument that the people that drafted or supported the right to fair trial understood this implication would be a difficult one.

This makes the commitments of Constitutional rights misleading as people in most cases are bound to obey these Constitutional commitments without knowing the consequences of the Constitutional commitment in question. But was this commitment made with full consent? It’s only fair that this question is asked. By binding ourselves to the commitments of the Constitution, we are also binding ourselves to the interpretation of judges who are not answerable to the people for their acts and also independent from any sort of influence from any authority or person. This then draws the conclusion that Constitutional commitments and judicial review have the same problems; they are both undemocratic. 

The case for Constitutional change and amendment is not as clear-cut as most people think. Because Constitutional commitments bar the pursuit of the popular will, it first of all makes us not self-binding to the Constitution and secondly, those who committed to the Constitution will never fully understand what they have committed to.

One point that was reached by Alexander Bickel is that “courts principles are required to gain assent, not necessarily to have it” (Bickel, 1986). This assent could be seen “in a rather immediate foreseeable future”. Bickel concluded by stating that in the event the assent does not materialise, the power of the people to overturn an interpretation of a constitution that they did not consent to “is how and why judicial review is consistent with theory and practice of political democracy” (Bickel, 2390. Hence, should a Constitution claim some inherent power to have a moment where it can say without a preceding legal order, there has to be some theory of constituent power? If so, does The Gambia need formal or substantive theory of Constitutional change or amendment?         

[1] Saskatchewan (Human Rights Commission) v. Whatcott, 2013 SCC 11, [2013] 1 S.C.R 467.


References

Alexander Bickel, The Least Dangerous Branch: The Supreme Court at the Bar of Politics (2nd edn, Yale University Press, 1986)

 Bruce Ackerman We the people, vol. 1: Foundations, (Havard University Press, 1991). 

Jeremy Waldron, “Precommitment and Disagreement” in Constitutionalism: Philosophy Foundations (1998)

Jon Elster Ulysses and the Sirens (Cambridge University Press, 1979).

Saskatchewan (Human Rights Commission) v. Whatcott, 2013 SCC 11, [2013] 1 S.C.R 467

Sanford Levinson (ed.), Responding to Imperfection: the Theory and Practice of Constitutional Amendment (Princeton University Press, 1995)


Maria Saine is currently pursuing a masters degree in Law at Trinity College Dublin.