Saturday, July 18, 2009

Supreme Court Over There

As we in the U.S. go through the process of putting yet another justice on our 220-year-old Supreme Court, it might seem odd that our "mother country", the United Kingdom, is in the process a creating a Supreme Court for the first time, as described in this BBC report.

As you might have guessed, this will not be the first time that there will be a right of appeal in the British courts. So, who has been the ultimate appeals court up until now? The House of Lords.

But wait, isn't that the upper house of Parliament? Yes, the very same House of Lords. Certain members of that body, the "law lords", have served as Britain's highest appeals court.

That's sort of like the U.S. Senate's Judiciary Committee replacing the Supreme Court.

In one sense, it won't be that big a change. The same people who have been performing that functioning within the House of Lords, will become the first members of the Supreme Court.

But any constitutional change is likely to have consequences, not all of which can be anticipated in advance.

As time goes on, the British seem to be moving closer to the American separation-of-powers model. Until now, the legislative body, the Parliament, has also included those who perform the executive and judicial functions.

Members of the Cabinet, including the prime minister, are still members of one or the other of the houses of Parliament. But, over the last few decades, there have been complaints that prime ministers are turning their office into something more akin to the American presidency.

For instance, a prime minister was traditionally expected to announce changes in government policy to Parliament's House of Commons. Nowadays, the prime minister is as likely to make such announcements to the news media, from his or her equivalent of the White House, Number 10 Downing Street.

While the executive branch is thereby separating itself somewhat from the legislative branch, the judicial branch is now separating itself out, as well.

As I've noted in previous posts, another aspect of America's federal government might soon be introduced: an elected upper house. Membership in the House of Lords was originally based on hereditary titles, and now mostly consists of the so-called life peers, nominated by party leaders.

I suppose that, on this side of the water, we should see this as imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. But I wonder what the long-term implications will be, of changing the constitutional structure that has evolved in Britain over several centuries.

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