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The Genesis of the Austrian Model of Constitutional Review of Legislation

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The European model of the constitutional review of legislation, characterized by the concentration of the constitutional review power in a single constitutional court, had its origin in the Austrian Federal Constitution of 1920. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that this Constitution established at the same time a parliamentary system of government in a fairly radical form. As the author explains, this “invention” of a constitutional court is attributable to two factors. One factor is the federal aspect. The Court was conceived by the framers of the Austrian Federal Constitution of 1920 as an umpire between federal legislation and the legislation of the states or Länder. In this respect it was meant as a substitute for the principle of the priority of federal law over state or Land law. This is manifest in the initial draft of the Constitution, where actions on questions of the constitutionality of legislation could only be brought by the Federal government (against the legislation of one or another of the states or Länder) and by the State or Land governments (against federal legislation). Right from the beginning, however, the Court could examine a parliamentary act ex officio when it had to apply such an act in another proceeding. It was this power of the Court that triggered the development of constitutional review. Its exercise gradually transformed the Court into a guardian of the Constitution as a whole, in particular, the fundamental rights of citizens. The author traces this development in the context of the concept of state and law that prevailed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This concept included specific restrictions on constitutional review. On the basis of a different understanding of the functions of a constitution, the Court gave up these restrictions and followed the examples of the European Court of Human Rights, the German Constitutional Court and—indirectly—the American Supreme Court.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Vienna, Austria

Publication date: 2003-06-01

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