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What Is a Constitutional Court?

Constitutional courts generally review cases that are sent up by lower courts, though not all of those will receive review.
The Constitution is the document that governs decisions of a constitutional court.
The Supreme Court is a constitutional court.
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  • Written By: Ken Black
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2014
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In most cases, the term constitutional court refers to any court that simply is there to consider laws in relation to the constitution. As such, a constitutional court is generally considered to be an appellate court of some type. Often the term is reserved for a court of great importance, such as a supreme court. The term may also apply to any court that derives its mission and authority from a valid constitution.

A constitutional court generally will review cases that get sent up by a lower court, though it may not review every case that is requested. The court gets cases that have been appealed. If one party is not happy with a decision, that party can file a brief for an appeal. This brief generally is limited to addressing concerns about how the law was interpreted in relation to the constitution.

One of the things a constitutional court generally does not consider is case fact. In other words, whether someone was telling the truth during testimony, or whether certain accounts given during the trial are accurate is outside the bounds of what is going to be considered. The court may provide a ruling on whether certain testimony should be allowed, but that has nothing to do with the content of the testimony. Rather, it is related to whether the testimony should have been allowed under the rules of the court, as viewed through the constitution.

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Once a decision has been rendered by the constitutional court, there is very little other recourse. The decision typically stands as the ultimate source of authority. Though some may seek to change the constitution, this is a time-consuming process in nearly all cases, and may not change the outcome of a case decided before the constitution was altered. Therefore, it is rarely tried as a remedy.

A constitutional court has several options when making a decision. It can uphold the lower court’s decision, reverse it entirely, or reverse the decision and send it back to the lower court for further disposition. For example, if a court rules a witness’ testimony must be thrown out, then it may send the case back for a new trial in the lower court, with the instructions that a certain witness should not be used.

Many countries, and even some states, refer to their highest courts as constitutional courts. For example, there is the constitutional court of Arizona in the United States. In other countries, it is the name for courts in locations such as South Africa, Afghanistan, and many others. These courts may operate under slightly different rules, but the basic mission of interpreting their respective constitutions is still the same.

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