What Is a Constitutional Crisis?

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  • Written By: Renee Booker
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 19 December 2019
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Countries are generally governed by a constitution which is intended to be the guiding document for all issues that come before the government. When an issue, or situation, presents itself that does not appear to be able to be solved by the countries' constitution or current legal system, it is said to be a constitutional crisis. As a rule, a constitutional crisis is caused when a legal issue is presented that the constitution does not address, or when two or more branches within the government attempt to assert control over an issue or situation.

Many countries throughout the world, including the United States, have experienced constitutional crises. The first U.S. constitutional crisis was caused when individual states attempted to secede from the Union prior to the American Civil War. The U.S. Constitution does not directly address whether or not a state may secede; however, once the states were prevented from succession by the use of force, the question of secession was implicitly settled. In more recent years, the presidential election itself in 2000 was called a constitutional crisis when the Florida election votes were called into question — a situation which eventually made its way to the United States Supreme Court to decide.


Royal scandals and protocols have also frequently led to a constitutional crisis. In 1936, King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom wished to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorced woman, which was not allowable under the terms of the monarchy. Eventually, King Edward VIII was forced to abdicate the throne in order to pursue the marriage.

Germany faced a constitutional crisis when the government refused to abide by the countries' Federal Constitutional Court's ruling in 2009, which made gay marriage legal. In the German legal system, there is a specific court — the Federal Constitutional Court — which is charged with ruling on issues of constitutionality. By refusing to implement the ruling, the other branches within the government created a constitutional crisis.

When a constitutional crisis presents itself, it can be handled in a number of ways. In some cases, the government is able to resolve the issue among the branches and reach a mutually acceptable agreement that resolves the issue. Unfortunately, in some cases, the crisis can lead to serious internal conflict and even the dissolution of the government. In 1905, for example, the former United Kindgoms of Sweden and Norway became separate countries after continued conflict and tension caused then King Oscar II to renounce his claim to Norway's throne and recognize Norway as a separate and sovereign country.


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