The Project

The Federal Constitutional Court as a Veto Player

Although being a key actor in the German political system, research on the Federal Constitutional Court is relatively uncommon. Therefore, there is comparatively little known about the Court’s behavior and influence. This is why we want to shed light on these questions. However, there is a lack of data. So far, the existing studies focus mainly on general observations of the Court’s actions or rely on case studies and medium-N research designs. Different from other countries such as the United States with the Supreme Court Data Base, there are no sources that provide systematic data for in depth and large-N studies. To close this gap, Thomas Gschwend and Christoph Hönnige launched this project. It is meant to build a database that enables researchers to conduct comprehensive analyses on the Federal Constitutional Court with a wide array of variables. Even more, the database goes beyond data about the Court: the statutes challenged in the Court are linked to data about the respective legislative process. In addition, the database includes information on the political and societal situation at the time of a decision such party positions and surveys. As a result, the Court’s behavior can be embedded in a broader context. So far, the database covers thirty-eight years from 1972-2010.

Currently, we are optimizing the database by developing a system for automated data validation and by enhancing its user-friendliness. Moreover, we run manifold analyses in order to disentangle and understand the interplay between the political actors as well as intra-court processes, and we plan on publishing the results in the near future. In due time, we will provide the data for public use.


Theoretical Background

The project wants to investigate when and under which conditions the German Federal Constitutional Court annuls statutes and in doing so becomes an effective veto player in Germany’s political system. A veto player is a political actor that can obstruct changes in the law. Due to its power of judicial review the Federal Constitutional Court is such an actor. Empirically it has remained unclear, however, how often and under which conditions the court exercises its power. Furthermore, it is still an unsolved puzzle to what extent the court’s actions within the complex institutional system of the Federal Republic of Germany contribute to stabilizing the status quo and to making the system incapable of reform.

So far, research argues that the Federal Constitutional Court does constitute a veto player. However, it explains the court’s behavior almost exclusively by means of jurisprudential approaches. In contrast to these lines of arguments, the project introduces concepts used specifically in political science, namely judges’ political preferences as explanatory factors. These are employed to predict under which conditions the Federal Constitutional Court declares statutes void and hence does or does not make use of its veto power.
There are differing constellations of actors which are expected to make the court less or more likely to act as a veto player. They can be observed when looking at government compositions, legislative procedures, majorities in the Bundesrat, and preferences of judges resulting in changing court majorities.
To examine this empirically the project will conduct studies on the basis of legislative procedures and rulings of the Federal Constitutional Court from 1976 to 2009.


The Constitutional Court Database (CCDB)


The Constitutional Court Database (CCDB) is the major outcome of the research project. The figure summarizes its general setup, which allows for assessing the political and societal role of decisions by the German Federal Constitutional Court. We have analyzed all 2006 decisions by the Court’s senates between 1972 and 2010. This amounts to 3284 proceedings, which have been coded based on criteria relevant to political science and law but also to the general public.