A People’s History of the European Court of Human Rights
Europe’s Supreme Court
The exceptionality of the United States Supreme Court has long been conventional wisdom. The dean of American Court watchers, Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, once declared, “The Supreme Court of the United States is different from all other courts, past and present. It decides fundamental social and political questions that would never be put to judges in other countries.” Lewis was self-consciously echoing the French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville, who was amazed by the reach of America’s judges in his own day. The social role of U.S. law was indeed distinctive in the 1830s, when Tocqueville published Democracy in America, and even more so in 1964, when Lewis wrote Gideon’s Trumpet, his classic tale of a simple man fighting for his rights. But the United States has changed since the civil rights era, and so has the world. Memo to Anthony Lewis and Alexis de Tocqueville: the U.S. Supreme Court today has a peer in articulating public rights and values. Arguably, the other court is setting the pace.
Over the past thirty years, the European Court of Human Rights has developed an American-style body of constitutional law, comparable in its level of ambition, and in many ways more progressive. Unheralded by the mass press, this obscure tribunal in Strasbourg, France, has become, in many ways, the Supreme Court of Europe. Interpreting the European Convention on Human Rights, it is the judicial arm of the Council of Europe— a group distinct from the European Union, and much larger. The Council of Europe is the vestige of an early postwar attempt at European unity that largely failed but is quietly succeeding in the realm of human rights. Fortysix members strong, the Council of Europe stretches from Vladivostok to Reykjavik. It includes Turkey, Russia, and the nations of the Caucasus but excludes the nations of Central Asia. It covers every nation that is at least partly in geographical Europe, except for Belarus and the Vatican. Within this area live some 800 million people, speaking at least 28 languages...