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'Most important French judge' explains recent reforms to French Constitutional law

Institutional reforms passed in France in 2008 are the most significant in that country in many years, and could lead to long-awaited progress by bridging the judicial gap between France and other modern democracies, said Justice Guy Canivet at the Cornell Law School Nov. 2.

Unlike the judicial systems of the United States and other Western democracies, in which constitutional review takes place across various levels of trial and appellate courts, the system in France for challenging the constitutionality of a law is centralized in the Constitutional Council, Canivet said.

Until recently, individual petitioners have had no recourse to contest the constitutionality of a law, he said.

"The constitutional reform was understood to fill this gap by opening to all parties the possibility of challenging the nonconformity of a law to the Constitution," he said.

This reform, which could be improved to be less complex and costly, he added, is a first positive step for the recognition of the right of individuals to challenge the constitutionality of laws.

"Ultimately, the reforms rest on a gamble that the Constitutional Council will be capable of assuming the new role granted to it," he said.

Canivet, who was appointed to the Constitutional Council in 2007, was the first president (chief justice) of the Cour de cassation, the French Supreme Court for civil and criminal matters, from 1999-2007.

Now a justice for France's Constitutional Council, Canivet spoke on "France's Constitutional Reform: The Extension of Judicial Review to Existing Legislation" in Myron Taylor Hall.

The lecture, part of the Berger International Speaker Series, highlighted the growing partnership between the Cornell Law School and law programs and institutions in France.

Heralded earlier in the day by law professor Mitchel Lasser as "the most important French judge in the past century," Canivet gave a brief description and history of the French judicial system in the context of the recent reforms. He spoke in French; written English translation was provided.

Canivet's visit was part of a broader effort to bridge the gap between different legal cultures, said Claire Germain, the Edward Cornell Law Librarian, professor of law and director of the Law School's dual degree programs in Paris and Berlin.

"Justice Canivet's perspectives point to the increasing importance of comparative law in a practical sense in this globalized world," Germain said.

The Law School has long had an active presence in Paris through its joint venture with the University of Paris 1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne), Sciences-Po School, the summer Institute of International Law in Paris. Cornell has various degree programs with French schools, including a four-year American/French law degree program (the J.D./Master en Droit).

Kevin M. Clermont, the Ziff Professor of Law, added: "As France reforms its judicial system, and as it continues the process of European integration, it does unarguably 'live in interesting times,' as the Chinese saying goes. The developments are just as dramatic and momentous as the formative years of our own Marshall Court."

In 2007, the Law School made a gift of 13,000 volumes on American law to the French judiciary, which established the Cornell Center for Documentation on American Law within the Cour de cassation in the Palais de Justice; and in 2008 the school and France's Conseil constitutionnel announced a clerkship in which a Cornell graduate would research American constitutional law for French justices. Juscelino F. Colares, J.D. '03, the first person to hold the clerkship, was present for the lecture.

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Joe Schwartz