Courts in Karlsruhe

First off, a little bit of administrative stuff.  This is the last recap of my trip to Germany.

Fountain in front of old courtKarlsruhe is home to both the Federal Constitutional Court and the Federal Court of Justice.  We began our day at the former court, which is located near the Schloss Karlsruhe.  The town’s layout is interesting, by the way, because all the streets fan out from the central location, giving the city a half-circle shape.

Volker Pletternburg was our guide for the Constitutional Court.  He said the court has been located in Karlsruhe since 1951.  It had been moved from Leipzig following the division of Germany after the war.  The court was intentionally kept away from Bonn and Berlin to preserve judicial independence.

Pletternburg said that the court receives 6,000 petitions a year to hear cases.  The petitions come either from individuals who have constitutional complaints or from state governments whose laws may be violated by a federal law.

The court consists of 16 judges, who are divided into panels of eight people called senates.  The judges are elected by a committee in the Bundestag, which also sets the judges’ salaries.  Once judges have been put in a senate group, they stay with that group for the whole of their Constitutional Court career.

Originally, the first senate handled the citizens’ complaints and the second senate handled the states’ complaints, but Pletternburg said this has changed over the years.  All 16 justices meet at once only for administrative purposes or in the event that one senate’s decision from conflicts with one from the other senate.

The offices of the justices are in an adjacent building, with the so-called first senate on the first floor and the second senate on the second floor.  Each judge can have up to five staff members.  Their clerks must already be judges themselves, and many times are already well-known when they take the clerical position.  Serving as a clerk in the court is considered a career step.

Generally, hearings are not open to the public.  On rare occasions, both parties in a case may agree to hold their hearing in the public session room.  The public and the press are allowed to sit in, but no cameras are allowed.

Christine translating Colker PlettenbergPletternburg noted the eagle on the wall behind the judges’ seating area in the public session room.  “It looks kind of deranged,” he said.  It was modeled in such a way to show that the state does not have influence over the court’s decisions.  He mentioned that a well-known murder mystery novel in Germany features a scene where the eagle falls off the wall and kills a judge.

Anyway, for public hearings, the procedures are determined beforehand.  There is no time limit on speeches, and all of the judges can question lawyers on each side.  The seating is arranged by order of seniority.  There are chambers in the adjacent building for closed hearings.

After a decision is rendered, the justices decide on how the case law should be published.  The publishing staff of the court sends the decision to a publisher for the case reporter, but commercial publishers can also buy copies of decisions from the judges for their own use.  Also, judges may or may not allow the case to be published electronically, which can lead to some inconsistencies when trying to access decisions.

The main clientele for the library are the clerks of the justices, although some judges come by as well.  Clerks are taught how to use the library’s intranet page, which they usually access from their office.  The collection consists of public and constitutional law materials, as well as some non-legal literature dealing with government law and philosophy.  While the catalog is available electronically, they still have their card catalog as well.

The library has an annual budget of €500,000, and Pletternburg said that half of this goes to looseleaf filings.  In addition, each justice has their own office collection.  There is also a daily press review published by the library that covers news important to the court.

Periodicals on displayAfter lunch, we toured the Federal Court of Justice with Dietrich Pannier.  He said that here, unlike at the Constitutional Court, hearings are generally open to the public.  If both sides agree, cameras can be allowed into the court as well.  The court handles cases pertaining to civil and criminal law that have been appealed from lower courts.

Judges are selected to balance to court out geographically (in case there’s a lack of representation from, say, Hamburg) and to fill in topical areas that need coverage.  In a pinch, justices may be asked to switch expertise, going from civil law to commerical law.

The original courthouse was actually a manor built for a duke. It became a government building after WWI.  In 1950, it was turned into the courthouse. Pannier noted that the library used to be in the kitchen of the manor.  Since then, a number of new buildings have been built to modernize the court’s facilities.

In another difference from the Constitutional Court, the Court of Justice library is open to the public.  It consists of four floors, plus a basement for pre-WWII holdings.  After reunification, it was expected that the court was going to move to Leipzig.  The library modeled their cataloging system after the Leipzig courts’ system.  Surprisingly, said Pannier, the court stayed in Karlsruhe.

The main reference desk is not on the main floor, but on the first floor (in American terms, it’s not on the first floor, but on the second floor).  Pannier said that judges often make use of the reading room on the first floor, so it made sense to have the reference desk there as well.

Pannier said, “If I see five people here, I say, ‘Oh, it is crowded today.'”  He believes that internet usage has eaten into library usage, although he doesn’t see that is a big deal.  “Why should the judges come every day?” he asked, noting that they are already familiar with the print materials.  Moreover, the library’s website has a comprehensive collection of links to online German law materials.

The library budget has decreased €40,000 over the past couple of years, but Pannier indicated that he usually takes the initiative to streamline costs and the collection.  Regarding weeding, he said, “I will not ask anyone.  I will do it.”  He added, “I am paid well to decide for the library.  The judges are paid well to make judgments.”

With that visit, our trip to Germany came to an end.  As part of our agreement to participate, we had to submit a report on our experiences to to the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation, which provided funding for the tour.  You can read my report (with all its grammatical errors) on the Germany Study Tour website.