The Soft Power of Dissent: The Impact of Dissenting Opinions from the Russian Constitutional Court.

Author:Orlova, Alexandra V.


Do dissenting judicial opinions matter in a state that actively suppresses dissent within the public sphere and views failure to conform as an existential threat? The Russian government has deliberately suppressed dissent on a number of fronts. The state has repeatedly used the 2014 civil war in Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea to discredit any sort of opposition to the regime, with critics painted as unpatriotic and foreign, and as threatening Russia's very existence. (1) While the government has invested significant effort in suppressing dissenting voices, the presence of dissents in the Russian Constitutional Court (the Court) presents an interesting question regarding their impact on democracy, consensus building, and civil society. Due to the nonbinding nature of dissents emanating from the Court, their possible impact on legal and nonlegal communities is an area lacking in scholarship. (2) This Article argues that while dissents emanating from the Court may not be binding, they carry a great deal of "soft power." Judicial dissents aid in challenging commonly espoused consensus both inside and outside the courtroom and provide a legitimizing voice to marginalized groups that have frequently been excluded from dialogue. The possibility of judicial dissents spilling over from the confines of the courts aids the democratic process, not necessarily by convincing the majority of the population to change their minds, but by "forming a polity where people's rights are the subjects of an ongoing political debate." (3) Judicial dissents provide hope by challenging the permanence of both law and consensus. (4)

Part I of this Article deals with arguments of both Russian and Western scholars regarding the benefits and detriments of judicial dissents. It analyzes the January 17, 2012 decision of the Court dealing with the role of dissent. Part II examines how judicial dissents can play a transformative role in challenging the common consensus, thus opening the door for alternative visions and narratives, making the law more inclusive and more just in serving its citizens. It examines judicial dissents in two recent cases--Anchugov and Gladkov (2016) and Yukos (2017)--where the Court attempted to redefine its relationship with transnational institutions, such as the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), and to deal with issues of sovereignty and constitutional identity. Part III looks at the impact of judicial dissents on civil society and democracy. The Article argues that in addition to challenging consensus and providing a legitimizing voice to disempowered groups, judicial dissents have the capacity to transcend and exceed the institutions from which they arise, hence impacting public debate and potentially public action. It examines the October 2018 debate regarding the future of the Russian Constitution, Russia's vision of globalization, universality, and local identity, which was initiated by the chairman of the Court and transcended the confines of the courtroom. Finally, the Article concludes that while judicial dissents are not binding, the true "soft power" of judicial dissents comes from their ability to challenge the permanence of both law and consensus. (5) Judicial dissents show that disagreement matters (6) and is fundamental to democracy.


    Russian legal scholars, not unlike their Western counterparts, are divided over the value of dissenting opinions. (7) On the one hand, some of the arguments against dissenting opinions relate to them endangering the unity of the court by impacting collegiality between the judges, as well as impacting the strength of judicial opinions by not making the court speak with one voice in the form of a unanimous opinion. (8) Some authors go so far as to state that dissents may impact the public's confidence in the majority's opinion. (9) A single unanimous judgment and the absence of dissent are "thought to foster the public's perception of the law as dependably stable and secure," (10) making it easier to implement the Court's ruling. (11) Random dissents (forms of "intellectual exhibitionism") (12) risk weakening "the institutional impact of the Court" by making the Court appear "indecisive and quarrelsome," (13) thus ultimately impacting the Court's legitimacy. (14) Dissents may be particularly harmful when the Court is trying to rule in regard to a divisive social issue and provide some clarity with respect to legal norms and principles. (15) Dissents are thought to create a greater amount of work, not only for the judges writing the dissent, but also for the majority, who have to respond to dissenting arguments. (16) Despite creating an increased workload, in most cases dissents--due to their nonbinding nature--do not impact the rights of the litigants. (17) Furthermore, the presence of a dissenting opinion itself or modifications to the opinion of the majority made to accommodate dissent risk "creating uncertainty or indeterminacy in the law." (18)

    When it comes to contentious social and political issues that produce a sharp division of opinions, dissenting judgments may make it appear that the courts' opinions are divided along political rather than legal lines. This is especially so in constitutional cases, where the rights of the individual are pitted against the state, (19) and dissents may be viewed as a platform for airing political views. (20) In addition to the "institutional costs" of dissents, the "personal costs" of dissenting for the judge may range from a lack of promotion or reappointment to an outright dismissal. (21) Not surprisingly, dissents are presented as "individualistic" and as going against the secrecy of judicial deliberations. (22) Moreover, instead of increasing dialogue, constant dissenting by some judges can shut down a dialogue, as their views could be regarded as entrenched by the rest of their colleagues. (23)

    On the other hand, those arguing in favor of judicial dissents see the value of dissent in the maintenance of judicial independence, by allowing jurists to express disagreements with the majority, (24) letting the "marketplace of ideas" lead to the truth, and making judicial reasoning more transparent in nature. (25) In a sense, dissenting opinions are reflective of different views of the "requirements of democratic society" and place a value on pluralism as the cornerstone of democracy. (26) Furthermore, ability to dissent may reduce pressures surrounding a contentious arbitration by channeling disagreements "into more productive forms" when judges are not able to reconcile their views. (27) Dissents force the majority to refine its opinions to deal with the criticisms outlined in dissenting opinions. In other words. "[b]y pointing the finger at flaws allegedly affecting the majority's decision, a well-reasoned dissent encourages the majority to address the criticized issues thoroughly, thereby raising the level of the majority's reasoning." (28) Dissents not only have the capacity to strengthen and refine the reasoning of the majority, but they also serve to strengthen the very legitimacy of the judicial deliberative process (29) by showing the losing party that their arguments were given thorough consideration, even if ultimately rejected. (30) Dissent has the capacity to increase the transparency of the judicial process by outlining the various debates that have taken place among the judges involved in a particular case. (31) Dissenting opinions demonstrate to the public that some areas of the law involve difficult choices where unanimity is not always possible to achieve. (32)

    More broadly, dissents challenge "the authoritarian character of the law" (33) by revealing the multiple reasoning processes behind the conclusions in any given case and thus challenging the finality of each one. (34) Dissents challenge the "rhetoric of inevitability" (35) when it comes to the majority's conclusions, thus potentially extending the space for dissent outside the confines of the courtroom and opening the door to future legal challenges. (36) In a way, dissents can shine a light on issues and arguments that remained invisible in the past, allowing for the gradual transformation of legal and social consciousness. (37)

    Dissents also enable various levels of public debates among judges, legal scholars, legislators, and the general public. (38) Hence, despite the nonbinding nature of dissents, they can still be influential in a number of ways, especially in their capacity to reveal a new trend or an outmoded practice and pave the way for future reform. (39) In other words, "[t]he dissenting opinion causes restlessness and such restlessness provides a necessary stimulus for the future, and it helps to avoid routine and critique-free decision-making." (40) Ultimately, in the words of Charles Hughes, former associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, "a dissent in a Court of last resort is an appeal ... to the intelligence of a future day, when a later decision may possibly correct the error into which the dissenting judge believes the court to have been betrayed." (41) Moreover, with the increasing prominence of comparative law, dissents may play a role in shaping judicial opinions beyond their own jurisdictions, especially in novel or rapidly changing areas of the law. (42)

    Given the lack of agreement regarding the role of dissent when it comes to judicial reasoning both in Russia and in the West, an interesting starting point of analysis regarding the role of dissent in constitutional litigation is the January 17, 2012 decision by the Court. (43) The case revolved around the refusal of the Court to reveal the...

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