The Constitutional Court of Thailand
(ศาลรัฐธรรมนูญ) is an independent Thai court
established under the 1997 Constitution
with jurisdiction over the constitutionality
of parliamentary acts, royal decrees, draft legislation, as well as the appointment and removal of public officials and issues regarding political parties. The Court, along with the Constitution of Thailand, was dissolved in 2006 following the Thai military's overthrow of the government
. It was replaced with a Constitution Tribunal
with the same jurisdiction. However, while the Constitutional Court had 15 members, 7 from the judiciary and 8 appointed by the Senate, the Constitution Tribunal had 9 members, all from the judiciary.
The creation of the Constitutional Court provoked much public debate, both regarding the Court's jurisdiction and composition as well as the initial selection of justices. A long-standing issue has been the degree of control exerted by the judiciary over the Court.
The Court made several significant rulings since its establishment in 1998. These included the 1999 ruling that Deputy Minister of Agriculture Newin Chidchop could retain his Cabinet seat after being sentenced to imprisonment for defamation, the 2001 acquittal of Thaksin Shinawatra for filing an incomplete statement, regarding his wealth, with the National Counter-Corruption Committee, the 2003 invalidation of Jaruvan Maintaka appointment as Auditor-General, and the 2007 dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai political party.
Origins and controversy
Drafting of the 1997 Constitution
The creation of the Constitutional Court was the subject of much debate during the 1996-1997 drafting of the current Constitution of Thailand
. Senior judges rigorously opposed the concept on the grounds that constitutional and judicial review should remain the prerogative of the Supreme Court and that a constitutional court would create a fourth branch of government more powerful than the
judiciary, legislature, or executive. Judges stated their fear over political interference in the selection and impeachment of judges. The Constitution Drafting Assembly eventually made several concessions regarding the composition and powers of the Court.
The Constitution did not give the Constitutional Court the authority to overrule a final judgment of the Supreme Court. An affected party, or a court, could request the opinion from the Constitutional Court if they believed a case involved a constitutional issue. The court would stay its trial and adjudication until the Constitutional Court issued its decision. Constitutional Court decisions would have no retroactive effect on previous decisions of the regular courts.
The Constitution also did not give the Constitutional Court the authority to rule on any case in which the Constitution did not specifically delegate an agency the power to adjudicate.
The Constitution allowed individual justices to be the subject of impeachment proceedings with the vote of 1/4 of the members of the House or with 50,000 approval of petitioners. A vote of 3/5's of the Senate is required for impeachment. Earlier drafts had required that only 10% of the combined House and Senate were necessary to call for a vote of impeachment with only 3/5's of the combined Parliament required to dismiss a justice.
The Constitution gave the judiciary a strong influence over the composition of the Constitutional Court. Originally, the Court was to have 9 justices comprising six legal experts and three political science experts. A 17 person panel would propose 18 names from among which Parliament would elect the 9 justices. The panel president would be the President of the Supreme Court, the panel itself would have included 4 political party representatives. The CDA finally compromised and allowed 7 of the justices to be appointed directly by the judiciary while the remaining 8 justices would be appointed by the Senate from a list of Supreme Court nominees.
Appointment of the first Constitutional Court
The appointment of the first Constitutional Court following the promulgation of the constitution in 1997 was 4-month controversy pitting the Senate against the Supreme Court. A key issue was the Senate's authority to review the backgrounds of judicial nominees and reject nominees deemed
inappropriate or unqualified.
Appointment of Amphorn Thongprayoon
After receiving the Supreme Court's list of nominees, the Senate created a committee to review the nominees' credentials
and backgrounds. On 24 November 1997
, the Senate voted to remove the name of Supreme
Court Vice President Amphorn Thongprayoon
, on the grounds that his credentials were dubious and on allegations that he had defaulted on 3 million THB in debt. The Supreme Court was furious, arguing the Constitution did not empower the Senate to do background checks or to reject Supreme Court nominees. The Supreme Court requested a ruling from the Constitutional Tribunal chaired by the House Speaker. On 8 January 1998
, in a 6:3 vote, the Tribunal ruled the Senate did not
have the authority to do background checks or reject the Supreme Court's nominees. The Tribunal ruled that the Senate's review powers were limited to examining the records of the nominees and electing half of those nominees for appointment.
Immediately after the Supreme Court had filed its request to the Tribunal, Justice
Amphorn withdrew his name. After the Tribunal's ruling, the Supreme Court elected Justice Jumpol na Songkhla on 9 January 1998 to replace Amphorn. The Senate ignored the Tribunal's ruling and proceeded to review Jumphol’s background and delayed a vote to accept his nomination for 7 days so that the Senate evaluate Jumphol. Finding no problems, the Senate proceeded to acknowledge his appointment to the Court on 23 January 1998.
Appointment of Ukrit Mongkolnavin
The appointment of former Senate and Parliament President Ukrit Mongkolnavin
was especially problematic. The Senate had initially elected Ukrit from the list of ten legal specialists nominated by the selection panel, despite claims from democracy activists that Ukrit was unqualified to guard the constitution because he had served dictators while President of Parliament under the 1991-1992 military government of the National Peacekeeping Council
Stung by the Senate rejection of Amphorn Thongprayoon, the two Bangkok Civil Court Judges, Sriampron Salikhup and Pajjapol Sanehasangkhom, petitioned the Constitutional Tribunal to disqualify Ukrit on a legal technicality. They argued that Ukrit only had an honorary professorship at Chulalongkorn University, while the 1997 Constitution specifically specifies that a nominee, if not meeting other criteria, must be at least a professor. Echoing the Senate's rejection of Amphorn, the judges also alleged that Ukrit was involved in a multi-million baht law suit over a golf course. On January 10, 1998 the Tribunal ruled that the judges were not affected parties and therefore they had no right to request a ruling. Nevertheless, the Parliament President invoked his power as chairman of the Tribunal to ask the Senate to
reconsider Ukrit's nomination.
On January 19 1998, the Senate reaffirmed Ukrit's qualifications, noting that his professorship was special only because he was not a government official. Under Chulalongkorn's regulations, he had the academic status of a full professor.
This position inflamed activists and the judiciary, and prompted the Parliament President on January 21 to invoke his authority under Article 266 of the 1997 Constitution to order the Constitutional Tribunal to consider the issue. On February 8, in a 4:3 vote, the Tribunal ruled that Ukrit's special professorship did not qualify him for a seat in the Constitutional Court. The Tribunal noted that Chulalongkorn criteria for honorary professor were different from their criteria for academic professors, as intended by the Constitution. The Senate ended up electing Komain Patarapirom to replace Ukrit.
The Constitutional Court has the jurisdiction over six broad categories of cases:
- The constitutionality of parliamentary acts
- The constitutionality of royal decrees
- The authorities of constitutional mechanisms
- The appointment and removal of public officials
- Political party issues
- The constitutionality of draft legislation
There are timing, standing, and subject limitations which determine when a Court appeal
can be sought, who can file motions, and the specific issues which the Court has the jurisdiction
From 1998 to 10 October 2002, the Constitutional Court has issued rulings on 237 motions. 56% of those motions were concerned with the constitutionality of laws, while political party issues and the removal of officials from office comprised another 27%.
The Constitutional Court, modelled after the Constitutional Court of Italy
, is composed of 15 full-time justices
with terms of 9 years. 7 of the justices come from the judiciary itself: 5 are elected by the secret ballot of Supreme Court Judges from amongst their own number, while another 2 are elected by the Supreme Administrative Court from amongst their own number. In the selection of the other 8 justices, the Constitution stipulates 5 law experts and 3 political science experts. First of all a Selective Committee is chosen, consisting of the President of the Supreme Court, four Deans of law and four Deans of political science chosen from amongst their own number, and four MPs representing parliamentary political parties, each party having one representative and such representatives electing four from their own number. The Committee, by a resolution supported by 3/4's of its members, nominates ten persons qualified in law and six qualified in political science. The Senate then votes, with the winners being the first five or three on the list, as the case may be, to receive at least one half of the votes.
Chuan-government emergency decrees during the 1997 economic crisis
Unconstitutionality of emergency economic decrees
In its very first decision, the Court ruled on the constitutionality of four emergency
executive decrees issued by the Chuan
government to deal with the Asian financial crisis
. The government had issued the decrees in early May 1998 to expand the role of the Financial Restructuring Authority
and the Assets Management Corporation
, to settle the debts of the Financial Institutions Development Fund
through the issue of 500 billion THB in bonds
, and to authorize the Ministry of Finance to seek 200 billion THB in overseas loans. The opposition New Aspiration Party
(NAP) did not have the votes to defeat the bills, and therefore, on the last day of debate, invoked Article 219 of the Constitution to question the constitutionality of an emergency decree.
The NAP argued that since there was no emergency nor necessary urgency (under Article 218(2)), the government could not issue any emergency decrees. Article 219, however, specifically notes the constitutionality of an emergency decree can be questioned only on Article 218(1) concerning the maintenance of national or public safety, national economic security, or to avert public calamity. The government, fearing further economic damage if the decree were delayed, opposed the Court's acceptance of the complaint, as the opposition clearly had failed to cite the proper constitutional clause. The Court wished to set a precedent, however, demonstrating it would accept petitions under Article 219, even if technically inaccurate. Within a day it ruled that it was obvious to the general public that the nation was in an economic crisis, and that the decrees were designed to assist with national economic security in accordance with Article 218(1). The decrees were later quickly approved by Parliament.
The NAP's last minute motion damaged its credibility, and made it unlikely that Article 219 will be invoked unless there is a credible issue and the issue is raised and discussed at the beginning of Parliamentary debate, rather than at the last-minute before a vote.
On the other hand, a precedent was established by the Court that it would accept all petitions under Article 219 to preserve Parliament's right to question the constitutionality of emergency executive decrees.
Treaty status of IMF letters of intent
The NAP later filed impeachment proceedings with the National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC)
against Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai and the Minister of Finance Tarrin Nimmanahaeminda
for violation of the Constitution. The NAP argued that the letter of intent
that the government signed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF)
to secure emergency financial support was a treaties
, and that Article 224 of the Constitution stipulated that the government must receive prior consent from Parliament to enter a treaty.
The NCCC determined the issue concerned a constitutional interpretation and petitioned the Constitutional Court for an opinion. The Court ruled the IMF letters were not treaties, as internationally defined, because they were unilateral documents from the Thai government with no rules for enforcement or provisions for penalty. Moreover, the IMF itself had worded the letters in a way that stated that the letters were not contractual agreements.
Appointment of Jaruvan Maintaka as Auditor-General
On 24 June 2003, a petition was filed with the Constitutional Court seeking its ruling on the constitutionality of Jaruvan Maintaka’s appointment by the Senate as Auditor-General. Jaruvan was one of three nominees for the position of auditor-general in 2001, along with Prathan Dabpet and Nontaphon Nimsomboon. Prathan received 5 votes from the 8-person State Audit Commission (SAC) chairman while Jaruvan received 3 votes. According to the constitution, State Audit Commission chairman Panya Tantiyavarong should have submitted Prathan's nomination to the Senate, as he received the majority of votes. However, on July 3
, the SAC Chairman submitted a list of all three candidates for the post of auditor-general to the Senate, which later voted to select Khunying Jaruvan Maintaka.
The Constitutional Court ruled in 6 July 2004 that the selection process that led to the appointment of Jaruvan as Auditor-General was unconstitutional. The Court noted that the Constitution empowers the SAC to nominate only one person with the highest number of votes from a simple majority, not three as had been the case. The court stopped short of saying if she had to leave her post. However when the Constitutional Court had ruled on 4 July 2002 that the then Election Commissionchairman Sirin Thoopklam's election to the body was unconstitutional, the President of the Court noted "When the court rules that the selection [process] was unconstitutional and has to be redone, the court requires the incumbent to leave the post".
However, Jaruwan refused to resign without a royal dismissal from King Bhumibol Adulyadej. She noted ""I came to take the position as commanded by a royal decision, so I will leave the post only when directed by such a decision. The State Audit Commission later nominated Wisut Montriwat, former deputy permanent secretary of the Ministry of Finance, for the post of Auditor-General. The Senate approved the nomination on 10 May 2005. However, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in an unprecedented move, withheld his royal assent. The National Assembly did not hold a vote to overthrow the royal veto. In October 2005 the Senate rejected a motion to reaffirm her appointment, and instead deferred the decision to the SAC.
On 15 February 2006 the State Audit Commission (SAC) decided to reinstate Auditor-General Khunying Jaruvan Maintaka. Its unanimous decision came after it received a memo from the Office of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's Principal Private Secretary, advising that the situation be resolved.
The controversy led many to reinterpret the political and judicial role of the King in Thailand's constitutional monarchy.
Thaksin Shinawatra's alleged conflicts of interest
In February 2006, 28 Senators submitted a petition to the Constitutional Court calling for the Prime Minister's impeachment for conflicts of interest and improprieties in the sell-off of Shin Corporation under Articles 96, 216 and 209 of the Thai constitution. The Senators said the Prime Minister violated the Constitution and was no longer qualified for office under Article 209. However, the Court rejected the petition on 16 February, with the majority judges saying the petition failed to present sufficient grounds to support the prime minister's alleged misconduct.
Political Parties Dissolution following the April 2006 Election