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The Judicial Branch of the Federal Republic of Germany

The Judicial Branch of the Federal Republic of Germany
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  • 0:01 German Judiciary
  • 0:34 Lower Courts
  • 1:42 Federal Constitutional Court
  • 4:01 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the judicial branch of Germany, including its ordinary courts and the most important court in Germany, the Federal Constitutional Court.

German Judiciary

Have you ever been to court? Perhaps you went simply because you were interested in watching the proceedings, or perhaps you went because - gulp - you were accused of a crime. Either way, it was likely an eye-opening experience into the judicial system, a branch of our government that operates far differently than other branches of government, which are dominated by politics. In the Western world, courts are somewhat similar wherever you go, but each country structures its judicial system differently. In this lesson, we'll explore the judicial system and courts of Germany.

Lower Courts

There are various types of lower courts in Germany. Courts are divided according to the subject and severity of the criminal or civil offense. For example, there are different courts for criminal cases than there are for cases involving labor law or tax law.

In addition, the severity of a law matters; for example, criminal offenses that carry maximum sentences of two years of prison time or less are handled by a different court than offenses with harsher punishments. All cases in these ordinary courts are presided over by between one and five judges depending on the seriousness of the crime and the court in which it is tried. All cases are decided by their judges - juries of peers are nonexistent in the German judicial system.

In all German courts, whether ordinary criminal courts or specialized courts like those that deal with labor relations and tax law, there is an appellate system. This means that if a defendant, plaintiff, or prosecutor feels the law was improperly applied in their case, they can appeal to a higher court. In all systems there is a regional appellate court and a federal court above that, which has the final say in all matters.

Federal Constitutional Court

In addition to the regular judicial system of Germany, there is a special judicial body that determines matters of constitutional law: the Federal Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court is charged with determining whether any laws passed during the normal legislative process are constitutional and in agreement with Germany's Basic Law.

However, the Constitutional Court does not examine each and every law passed by the German Parliament. No. Instead the Constitutional Court can only rule on laws after it is appealed to. The Constitutional Court is the only authority on constitutional matters in Germany. In theory, any issue that requires constitutional interpretation goes directly to the Court.

There are restrictions on who can appeal to the Court. The Constitutional Court accepts appeals from the President, the Chancellor, the Bundestag, the Bundesrat, or any of the ministries of the federal German government. To ensure that opposition parties in the German parliament aren't shut out of the appeals process, only one-third of either the Bundestag or Bundesrat is required to petition the court for an appeal to be heard. German citizens can appeal to the Constitutional Court as well, though not all appeals from regular citizens are considered by the Court. Instead, the court handpicks what few (if any) appeals have the possibility to significantly affect German law.

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