Notes from South Africa

Notes from South Africa, Seattle University law student Matthew Burnett’s experiences during a spring semester 2005, Judicial externship with the Constitutional Court of South Africa.

January 16, 2005

Greetings from (almost) sunny South Africa! I have just finished my first week at the Constitutional Court, spending most of my time in orientation. One of the highlights of orientation was a series of seminars by various judges, and particularly a talk on socio-economic rights by Chief Justice Chaskalson. The jurisprudence developing out of the South African constitution is extremely refreshing, especially compared to our own rather limited vision of constitutionalism. From my perspective, it is one of the most interesting constitutional climates in the world, especially with regards to the guarantee of various positive rights and the horizontal application of some rights (i.e. equality).

The Court building itself, which is one year old, is an amazing place to work. It is built on the site of the old Number Four Prison, which at one point held Nelson Mandela as well as other political prisoners and pass violators. It is full of loose art and instillations, including a number of pieces by William Kentridge -- one of my favorite South African artists. Much of the loose art was donated by Justice Sachs, who took us on a private tour of the Court. The address to the Court’s new Web site is It has a lot of images of the new building and art collection, as well as a historical overview of the site and the South African Constitution.

As for my regular duties, I am primarily reading new applications to the Court and familiarizing myself with South African Constitutional Law. Apart from my regular duties, I have elected to join the Venice Commission Committee, which summarizes the opinions of this Court to be sent to the Venice Commission (the European Commission for Democracy through Law), who compile high court decisions from around the world. It will be a good way to familiarize myself with all of the recent and upcoming opinions of this Court, and is a worthy project in itself.

More in a few weeks …