WASHINGTON (CN) - As the European Court of Justice continues a dramatic rise in power and volume of cases, a comparison is inevitably made with the U.S. Supreme Court where an initially weak political body grew into an enormously powerful interpreter of the law in a vast region of wealth and population. But there are also key differences between the two high courts, based on the greater power held in the U.S. Constitution and the less competitive relationship between the courts of the European nations and the EU's high court.
With the appointment this week of Vassilios Skouris to another three-year term as President of the European Court of Justice, he presides over a body that continues to add cases, money and judges while it has also moved into a stunning new courthouse in Luxembourg that symbolizes the increased strength and authority of the court.
While it grows in size, the power of the EU's high court has also been "strengthened by a run of court decisions," said Berkeley Law Professor Richard Buxbaum. Some of the court's most aggressive rulings in limiting the sovereignty of member states have gone hand in hand with the body's role in driving the integration of the European Union.
The Luxembourg courts received more than 1300 cases last year, a record. The staff budget also hit a new high of almost 238 million euros for 2009.
The number of judges, too, is on the rise. With the addition of 10 new member states in 2004, and of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, an identical number of judges have joined the Court of Justice, where each member is equally represented by one judge.
The high court has expanded its authority in a number of ways over the years, but one method has been to establish legal standards without applying those standards to the case at hand, writes Karen Alter as an assistant professor of Political Science at Smith College.
One example is Flamino Costa v. ENEL, one of the court's most significant rulings in the expansion of its power.
In 1964, when an Italian sued his government before the community court for nationalizing the Italian energy company, ENEL, the ECJ ruled in favor of the government. It disagreed, however, with the Italian government's argument that an individual could not challenge national law before the Luxembourg body.
"The law stemming from the treaty, an independent source of law, could not, because of its special and original nature, be overridden by domestic legal provisions, however framed, without being deprived of its character as community law and without the legal basis of the community itself being called into question," says the decision in a sweeping affirmation of the high court's power.
Because of the outcome, favorable to the Italian government's position, Italian officials were not prompted to protest the ruling, even though the ECJ declared the supremacy of community law over national law.
Another example -- this time of both the body's power and of its unifying role -- is the Centros, Überseering and Inspire Art decisions issued between 1999 and 2003 that eroded barriers to doing business across borders in the European Union.