Law in Luxembourg – Visit to the European Court of Justice

One of the best things about studying in Europe is how accessible so much of the continent is. As part of our degree program, my LLM program took us all to Luxembourg for a week to attend seminars and visit the European Court of Justice, which is basically the Supreme Court of Europe.

A quick overview if you haven’t read my previous blogs- I’m a BU Law 3L, but I’m part of a dual degree program, so for my 3L year, I’m doing an LLM in European Law in Paris, France. The program is small and selective, there are just 9 students in my program including me, so we are able to have some really unique learning experiences!

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My program at the Court of Justice- that’s our head professor on the left, and that’s me in the blue suit and pink shirt, fourth from left!

So this week, our program took us to Luxembourg, which is a small country nestled between France, Belgium, and Germany, commonly known for its UNESCO World Heritage sites, its super high GDP, being one of the three official capitals of the European Union, and being the seat of the Court of Justice of the European Union. The Court of Justice of the European Union is made up of two courts- the General Court, which is a court of first instance and hears cases brought against any of the EU institutions (the Commission, the Council, etc) by member states or individuals, and the European Court of Justice, which is the highest court in the EU, is responsible for interpreting and applying EU law, and handles all preliminary rulings and appeals from the General Court. As a super quick overview on preliminary rulings- national courts (the courts of each of the EU member states) are responsible for applying EU law and there are lots of guidelines for how to do this. But sometimes, national judges will not know how to apply EU law in a specific case, or will not know how to interpret EU law, in which case they can file a reference for preliminary ruling with the Court of Justice, asking the judges of the Court of Justice to answer specific questions about the interpretation of EU law. Preliminary rulings make up about 70% of the ECJ’s cases!

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The main court room – you can see the very end of the interpretation boxes on the left, and a few of the attorneys chatting after the hearing (probably in 6 different languages)!

The Court of Justice may be one of the most impressive establishments I’ve ever encountered. Everything that is handled by the Court is translated into the 24 official languages of the European Union. So the Court of Justice is half a legal institution,
half a giant interpretation center. Our guide for the week told us that the average ECJ employee (including general staff) speaks 7 languages fluently. Hearings are probably the most incredible language feat that the Court pulls off. Though French is the official language of the Court (all judges and Advocate Generals speak French in hearings), attorneys and parties before the Court plead in their national languages. When the Commission (the executive office of the EU, responsible for implementing ECJ decisions and proposing legislation, among other duties) pleads in a case as well, the attorneys for the Commission can plead in any language they choose. The courtrooms are lined with two floors of glass-walled interpretation boxes. Each seat in the courtroom, including all the seats for the attorneys, judges, reférendaires (legal secretaries), and the audience, is equipped with a small device that loops around one ear and is worn a bit like a headphone. A box in each seat allows you to change the channel, and the channel for each language is listed electronically on the front of each interpretation box. Basically, a hearing proceeds as normal, but at any given time, up to 5 or 6 different languages could be being used! Everything happens in real time- each interpretation box has anywhere from 2-4 interpreters, depending on the languages being used. Not every language is interpreted in every hearing, requests are sent in for which languages to provide for each hearing in addition to the languages the attorneys, parties, and judges will be using. Once things begin, the interpreters translate as quickly as the speakers speak- there really is zero delay!

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Main Corridor… it goes on for FOREVER. The building is so huge, and is connected to two huge towers that house more offices and interpreters.

We spent a full day attending seminars at the Academy of European Law in Trier, Germany (where we were staying) and two days in Luxembourg at the Court. Our mornings both days at the Court were the same. We were met at the entrance by our guide and escorted through security. Security at the Court is VERY strict, and every visiting group must have submitted passports and information for security screening in advance and be accompanied at all times by an official guide who is responsible for your whereabouts at all times. Once inside the court, we attended a briefing of the case we were to hear that day by one of the judge’s referendaires. The case we heard on Day 1 concerned a preliminary reference from a Hungarian Court about the mutual recognition of judgments in criminal matters. The case involved a Hungarian national who received and served a sentence for attempted theft in Austria and how the procedure under Hungarian national law for transposing this sentence interacted with the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (one of the major governing EU treaties).  The case we heard on Day 2 was a preliminary reference from a national court in Spain concerning employment contracts and workers rights, which ended up being VERY confusing for me because we haven’t taken EU Labor Law yet, and it is insanely different from the US system. But the hearing was interesting because the individual party concerned in the case was present with her attorney, as was the company in question, and the Spanish government and the Commission. Oftentimes, in preliminary rulings, just the government attends, and the Commission gives a pleading as well, so it was neat to have so many parties present and pleading and to hear their different opinions. 

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Another one of the courtrooms. You can see the translation boxes a bit better in this one!

One of the most interesting parts of the hearings was to see the role of the Advocate General first-hand. The Court of Justice has 11 Advocate Generals that assist the judges. The Advocate Generals serve like judges, and are considered full members of the Court, but their job is to write a completely neutral opinion that evaluates new questions of law addressed before the Court. The AG usually delivers their opinion before the judges hand down their decision, and often, the judges adopted portions of the AG’s opinion in their ruling. Unlike US courts, the ECJ does not offer dissenting opinions, and because, especially in preliminary rulings (since they often raise specific national law points), the decisions of the Court need to be vague to account for their binding effect on all Member States, the AG’s opinion can provide a lot of guidance and understanding of the cases.

In addition to attending hearings, we had seminar sessions with attorneys from the Research Department of the Court, with Judge Tomljenović from the General Court, and with Roland Klages, legal secretary to AG Spzunar (who was unfortunately sick). The presentations were all amazing- in particular, Roland Klages spent SO much time with us, answering all of our enthusiastic questions, and Judge Tomljenović spoke candidly about women in the court.

Women in the court was actually something that caught my eye throughout my time at the ECJ. While women in the EU are still fighting for equal representation in the judiciary, I was impressed by how many more I felt were present in comparison to my US court experiences. In our second hearing, of the 12 official positions (5 judges, 1 AG, 2 legal secretaries, and four government attorneys) 6 were occupied by women. I wasn’t prepared for what an effect that would have on me-it was so inspiring!

Our time at the Court was really such a special experience. I know so few people ever get these opportunities, and I wanted to share that experience with you! If you want to pursue a dual degree, are interested in EU law, or just have questions about the Court of EU law in general, feel free to ask me!

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