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Laurie Ackermann – a tribute to an exceptional Constitutional Court judge

Laurie Ackermann – a tribute to an exceptional Constitutional Court judge
Laurie Ackermann, one of the first 11 judges of the Constitutional Court. (Photo: Supplied)

Justice Lourens (Laurie) Ackermann died peacefully at home in the early hours of Saturday, 25 May 2024. He was 90 years old.

I have known Laurie for much of my adult life and worked as his law clerk in 1995 after he was appointed as one of the first 11 judges of the Constitutional Court. Lawyers tend to remember him for the strong libertarian views he expressed in a dissent he wrote in that year in the matter of Ferreira v Levin, which the majority of the court rejected. But not everyone disliked it. 

In a blinder of an article titled “Rainbow Jurisprudence”, published in the next year, Alfred Cockrell, then law professor at the University of Cape Town, singled out Laurie and Justice Kate O’Regan for their “rigorous consideration of substantive reasons that power constitutional adjudication, in comparison with… the vapid statements of rainbow jurisprudence [which were] starkly devoid of substance.” I think this means that with Laurie you knew exactly where he stood, right off the bat.

In the years to come up to 2004, when he retired, the dissent in Ferreira turned out to be the exception. All together he wrote 18 judgments for the court, or the majority of the court, and dissented (or concurred for separate reasons) only three times. 

These judgments established many of the foundational principles of our constitutional jurisprudence, such as the very broad approach to standing; the doctrine of objective invalidity; and the interpretation of the equality, privacy and property clauses. 

This was not a nine-to-five job. Laurie was one of a breed of judges who dedicated almost their entire lives to the law, working six and a half days a week, month after month, to create the legal system we have. We still have them, of course, and I am not sure that enough credit is given to them. 

Ultimately Laurie’s pride was the Constitutional Court’s library. He chaired the library committee from the outset and began what is now a world-class resource “in and for Africa”.

Now a few words about Laurie’s earlier career, which is, as one would expect, littered with achievements, a cum laude law degree from Stellenbosch, Rhodes Scholar, Senior Counsel from 1975 and judge of the [then] Transvaal Court from 1980 where he notched up about 40 reported judgments in a relatively short period.

As a judge he believed that the law should be applied as the legislature intended and one could not bend the rules if you disagreed with it. He didn’t agree with the apartheid law and so, in September 1987, he resigned from the Bench and inaugurated the newly established Harry Oppenheimer Chair in Human Rights Law at the University of Stellenbosch, the first of its kind in South Africa. He held this position until the end of 1992. In this time and more particularly during 1989, he participated in discussions on a future South African constitution with the constitutional committee of the ANC in exile on four different occasions. 

In January 1993 he accepted reappointment to the South African [then] Supreme Court, on the Cape of Good Hope Provincial Division bench and from there to the Constitutional Court in 1995. 

He was South African secretary of the Rhodes Trust for 15 years and, until his retirement, a trustee of the Emmanuel Bradlow Foundation, an educational trust. He is a patron of the Institute for Global Law, University College London, a professor extraordinarius at Stellenbosch University and Unisa, and an honorary research associate in the Department of Public law, University of Cape Town.

In 2002 he was awarded an LLD (honoris causa) by Stellenbosch University and in 2003 was elected an honorary fellow of Worcester College, Oxford.

On retiring from active service on the Constitutional Court in January 2004 he continued to participate in the development of our constitutional jurisprudence, including writing the in-depth analysis Human Dignity: Lodestar for Equality in South Africa in 2012.

Laurie is survived by his wife, Denise (an academic theologian) in Cape Town. They have three children and five grandchildren.

Johan de Waal SC is an advocate of the High Court of South Africa and member of the Cape Bar.

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