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Britain’s Supreme Court Hears Legal Challenge to ‘Brexit’

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Supporters and opponents of Britain’s leaving the European Union clashed outside the Supreme Court in London on Monday. Credit Daniel Leal-Olivas/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

LONDON — The president of Britain’s Supreme Court said on Monday that a landmark case to decide whether the government can start the formal divorce process from the European Union without Parliament’s approval was a matter of law and not politics.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government appealed to the country’s highest judicial body after the High Court ruled last month that ministers could not invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and begin a two-year disentanglement process from the European Union without lawmakers’ assent.

If the Supreme Court upholds the earlier ruling, that could derail Mrs. May’s planned timetable for invoking Article 50 by the end of March and upset the government’s wider plans for the so-called Brexit, or British exit from the European bloc.

The legal fight comes against a backdrop of claims by some politicians and newspapers that establishment judges want to thwart Brexit, which Britons voted for by 52-48 percent in the June referendum.

In his opening remarks, Supreme Court President David Neuberger said the case was simply about the law.

“We are aware of the strong feelings associated with the many wider political questions surrounding the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union,” Mr. Neuberger said. “However … those wider political questions are not the subject of this appeal.

“This appeal is concerned with legal issues and, as judges, our duty is to consider those issues impartially, and to decide the case according to the law. This is what we shall do.”

Outside the Supreme Court, located on the same central London square as Parliament, pro-European Union supporters wearing judges’ robes and wigs rode a double-decker bus emblazoned with slogans, while another van carried a billboard that read, “The Brexiteers have failed us all.”

It was a reference to complaints that the government has not released a formal plan for what Brexit will look like.

A small number of rival Brexit backers waved placards saying, “This is an establishment stitch-up.”

Some lawmakers in Mrs. May’s Conservative Party had called for Mr. Neuberger to stand down because his wife had previously posted anti-Brexit messages on Twitter. He said all parties in the case had been asked if they wanted any of the judges to stand down and no objections had been raised.

The government’s top lawyer, Attorney General Jeremy Wright, told the court the case had been brought “perfectly properly” and raised “issues going to the very heart of our constitutional settlement.”

The case is the highest-profile one the court has considered since it came into being seven years ago. It is expected to last for four days and for the first time all 11 justices will sit on the panel, with the verdict expected later in January.

Brexit Blocked or Delayed?

If the government wins, Mrs. May can proceed with her plans to invoke Article 50 by the end of March.

But if she loses, as many legal experts have predicted, Parliament could in theory block the exit, as most lawmakers supported staying in the European Union.

Few observers expect Brexit to be blocked. Even so, lawmaker approval could open the process to greater scrutiny and delay.

Investors believe the greater Parliament’s involvement, the less chance there is of a “hard Brexit,” in which tight controls on immigration are prioritized over European single-market access. The pound surged after November’s High Court ruling.

The case, which was originally brought by Gina Miller, an investment fund manager, and Deir Tozetti Dos Santos, a hairdresser, hinges on whether the government can use a historical power known as “royal prerogative” to invoke Article 50 without lawmakers’ assent.

The challengers successfully argued at the High Court that Britons would inevitably lose rights granted by Parliament when leaving the European Union, and that under Britain’s unwritten constitution, such rights could only be taken away with lawmakers’ approval.

Outlining the government case, Mr. Wright, the attorney general, said Parliament had had “multiple” opportunities to restrict the executive’s ability to trigger Article 50 but had not taken them and parliamentary sovereignty was not being undermined.

The Scottish government, which strongly opposes Brexit and has been seeking ways to keep Scotland in the bloc, will also put forward its arguments.

The decision to leave the European Union has raised tensions in Britain and Ms. Miller has received death threats and been the target of other abuse.

“Threatening and abusing people because they are exercising their fundamental right to go to court undermines the rule of law,” said Mr. Neuberger.

Source: NYT > World

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