Switzerland's Federal Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional for communities to hold plebiscites to approve or reject the naturalization applications of foreigners living in their midst, as has been the practice in some places for decades.
Naturalization procedures vary greatly in Switzerland as a result of the country's federalist structure and the way authority is distributed across state, canton, and community levels. In most areas, the decision to naturalize is made by government administrators. In other areas, naturalizations are voted on in municipal-level assemblies, which are unaffected by the latest ruling. In still other areas, prior to the recent ruling, citizens voted in plebiscites on each individual application.
The court's ruling emerged from a case initiated in 1999 by the conservative Swiss People's Party, in which the party demanded naturalization plebiscites in the city of Zurich. In response, the Federal Court in July ruled that the plebiscites violate two constitutional guarantees: the right to receive reasons for an official decision, and the right to be free from discrimination.
The judges determined that plebiscites make it impossible for applicants to find out why they have been turned down, since the motives of the voters remain unknown. They also ruled that a subsequent statement of reasons by the community would be insufficient. In fact, at present, communities do not have to offer any reasons whatsoever for rejecting an application.
At the same time, the ruling noted, plebiscites open the door to unconstitutional discrimination by community members, who might eliminate particular applicants based on characteristics such as national origin.
Beyond these concerns, the Federal Court noted that plebiscite voters seeking to make an informed decision might want information on the applicant's income, property, education, occupation, language ability, family background, or recreational activities. The judges felt that while the voters might have legitimate reasons for seeking such information, revealing it would nevertheless violate the applicants' right to privacy.
Switzerland is currently debating reforms to its naturalization law, which was put in place in 1952 and revised in 1992. A final decision is expected in 2004. At present, lawmakers appear to be divided over whether to reform the law to allow applicants to appeal rejections.