Crucial to understanding the behavior of judges and the outputs of courts is the institutional context in which they operate. One key component of courts’ institutional structure is that the judiciary is organized as a hierarchy, which creates both problems and opportunities for judges. For instance, one problem for judges at the top of a hierarchy is how to best exercise oversight of lower court judges, whose decisions are often not reviewed by higher courts. One opportunity is that higher courts can reverse errors by lower courts; another is that, as new legal issues emerge, hierarchy provides opportunities for judges to learn from one another. Scholars of the judicial hierarchy have pursued two broad approaches. The “team perspective” begins by assuming that all judges in a hierarchy have the same values or principles, and thus care only about achieving the correct outcome in a given case. In the team approach, the key problem in adjudication is informational. All judges agree on the correct outcome of a case, conditional on understanding the relevant facts, but may lack this understanding due to resource constraints or informational advantages enjoyed by litigants. The agency approach, by contrast assumes that judges in the hierarchy have differing preferences, and the key problem is how higher courts can ensure compliance by lower courts. Despite these different foundational assumptions, the team and agency approaches have both been employed successfully to study core questions regarding the judicial hierarchy, including: why hierarchy exists; how higher courts can best oversee lower courts; how learning takes place both within and across the levels of the judiciary; and how collegiality influences judicial decision-making. Yet, while our understanding of the judicial hierarchy has greatly increased in recent years, many questions remain, such as how judges learn and how to measure legal doctrine.
John P. Kastellec
Lisa Hilbink and Matthew C. Ingram
Under what conditions can courts be effective and the rule of law be meaningful in developing countries? A vast literature has emerged over the past several decades seeking to understand the factors that support or impede healthy judicial functioning in developing countries, as well as those that account for its stagnation and erosion. Scholars analyze four phenomena that shape the judicial role in politics: empowerment, activation, behavior, and impact. Works on judicial empowerment analyze identifiable moments of change in formal, de jure rules governing the jurisdiction, independence, accessibility, and efficiency of legal institutions, whether at the constitutional or at the legislative level. Studies of activation examine when, how, and why actors identify particular harms or grievances as legal wrongs and pursue litigation as a means of redress. Judicial behavior studies address how and why judges vote on issues or rule on cases, either individually or collectively as collegial bodies, with a particular eye to the factors that enable or constrain independent judicial decision-making. In developing countries, scholars have also begun analyzing off-bench judicial behavior. A final category of research on courts in developing countries seeks to assess the impact of judicial behavior on political processes, policy outcomes, and society at large. Compliance is a major focus of such works, but scholars also seek to understand how court decisions transform the way social actors frame their struggles and mobilize politically, and to assess the promise and pitfalls of the judicialization of politics. The great variation within and between the vast category of developing countries greatly complicates the task of building general theory on any of the four outcomes. This variation reveals that the assumptions of dominant theories hold more tenuously in less- institutionalized contexts, where information is less clear or complete and is under shorter time horizons, and where the costs are lower for flouting the law or interfering with courts. These observations signal the need to delimit or moderate theoretical arguments about core relationships of interest according to political and economic conditions and contexts. Yet insights regarding developing countries might become increasingly relevant for understanding judicial politics in developed countries, as politics in developed countries take on features more common to developing countries, including polarization, populism, and even authoritarian tendencies like open attacks on political opponents, press, courts, and independent investigative agencies.
Judicial control over the bureaucracy is a means to defend the rule of law and important principles of democratic governance. It refers to the power of the courts to consider whether the actions of public authorities respect the limits prescribed by law. Regimes of judicial control vary in legal and administrative systems. Two major traditions can be mainly distinguished. The first characterizes continental Europe. It assigns judicial review to specialized administrative courts and involves a special branch of law, that is, administrative law. The second relies on ordinary courts and characterizes the Anglo-American system of common law. The two traditions also differ regarding the role of the courts and particularly their possibility to shape rules (common law tradition) or to apply rules (continental tradition). The expansion of state activities, including economic and social regulation and welfare service provision, has blurred the old politics–administration distinction since more and more decisions are delegated by parliaments to the administration, endowing it with wide discretionary powers. These developments have added a new meaning to the implementation of the rule of law. When the content of decisions is bound by a legal rule, legal compliance is more straightforward than when there is a margin of appreciation and choice. Circumscribing administrative discretion passes first and foremost from regulating the process of decision-making. Procedural standards have indeed been an area of primary concern for courts. Increasingly, nevertheless, substantive aspects of the administrative decision-making process and even service provision come under judicial scrutiny. Its extent inevitably differs from one legal system to another. The intensity of judicial review and its impact on (a) administrative operation and (b) policy decisions raise critical questions: how is it possible to achieve a balance between managerial flexibility, efficiency, and responsibility on the one hand and legal accountability on the other? To what extent may the courts substitute their own judgment for that of policymakers and the administrative or expert opinion underlying the decision under examination? How far do they go in scrutinizing policymaking and implementation? Judicial control involves constraining as well as constructive effects on the administration. It may contribute to an institution-building process (e.g., strengthening of Weberian-type features, increasing formalization, etc.) and to the agenda-building process, and it may influence policymaking. In certain contexts, courts even tend to become political actors. The reverse side is that they may step into matters of management and policymaking for which they are not prepared or institutionally responsible. This points to potential tensions between the administration (the executive) and the judiciary but also underlines the limitations of judicial control. Delicate issues regarding the separation of powers may emerge. Furthermore, cost, delays, the degree of administrative compliance with judicial decisions, and the ability of courts to integrate into their reasoning issues of efficiency and effectiveness constitute growing challenges to judicial control.
In a liberal conception of democracy, courts play an important role in facilitating the rule of law by controlling the abidance to rules and by holding the political branches of government accountable. The power of constitutional review is a crucial element for exercising horizontal accountability. Courts across Africa are vested with the power of constitutional review, and, generally speaking, their independence has substantially increased since the beginning of the 1990s—although African courts enjoy overall less independence than the global average for courts’ independence. Within the African region, the level of judicial independence varies widely, between contexts that rarely allow judicial independence and contexts where courts have more power to challenge the government. Furthermore, across the continent, African courts experience undue interference—which frequently takes place informally. Informal interference can occur through the biased appointments of judges, verbal and physical threats, violent attacks, the payment of bribes, or the ouster of sitting judges. Informal networks—held together by ties based on shared educational trajectories, common leisure activities, religion, kinship relations, or political affiliations—are the channels through which such pressure can be transmitted. Yet judges also can actively build informal networks: namely, with the legal community, civil society, and international donors, so as to insulate themselves against undue interference and to increase institutional legitimacy. Research has shown that the agency of judges and courts in signaling impartial decision-making, as well as in reaching out to society, is crucial to constructing legitimacy in the African context. In contrast, the explanatory power of electoral competition as an incentive for power holders to support judicial independence is not straightforward in the context of Africa’s political regimes, where the prospect of losing office is associated with financial, and in some cases even physical, insecurity. However, research on judicial politics in Africa is still only preliminary, because the field requires more comparative studies in order to fully reveal the political repercussions on Africa’s judiciaries as well as to delineate the scope conditions of the prominent theories explaining judicial independence.
Research on constitutional law has come in different waves mirroring the development of states in recent decades. While the decolonization period of the 1960s still kept the old ties of constitutional “families,” comparison based on such ties has become ever less persuasive since the 1980s wave of constitution making following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Research about de facto and de jure constitutional law now tends to embrace institutional details like judicial review powers and procedures of direct democracy. The field of comparative constitutional law is controversial both in methods and substance. It still lacks a consistent framework of comparative tools and is criticized as illegitimate by scholars who insist on the interpretive autonomy within each constitutional system. Research in the area of fundamental rights has to deal with long-lasting controversies like the constitutionality of the death penalty. Bioethical regulation is another new field where constitutional positions tend to diverge rather than converge. Embryonic stem cell research, therapeutic cloning, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, and surrogate motherhood are examples from biotechnology and reproductive medicine where constitutional scholars disagree about what, if anything, constitutional law can contribute to provide a basis or limit for regulation. With the worldwide rise of constitutional courts and judicial review, the standards for the interpretation of fundamental rights become more important. Legal scholarship has worked out the differences between the rule-oriented approach associated with Anglo-American legal systems versus the principle-based approach common to continental Europe.
Nick Sitter and Elisabeth Bakke
Democratic backsliding in European Union (EU) member states is not only a policy challenge for the EU, but also a potential existential crisis. If the EU does too little to deal with member state regimes that go back on their commitments to democracy and the rule of law, this risks undermining the EU from within. On the other hand, if the EU takes drastic action, this might split the EU. This article explores the nature and dynamics of democratic backsliding in EU member states, and analyses the EU’s capacity, policy tools and political will to address the challenge. Empirically it draws on the cases that have promoted serious criticism from the Commission and the European Parliament: Hungary, Poland, and to a lesser extent, Romania. After reviewing the literature and defining backsliding as a gradual, deliberate, but open-ended process of de-democratization, the article analyzes the dynamics of backsliding and the EU’s difficulties in dealing with this challenge to liberal democracy and the rule of law. The Hungarian and Polish populist right’s “illiberal” projects involve centralization of power in the hands of the executive and the party, and limiting the independence of the judiciary, the media and civil society. This has brought both governments into direct confrontation with the European Commission. However, the EU’s track record in managing backsliding crises is at best mixed. This comes down to a combination of limited tools and lack of political will. Ordinary infringement procedures offer a limited toolbox, and the Commission has proven reluctant to use even these tools fully. At the same time, party groups in the European Parliament and many member state governments have been reluctant to criticize one of their own, let alone go down the path of suspending aspect of a states’ EU membership. Hence the EU’s dilemma: it is caught between undermining its own values and cohesion through inaction on one hand, and relegating one or more member states it to a second tier—or even pushing them out altogether—on the other.