The judicialization of politics is an expression that has been widely used in the fields of comparative law and judicial politics alike since it first emerged in the 1980s. Yet, despite its ubiquity, it is difficult to ascertain its specific meaning because it is used to refer to such a wide range of court-related phenomena and processes. Despite its varying usages and meanings, there has been a puzzling lack of scholarly discussion over the scope of the term, and very little critical analysis of its use. This silence has impeded the project of comparative constitutional law. So it is necessary to disentangle and compare the many faces of judicialization that are used in various political science literatures. There are as many as nine distinct forms of the term that are regularly used; yet the various empirical strategies for measuring, defining, and documenting this phenomenon are often incommensurable, and further, the causes of judicialization frequently overlap and occasionally contradict one another. The popularity of this term has come at the cost of conceptual clarity, and this confusion has impeded both the project of building a comparative theory of judicialization, and efforts to have a coherent normative debate about its consequences. With the goal of theory building in mind, a systematic study of judicialization and its multiple usages can be a useful way to illuminate key questions for a new research agenda geared toward a deeper and more nuanced understanding of this term.
Rebecca Hamlin and Gemma Sala
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.
Courts in the United Kingdom have evolved gradually over the past 700 years. The modern court system is sophisticated, displaying both specialization by area of law and regional differentiation. The English and Welsh court system, for example, is separated from the Scottish and Northern Irish court systems. Across all different jurisdictions within the UK, courts display moderate to high levels of de facto judicial independence without many guarantees of de jure judicial independence. Appointment to the courts system since the reforms of 2005 is strongly apolitical; this, coupled with a weak form of fundamental rights review, means that debates about judicial politics have been limited. Particularly sensitive issues arise in relation to courts’ handling of multilevel governance, and more particularly the relationship between the Westminster Parliament and the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales, and between the Westminster Parliament and the Court of Justice of the European Union. Because of the gradual introduction of human rights guarantees in domestic law, and progressive devolution of power from center to periphery, UK courts offer lessons for those interested in the introduction of rights catalogs and in theories of constitutional review.