Book chapter

Courts and Rule of Law in Developing Countries (2019)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics

Abstract

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.