in: International studies quarterly: the journal of the International Studies Association, Volume 63, Issue 3, p. 477-491
International courts have far-from-perfect records of compliance. States routinely delay the implementation of policy changes necessary to come into line with international obligations. Some judicial orders are simply ignored in their entirety. Yet judicial orders aimed at potentially recalcitrant states often vaguely express what is required and thus create conditions for delay and defiance. This article leverages a detailed public monitoring system for decisions of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to evaluate a model of judicial opinion writing that connects the informational challenges associated with effectuating significant policy change to the language that judges adopt in their orders and, ultimately, to the reactions of states. Our results suggest that uncertainty about how precisely to bring about a policy change influences compliance by reducing the clarity of judicial orders. Flexibility in language permits judges to tradeoff maximal pressure for compliance for the ability to leverage local knowledge about how to bring a state in line with its international obligations. From this perspective, noncompliant outcomes are not necessarily a clear signal of weak judicial institutions, but, instead, they are a natural piece of the process by which judges manage difficult policy-making tasks.