Latin America: The Perils of Judicial Reform

by Aníbal Pérez-Liñán and Andrea Castagnola*

Former President of Chile and current head of the United Nations OHCHR Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015

Former President of Chile and current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015/ Gobierno de Chile/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/

Conventional wisdom that institutional reforms always strengthen the judiciary is not supported by the facts. A constitutionally fixed number of justices is widely thought to make “court packing” more difficult, and longer terms in office supposedly protect judges from partisan trends. Nomination processes that involve multiple actors should produce moderate justices; high requirements for impeachment should protect judges from legislative threats; and explicit powers of judicial review should assure politicians’ compliance with judicial decisions. Our research, however, shows that institutional reforms often undermine judicial independence, even when they appear to improve constitutional design along these crucial dimensions.

  • Countries with longer democratic traditions such as the United States, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay display low turnover: few justices leave office in any given year, and their exits appear to follow a random pattern. But countries like Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Paraguay – all of which nominally protect judges from political pressures – display abrupt patterns of judicial turnover. On repeated occasions, a majority of the court has left in the same year, allowing for a complete reshuffle. About half of all exits in our sample took place in years when more than 50 percent of a court left at once, mostly due to political pressures.
  • Some constitutions create turnover by design. Until 2001, for example, Honduran justices served for four years, concurrent with the presidential term. However, less than 30 percent of court reshuffles can be explained by constitutional rules. In Argentina, even though the Constitution grants Supreme Court justices life tenure, presidents forced a majority of justices out of office in 1947, 1955, 1958, 1966, 1973, 1976, and 1983.

Our project analyzed the tenure of almost 3,500 justices serving in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals in the Western Hemisphere since 1900. We found – against our expectations – that several constitutional reforms increased the likelihood of turnover in the high courts. Because major reforms produce turnover in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals, they create new opportunities for parties to appoint loyal judges and politicize the courts.

  • Constitutional reforms that involve more actors in the nomination of justices (i.e., “multilateralize” the process) also increase turnover in the high courts. Reforms that constrain the removal of justices (for example, requiring supermajorities for their impeachment) paradoxically have prompted the exit of justices in democracies. Constitutional reforms that granted courts explicit powers of judicial review of government actions increased judicial instability, and reforms that grant life tenure to justices on average created turnover in the high courts, particularly when adopted under dictatorships.
  • Two basic reasons seem to explain these paradoxes. In the short run, reformers exercise (and abuse) “constituent” power, restructuring the courts in ways that force the resignation of incumbent justices or create new vacancies. In the long run, formal constitutional protections for the judiciary create a strategic trap. If parties can use informal instruments, such as threats and bribes, to induce the resignation of judges, their incentives to deploy those blunt instruments are greater when justices are completely isolated from other forms of political influence.

Some features of constitutional design – including life terms and supermajority requirements to impeach judges – do explicitly protect justices against purges. Other constitutional features, however, create incentives for the political capture of high courts. Greater powers of judicial review, for example, make courts politically relevant and, therefore, more important targets. A constitutionally fixed number of seats prevents court “packing” but encourages purging as an alternative. Appointment procedures controlled by the President and Congress make purges profitable for them. Irrespective of their stated goals, constitutional amendments and replacements offer a window of opportunity to reorganize the composition of the judiciary.

  • Judicial purges occasionally pursue desirable goals, like the removal of judges who have been corrupt or obstructed transitions to democracy, but a recurrent pattern of politicized replacements inevitably produces a weak judiciary, creating an unstable interpretation of the laws and the Constitution.

July 9, 2019

* Aníbal Pérez-Liñán teaches political science and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, and Andrea Castagnola teaches judicial politics at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, in Buenos Aires. Their project was supported by the National Science Foundation. Conclusions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.