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.
Existing theories of international law are largely state-centric. While international cooperation can benefit all, states are often tempted to violate their promises in order to manage economic and political crises. States must accordingly balance enforcement against flexibility: legal institutions must provide enough enforcement that states comply most of the time yet also provide enough flexibility that states can violate during crises. Such a balance is possible when laws are crafted and enforced by unitary actors that will tolerate occasional violations by others in order to preserve their own right to occasionally violate.
However, the changing doctrine of sovereign immunity has dramatically transformed the actual practice of international law. Non-state actors and domestic courts play an increasingly important role in challenging state legal violations, generating a divergence between the theory and practice of contemporary international law. This divergence is apparent in many issue areas, including terrorism, human rights, sovereign debt, and foreign investment. This divergence suggests that political scientists and legal scholars must reconsider the limits of state-centric theories and examine the role of non-state actors and domestic courts.
Cyanne E. Loyle
Armed conflict is ultimately about the violent confrontation between two or more groups; however, there is a range of behaviors, both violent and nonviolent, pursued by governments and rebel groups while conflict is ongoing that impacts the course and outcomes of that violence. The use of judicial or quasi-judicial institutions during armed conflict is one such behavior. While there is a well-developed body of literature that examines the conditions under which governments engage with the legacies of violence following armed conflict, we know comparatively little about these same institutions used while conflict is ongoing.
Similar to the use of transitional justice following armed conflict or post-conflict justice, during-conflict transitional justice (DCJ) refers to “a judicial or quasi-judicial process initiated during an armed conflict that attempts to address wrongdoings that have taken or are taking place as part of that conflict” (according to Loyle and Binningsbø). DCJ includes a variety of institutional forms pursued by both governments and rebel groups such as human rights trials, truth commissions or commissions of inquiry, amnesty offers, reparations, purges, or exiles.
As our current understanding of transitional justice has focused exclusively on these processes following a political transition or the termination of an armed conflict, we have a limited understanding of how and why these processes are used during conflict. Extant work has assumed, either implicitly or explicitly, that transitional justice is offered and put in place once violence has ended, but this is not the case. New data on this topic from the During-Conflict Justice dataset by Loyle and Binningsbø suggests that the use of transitional justice during conflict is a widespread and systematic policy across multiple actor groups. In 2017, Loyle and Binningsbø found that DCJ processes were used during over 60% of armed conflicts from 1946 through 2011; and of these processes 10% were put in place by rebel groups (i.e., the group challenging the government rather than the government in power).
Three main questions arise from this new finding: Under what conditions are justice processes implemented during conflict, why are these processes put in place, and what is the likely effect of their implementation on the conflict itself? Answering these questions has important implications for understanding patterns of government and rebel behavior while conflict is ongoing and the impacts of those behaviors. Furthermore, this work helps us to broaden our understanding of the use of judicial and quasi-judicial processes to those periods where no power shift has taken place.
Charles M. Cameron and Lewis A. Kornhauser
We summarize the formal theoretical literature on Supreme Court decision-making. We focus on two core questions: What does the Supreme Court of the United States do, and how can one model those actions; and, what do the justices of the Supreme Court want, and how can one model those preferences? Given the current state of play in judicial studies, these questions then direct this survey mostly to so-called separation of powers (SOP) models, and to studies of a multi-member (“collegial”) court employing the Supreme Court’s very distinctive and highly unusual voting rule.
The survey makes four main points. First, it sets out a new taxonomy that unifies much of the literature by linking judicial actions, modeling conventions, and the treatment of the status quo. In addition, the taxonomy identifies some models that employ inconsistent assumptions about Supreme Court actions and consequences. Second, the discussion of judicial preferences clarifies the links between judicial actions and judicial preferences. It highlights the relationships between preferences over dispositions, preferences over rules, and preferences over social outcomes. And, it explicates the difference between consequential and expressive preferences. Third, the survey delineates the separate strands of SOP models. It suggests new possibilities for this seemingly well-explored line of inquiry. Fourth, the discussion of voting emphasizes the peculiar characteristics of the Supreme Court’s voting rule. The survey maps the movement from early models that ignored the special features of this rule, to more recent ones that embrace its features and explore the resulting (and unusual) incentive effects.
John P. Kastellec
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.
Michael J. Nelson and James L. Gibson
Even though most judges in the United States stand for election in the context of strong normative objections to the practice of electing judges, political scientists have produced a surprisingly thin theoretical framework for understanding how judicial campaigns affect voters. This paucity of research is particularly surprising given the increasingly politicized environment in which judicial elections operate. The literature on judicial campaigns is well-served to draw upon the well-trodden research about campaign effects for executive and legislative office. In some important respects, however, judicial contests differ from those for executive or legislative office. To this end, the Expectancy Theory pioneered by James L. Gibson provides an important theoretical development, emphasizing that the effects of judicial campaigns are highly conditional upon variation in voters’ willingness to tolerate different types of campaign activity. Moreover, the effects of campaigns are highly dependent on the context of both institutional design and voters’ own experiences with judicial elections.
Timothy R. Johnson
The U.S. Supreme Court is but one of three political institutions within the structure of the U.S. federal government. Within this system of separated powers it rules on the constitutionality of some of the nation’s most important legal and political issues. In making such decisions, the nation’s highest court may be considered the most powerful of the three branches of the U.S. federal government. Understanding this process will allow scholars, students of the Court, and Court watchers alike to gain a better understanding of the way in which the justices conduct their business and to come to terms with some of the most important legal and political decisions in our nation’s history. Combining a theoretical account of Supreme Court decision-making with an examination of its internal decision-making process illuminates this opaque institution.
Thomas M. Keck and Logan Strother
Scholars have long been interested in judicial impact—the ability of courts to meaningfully alter policy or politics—because judicial decisions shape law, have the potential to affect many people, and may even implicate democracy in a fundamental sense. Classic studies in this tradition concern the degree to which actors outside the court comply with judicial decrees, such as whether or not (or to what extent) schools desegregated in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. However, scholars working in a variety of other traditions have likewise examined the impact of judicial decisions, though they have not always used those terms. For example, advocates of interbranch analysis have situated courts within broader ongoing policy processes, and in so doing have documented repeated instances in which policy outcomes were altered by the actions of lawyers and judges. Likewise, students of legal mobilization have documented the sometimes constitutive effects of legal ideas on a wide range of political identities, attitudes, and behaviors. In short, the concept of impact includes a variety of ways in which courts influence politics, and the field of judicial impact studies will continue to benefit from a vital diversity of methods of inquiry, subjects of analysis, and conceptions of law.
Mikael Rask Madsen and Mikkel Jarle Christensen
Over the past several decades scholars have intensively debated what factors drive globalization. Answers have ranged from the emergence of the information society and the global economy to value-conflicts embedded in different civilizations. A different yet closely related question is who is driving globalization? That is, however, much less studied, even if it is arguably key to making global governance intelligible. A whole list of actors seem to offer possible answers to the question of who the globalizers are: Are they global institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the International Criminal Court (ICC); communities of experts providing technocratic solutions; transnational networks of activists seeking to alter global and national politics by pursuing, for example, environmental or human rights agendas; or are they powerful individuals forming transnational elites taking the fate of the global society in their hands at a safe distance from ordinary politics in places such as Brussels, New York, or Davos?
How do courts affect social policy? Answering this question is deceptively complex. Part of the challenge stems from the sheer scope of contemporary judicial policymaking, particularly in the United States, where litigation reaches into nearly every nook and cranny of the American welfare state and casts a shadow on policy issues ranging from marriage equality to healthcare reform. Another obstacle is that scholars remain deeply divided on fundamental questions about the nature of judicial decisions and how their policy effects should be studied. These disagreements, in turn, have engendered three very different approaches to studying the role of courts in social policy that often talk past each other. The dominant approach views judicial decisions as prescriptive rules—legal commands from the bench—and asks to what extent do judicial decisions change policy? This view implies that judicial decisions are “treatments” whose efficacy should be tested by measuring shifts in policy outcomes from the pre- to post-treatment period or across treatment and control groups. An alternative tradition envisages judicial decisions as a potential resource, which can be used by activists as leverage in building movements and pursuing agendas in multiple forums. Here, the core question is not whether court decisions produce abrupt policy shifts, but how activists use them to challenge the status quo, mobilize interests, and generate pressure for policy change. A third approach sees legal precedent as a constitutive framework that shapes and constrains policymaking and its politics over time. The test for whether law matters under this approach centers on the degree to which judicial decisions influence the developmental trajectories of policy and politics, which includes consideration of paths not taken in the policymaking process.
That is not to say that the literature is wholly discordant. Despite their significant conceptual differences, these approaches tend to converge on the general idea that judicial policymaking shares many attributes with other policymaking processes: the implementation of judicial decisions, like statues and regulations, is contested and subject to capture by sophisticated interests; litigation, like lobbying, is a form of mobilization that seeks to translate policy grievances into effective political demands; judicial precedents, like other policies, generate policy feedbacks. Identifying similarities among judicial policymaking and its counterparts is a signature achievement in the study of courts and social policy, which has largely dispelled the “myth of rights” and simplistic notions that the law is somehow removed from politics. Yet it arguably has an unintended effect. Normalizing judicial policymaking—making it seem like other types of policymaking—threatens to render it less interesting as a distinct topic for research. This article suggests the time has come for all of the various research traditions in the field to return to foundational questions about what makes judicial policymaking distinctive and systematically study how these particular tilts and tendencies influence the continuing colloquy that drives the policymaking process.