Presidential Control of High Courts in Latin America: A Long-term View (1904-2006)

Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, Andrea Castagnola


In many Latin American countries the executive branch manipulates
the composition of the Supreme Court, and judicial independence has
remained elusive. Because high courts can exercise judicial review and influence
lower courts, incoming presidents often force the resignation of adversarial
justices or “pack” the courts with friends. One indicator of this problem
has been the high turnover among members of the high courts. In this
paper we offer systematic evidence to compare this problem across countries
and to place this issue in historical perspective. Our analysis covers 11
Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El
Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, and Uruguay) between
1904 and 2006. We model the entrance of new justices to the Supreme
Court as a function of “natural” (legal and biological) factors, political conditions
empowering the president to reshuffle the Court, and institutional
incentives promoting executive encroachment on the judiciary.

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