Mini-Symposium with Björn Dressel and Raul Sanchez-Urribarri

Informal Networks and Judicial Institutions: Comparative Perspectives

Björn Dressel, Australian National University

Raul Sanchez-Urribarri, La Trobe University

Many courts of last resort - including constitutional courts and high courts endowed with constitutional review powers - have become central players in the evolving constitutional landscape of the Global South. Yet the differences in judicial performance and behaviour between courts in states with very similar institutional and political environments can be striking.  This presents real empirical challenges to the theories about judicial behaviour that have traditionally dominated the literature. Judicial politics scholars have traditionally examined judicial politics across the world using the lenses prevalent in Western established democracies (such as the attitudinal, strategic and legal models).  These models – created for socio-political realities where ideology prevails, and with legal cultures where the rule of law is a paramount value – however often fail to explain the realities of countries where other factors influence political life. 

In response to this (preliminary) diagnosis, our talk is structured in two parts: First, we propose a relational approach to studying judicial politics in non-Western societies—a framework for the systematic analysis of informal relations between judges and other actors, within and outside the judiciary, based on common political interests, ideas, social identity, and even clientelistic obligations. We reflect on how these relations might help explain a variety of outcomes of interest, such as the organization of courts, judicial behaviour and judicial reform. We also highlight some of the methodological challenges of this approach in collecting and analysing comparative data.

Second, we turn attention to the cases of the Supreme Court of the Philippines and the Supreme Tribunal of Justice in Venezuela, to illustrate how our proposed framework can be applied. In case of the Philippines we ask: To what extent do informal networks shape the decisions of the Philippine Supreme Court? We seek to answer this question by constructing a set of social network variables to assess how informal ties, based on university connections and work affiliations, may have influenced decisions in 47 politically high-profile Supreme Court cases between 1986 and 2015. In the case of Venezuela, we discuss the socio-political roots of the importance of judicial loyalties to key political actors in historical perspective, and then analyse how this helps to explain the judicial behaviour at the Supreme Court level in constitutional cases during the country’s transition from a weak democracy to authoritarian rule under the Bolivarian Revolution (i.e. before and after Hugo Chávez’s arrival in power, with some comments about the current role under Maduro’s rule).

Our work seeks to illuminate larger issues at the intersection of courts and society across the Global South as highlighted in our recent special edition (IPSR, November 2018). In doing so we seek to build an agenda for research on informal judicial politics in comparative perspective.


For participation in the event please use this registration form no later than 27 November 2018, 12:00.

Speaker Bios

Dr. Björn Dressel is an Associate Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University (ANU). His research is concerned with issues of comparative constitutionalism, judicial politics and governance and public sector reform in Asia.

Dr. Raul Sanchez Urribarri is a Lecturer in Crime, Justice and Legal Studies at the Department of Social Inquiry at La Trobe University (Melbourne).  His research focuses on comparative constitutionalism, rule of law issues and judicial decision-making in comparative perspective, with an emphasis on Latin America.