Lunch seminar with Erik Voeten

Backlash and Judicial Restraint: Evidence from the European Court of Human Rights


International courts are increasingly facing backlash from consolidated liberal democracies. Do international courts become more restrained in their rulings in order to keep their traditional allies on board? We examine this question in the context of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). First, especially right-wing governments have incentives to appoint more deferential judges in the context of backlash from consolidated democracies. Second, judges may behave in a more deferential way towards consolidated democracies in order to prevent backlash and exits that threaten the authority of the court. We evaluate these ideas with a new dataset of all ECtHR judgments. We estimate ideal point models based on dissenting opinions and find that governments have indeed started to appoint more restrained judges. Five of the Court's six most restrained judges were appointed after the 2012 Brighton conference, which strongly signaled a preference for restraint. We then use matching and a difference-in-differences design to estimate changes in the Court's restraint versus the UK and other consolidated democracies. We find strong evidence of a new variable geometry, in which consolidated democracies are given more deference compared to non-consolidated democracies than they were before the criticism of the Court erupted. The UK is an especially large beneficiary. Moreover, we find that cases filed by refugees and asylum seekers in consolidated democracies have become about half as likely to result in a violation than they were before the mid-2000s. To a somewhat lesser extent, this also applies to cases filed by prisoners. In short, the most vulnerable people in consolidated democracies have been most affected by the populist critique on the Court.

All interested are welcome to attend. Registration is not necessary.