Book Project

THE INFORMAL DIMENSION OF THE POLITICIZATION OF COURTS:  VENEZUELA IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE

Under what conditions do courts tend to support ruling elites ? How do judges negotiate competing imperatives between political relations and professional duties? This delves into the informal dimension of the politicization of courts. I argue that informal linkages between judges and ruling political elites condition the emergence of judicial power and impair the rule of law in weakly institutionalized democracies. In countries where such relations prevail, rulers tend to craft a supportive judiciary through the selection of judges with linkages to influential legal and political actors – such as the president, important legislators and politicians, and even other judges. These connections tend to discourage judges from efficiently exercising their accountability prerogatives against their political bosses, facilitate attempts by external actors to employ the judiciary to subvert democratic institutions and the rule of law, and might even enable them to use the judiciary for corruption schemes. In short, they negatively affect the judiciary’s ability to influence politics in an independent, principled, and legitimate fashion.

I explore these propositions by turning my attention to Latin America, and in particular by systematically evaluating judicial behavior in Venezuela, one of the most prominent cases of democratic backsliding in recent times, and a country that has received little attention by judicial politics scholars. I offer an empirically grounded account of the importance of informal political connections to account for the lack of judicial power of the Venezuelan Supreme Court during the country’s liberal democratic years (1958-1999), and discuss to what extent these dynamics persisted after the arrival of Hugo Chávez in power in 1999. Moreover, I explore the politicization of the Venezuelan Supreme Court throughout Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution – with a focus on the Constitutional Chamber. I discuss the transformations of the Court’s role following the onset of 21st Century Socialism in 2007 and after Chavez’s death in 2013, and analyze to what extent the informal nature of judicial politics persisted as the regime became increasingly authoritarian. Finally, to test the argument in alternative environments, I include case-studies of the relationship between political commitments and judicial power in Paraguay – an understudied weak democracy with a well-documented presence of particularistic politics – and Costa Rica, a well-known example of a stable democracy in the region, where the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court has become an influential actor, and the informal dimension of politicization plays a lesser role.

(Scheduled for completion 2018)

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