Visions of Judicial Review: Theory and Evidence

Date of Award

Winter 12-15-2013

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

Political Science

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



What factors account for the development and use of judicial review? Under traditional separation of powers theory, courts are supposed to act as an important check on governmental excesses or abuses. Yet, there is little theoretical consensus on how courts make these critical decisions and create opinions - due in part to a lack of broadly comparative testing. My dissertation explores the factors that account for court activism and court independence, focusing on three main visions, or arguments, for judicial review. These visions of judicial review are multi-faceted, yet all in their own way seek to explain whether and how judges are able to create representative rulings that deliver in practical ways the abstract benefits of democratic rule. I then test these visions using data from several newer democracies in Eastern Europe.

One vision for judicial review focuses on the ability of judges engaging in judicial review to find the `right' answer to constitutional questions, based on legal doctrine and jurisprudential principles. This `legalistic' view fits within a larger rule of law-based vision of democracy, in which the purpose of democratic government is to ensure fair processes and orderly social outcomes within the constraints of the law. A second vision for judicial review focuses on the role of courts as protectors of constitutional rights, particularly the rights of minority groups against majority tyranny. This idea fits within the larger liberal, rights-protecting view of modern democracy, in which the provision and protection of positive individual rights is of paramount concern.

A third vision focuses on the potential for judicial review to act as a majoritarian instrument. Majoritarian judicial review may occur for several reasons. First, judges come to the bench with certain ideological beliefs. Rules in most countries place popularly elected leaders in charge of appointing judges to high courts. With these appointment rules, it is unlikely that court opinions with be far from the views of lawmaking majorities. Thus, judicial review might largely serve to legitimate policies enacted by current elected leaders (Dahl 1957), but may also be used to strike non-favored policies (Whittington 2005, 2007; Rogers 2001). Second, courts may respond directly to public opinion, limiting or altering the exercise of judicial review in response to changes in public support for the judiciary (Clark 2011). Third, judges may respond to institutional incentives, like reappointment pressures, that encourage outcomes from judicial review consistent with majority preferences.

Using new data from Eastern European democracies, I investigate the implications from these visions of judicial review. In Chapter Three, I investigate several preliminary institutional factors that could influence the exercise of judicial review. Specifically, I find that judicial panels are much more likely to overturn laws when there is an ideological divergence between the court and the law under review. At the same time, the propensity of courts to overturn laws is also greater when government monitoring and oversight agencies refer laws for constitutional review. This second finding suggests a role for strategic decision-making by constitutional courts. Based on the types of cases these courts both hear and overturn, there is also some evidence in favor of a type of `rights-protecting' judicial review.

Chapter Three finds preliminary evidence suggesting the presence of a `majoritarian' vision of judicial review, one in which judges follow the preferences of the elected leaders who appoint them. Yet, as noted above, there are several different avenues through which majoritarian review can potentially travel. In Chapter Four, I test implications from these different majoritarian visions. Specifically, I examine how macro-level concepts like parliamentary preferences, public support, governmental power, and government coalitions -- variables that fit directly within the majoritarian framework - might influence the exercise of judicial review.

The majoritarian vision for judicial review anticipates ideological voting among judges on courts of constitutional review. However, other structural factors may motivate judicial decision-making, as well. Chapter Five investigates whether institutional incentives also influence the choices judges make. Moving from case outcomes to the individual decisions judges make, I examine whether reappointment concerns lead to differentiation in decision-making. I test this theory of career-oriented judging with longitudinal data from three European constitutional courts that vary in their appointment and retention processes. Ultimately, the findings of this chapter show the influence of both career concerns and ideology on judicial decision-making and outcomes.

Finally, Chapter Six examines whether the legalist vision of judicial review can help to explain judicial outcomes. Within the legalist vision, judicial review is a normatively desirable rule for democracies due to the ability of judges trained in methods of legal analysis to apply neutral legal principles -- including the rules developed from past cases -- to reach the `right' legal outcomes and thus ensure the rule of law within society. I test the legalist vision in a wholly new environment: constitutional courts in civil law systems. Using a unique dataset of citations collected from opinions of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal, I find evidence of increasingly sophisticated use of case law, as well as strategic use of precedent to shape the direction of opinions. Overall, results indicate these judges use case citations to provide both legal legitimation for their opinions and strategic advancement of their policy, with little evidence in favor of a legalist vision for judicial review.

Using evidence from Eastern European democracies, I have found that several visions of `majoritarian' judicial review can be used to explain how courts engage in judicial review. At the same time, there is limited evidence that a `rights-protecting' vision of judicial review is realized in practice, and little evidence to confirm the existence of a pure `legalist' vision of judicial review.

Chapter 3 showed the importance of ideology to judicial decision-making across multiple countries, but also the value to courts of outside actors who can ensure compliance with judicial rulings. Chapter 4 expanded on the majoritarian vision, confirming the value of public opinion and public support to judicial outcomes but also showing that courts are more active in reviewing legislation that may be far from the majority will. Chapter 5 confirmed another aspect of the majoritarian vision - that institutional incentives can influence career-oriented judges to vote in line with the interests of reappointing agents. Finally, Chapter 6 examined the use of precedent among constitutional court judges in civil law systems. Little evidence was found to confirm a legalist vision of judicial decision-making, though there is evidence that judges in the civil law tradition, like their counterparts in the United States, use precedent to advance ideological and strategic goals.

Overall, these chapters have shown the importance of ideology and strategic interactions outside of the United States. These two factors are well established among those who study the United States courts, yet relatively few studies have compared the importance of these factors to judicial decision-making across multiple countries. The cross-national perspective taken in this study does just that, and provides an important extension of past empirical work examining the judicial decision-making and the normative role of judicial review in democratic governance.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Matthew J Gabel

Committee Members

James F Spriggs II, Margit Tavits, Brian Carpenter, Justin Fox


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