Judicial Reforms and the Electoral Connection

Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2012

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

Political Science

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



I consider the influence of electoral incentives on legislators' behavior. Legislators electoral incentives are largely determined by the institutional framework in which legislators compete for office, legislators' access to formal political power and public opinion. The first two essays consider the consequences of these explanatory variables for the proposal and passage of judicial reforms. The final essay focuses on the influence of electoral incentives on legislative speech making.

My dissertation provides original data on the universe of legislative attempts at high court reform sponsored in six Latin American countries over the past 15 years. Courts vary substantially in the extent to which institutional rules guarantee their insulation from external political influence, otherwise known as their de jure independence. As legislators have the power to change these rules, they can shape the extent to which judges are incentivized to respond to the preferences of external political actors or agents. I theorize legislators' interests in promoting or restricting judicial independence stem from proximate electoral considerations induced by electoral institutions, individual incentives and public regard for high courts. Further, these same considerations--the electoral rules by which legislators' are elected, legislators' access to formal political power and public esteem for judicial institutions--directly influence legislators' ability to enact the changes they would most like to see.

To test this theory, I establish a baseline measure of institutional insulation for the high courts of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, scoring courts according to the institutional framework stipulated in the national constitution or judicial organic laws. Next, I apply this same rubric to all legislative initiatives to reform national judicial institutions. By comparing reforms against the status quo score at the time of introduction, I capture legislative attempts to further empower or dismantle formally independent judicial institutions. I use this data to test my hypotheses relating legislators' electoral incentives to legislators' proposals of institutional reform.

In my first essay, I expand upon the notion that that legislators' proposals of high court reforms are ``inexpensive and highly visible'' signals to constituents about legislators' political commitments. The extent to which legislators have incentives to stake out individual positions is a function of the electoral setting, namely institutions that place value of a personal reputation and voters' direct ability to decide legislators' professional fate. I suggest that court reform proposals are largely position-taking endeavors, though legislators' decisions to promote or restrict judicial independence is contingent on public esteem for judicial institutions.

My second essay extends the logic of the position-taking argument to consider its implications for the passage of judicial reform proposals. I make clear that, ironically, many of the factors that explain legislators' interest in proposing court reforms also predict their eventual failure. I hypothesize that where sponsorship of court reforms occurs frequently, the vast majority of these proposals will not be passed by the chamber of introduction, nor will they be adopted into law. Conversely, where legislators' incentives to advance high court reforms mean that these proposals ought to be advanced infrequently, these proposals will pass with great facility. I test the implications using a model of the passage of high court reforms to demonstrate that the same explanatory variables that positively predict the court reform sponsorship are negatively associated with the likelihood of successful reform passage.

I focus on judicial reform proposals in countries across Latin America, where the institutional fortification of high courts has been a top political priority of the past two decades. Though institutional independence is an oft-cited justification among the political elites advancing these reforms, it is not obvious that all proposals are sincere attempts at promoting or dismantling high court independence. By coding legislative attempts at court reform cross-nationally and over time, I gain critical variance on key explanatory factors, specifically with regard to electoral incentives and public support for judicial institutions. In doing so, I test the causal mechanisms that are advanced in many theoretical accounts, but whose empirical identification has thus far been left implicit. This concise, yet empirically rigorous research design draws on--and hopefully will contribute to--the literature on separation of powers, judicial independence and inter-branch relations in comparative perspective.

My third essay departs from a concern in the judiciary, instead considering patterns of legislative speech. Drawing on the literature on comparative legislative behavior, I reason that legislators' speech patterns--in the extent to which they are self-referent versus collective referent--ought to vary as a function of electoral incentives. I hypothesize that where legislators face incentives to cultivate a personal vote and are relatively unencumbered by norms of party discipline, they ought to privilege the use of self referent language when speaking on the floor of the legislature. I consider legislators' speechmaking activity in Argentina, Bolivia and Mexico, leveraging the cross-national and sub-national variance in electoral institutions and party permissiveness to test my hypothesis.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Brian F Crisp

Committee Members

Scott W. Desposato, Matthew J. Gabel, Bret Gustafson, Andrew D. Martin, James F. Spriggs, II,


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/K7K64G2S

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