Judicial Reform as Political Insurance

Argentina, Peru, and Mexico in the 1990s

Jodi S. Finkel

From the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies

During the 1990s, judicial reform swept Latin America. While some of the region’s supreme courts have been able to exercise increased power as a result of these reforms, others have not. Why do some instances of judicial reform appear to be leading to the development of a powerful judiciary while others have failed to do so? In this careful analysis, Jodi S. Finkel investigates judicial reform in Argentina, Mexico, and Peru. She suggests that while ruling parties can be induced to initiate judicial reforms by introducing constitutional revisions, they often prove unwilling to implement these constitutional changes by enacting required legislation.

To understand the outcomes of judicial reform, as well as to predict where reforms are likely to empower courts, it is necessary to examine the political incentives faced by politicians at the implementation phase. Finkel argues that the implementation of judicial reform may serve the ruling party as an insurance policy, in that a strong judicial branch reduces the risks faced by a ruling party once it loses power and becomes the opposition. Finkel suggests that as the ruling party’s probability of reelection declines, the likelihood of the enactment of reforms resulting in an empowered judiciary increases.

Jodi S. Finkel is associate professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University.

“This book will be of interest for those in Latin American studies, where it should be well-received due to the author’s close familiarity with and authority on the countries about which she writes; for scholars in the law and society field, where it supports and complements recent work of Ginsburg and Hirschl; and to those in the policy field, to whom the book offers several important lessons.” — Lisa Hilbink, University of Minnesota

“By highlighting politicians’ interest in protection against future threats, Jodi Finkel convincingly explains their seemingly paradoxical decision to enact judicial reforms that limit their own power. Her book constitutes a particularly interesting, thoughtful, and theoretically significant contribution to the burgeoning literature on judicial politics in Latin America.” — Kurt Weyland, Lozano Long Professor of Latin American Politics, University of Texas at Austin

“In this lucid study, Jodi Finkel extends our understanding of the politics of judicial empowerment with three case studies from Latin America. Well written and tightly argued, the book makes a convincing case that the incentives of politicians, rather than pressure from civil society or external actors, are the key factor to explain variation in judicial reform. Finkel has made a major contribution to the nascent literature on judicial politics in Latin America. “ — Tom Ginsburg, University of Illinois


“Finkel’s new book offers rich theoretical insights into why and when judicial independence will be implemented, through short and easy-to-read empirical chapters that make this book enjoyable and thought-provoking reading for scholars and policymakers alike.” — Political Science Quarterly

“. . . Judicial Reform as Political Insurance represents an excellent contribution to the literature eon comparative judicial politics. The argument is plausible, and Finkel’s efforts to rule out alternative explanations are persuasive. This thought-provoking book is a must read for anyone in judicial politics who focuses on Latin America.” — The Journal of Politics