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Precedent in International Courts: A Network Analysis of Case Citations by the European Court of Human Rights

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 December 2011


Why and how do international courts justify decisions with citations to their own case law? We argue that, like domestic review courts, international courts use precedent at least in part to convince ‘lower’ (domestic) courts of the legitimacy of judgements. Several empirical observations are consistent with this view, which are examined through a network analysis of European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) citations. First, the Court cites precedent based on the legal issues in the case, not the country of origin. Second, the Court is more careful to embed judgements in its existing case law when the expected value of persuading domestic judges is highest. These findings contribute to a developing literature that suggests international and domestic review courts develop their authority in similar ways.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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11 Voeten, ‘The Impartiality of International Judges’.

12 Although Article 38 allows judicial decisions to be a ‘subsidiary means for the determination of the rules of law’.

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19 Recent examples are cases on the extradition of suspected terrorists to countries where they might be tortured (e.g. Ramzy v. Netherlands, Chahal v. The United Kingdom, and Saadi v. Italy).

20 Most ECtHR judgements on the merit are reached by panels of seven judges. Some cases are referred to the seventeen-judge Grand Chamber.

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27 Slaughter, Anne-Marie, ‘A Global Community of Courts’, Harvard International Law Journal, 44 (2003), 191219Google Scholar, p. 192. Sociologists have long analysed the ‘juridical field’ in this way, inspired by the work of Bourdieu; see Bourdieu, Pierre, ‘The Force of Law: Toward a Sociology of the Juridical Field’, Hastings Law Journal, 38 (1987), 814853Google Scholar. This approach stresses that there are unique qualities that separate legal practice from other social activities but that the field is not a self-contained system, autonomous from the political and social realms.

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34 Supervision of the Execution of Judgements, p. 63. A final resolution is adopted by the Committee of Ministers when it is satisfied that a government has implemented an ECtHR judgement.

35 Supervision of the Execution of Judgements, p. 7.

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52 This figure includes only judgements on the merits.

53 See, for example, Fowler et al., ‘Network Analysis and the Law’.

54 Approximately 15.6 per cent of the ECtHR decisions are outside the main cluster (compared with 16.2 per cent in the USSC's network). Cases that cite no precedent would all have hub scores of zero. The Tobit model we use in our analysis is designed to address the fact that we have excluded such cases from our sample.

55 The excluded cases are those designated importance level 3 by the Court.

56 This article is only invoked in conjunction with other Convention rights, limiting its application since the Convention includes no socio-economic rights other than education. The optional Protocol 12 remedies this but is ratified by less than half of Council of Europe member states.

57 Fowler et al., ‘Network Analysis and the Law’.

58 For USSC citations, we use the data provided by Fowler and Jeon, ‘The Authority of Supreme Court Precedent’. The citations follow patterns common in large-scale networks, including scientific citation networks (see Albert, Reka and Barabási, Albert-Laszlo, ‘Statistical Mechanics of Complex Networks’, Reviews of Modern Physics, 74 (2002), 4797CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Boerner, Katy, Maru, Jeegar T. and Robert L., Goldstone, ‘The Simultaneous Evolution of Author and Paper Networks’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101 (2004), 52665273CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Borgatti, Stephen P. and Everett, Martin G., ‘Models of Core/Periphery Structures’, Social Networks, 21 (1999), 375395CrossRefGoogle Scholar)). In both courts, the patterns of inward citations closely resemble the power-law distribution of other complex networks, often referred to as scale-free networks, including the World Wide Web ( Albert, Reka, Jeong, Hawoong and Albert-Laszlo Barabási, ‘The Diameter of the World Wide Web’, Nature, 401 (1999), 130131CrossRefGoogle Scholar) and social networks ( Ebel, Holger, Mielsch, Lutz-Ingo and Bornholdt, Stefan, ‘Scale-free Topology of e-mail Networks’, Physical Review E, 66 (2002), 035103-14CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Network theorists argue that this distribution results from a process called ‘preferential attachment’ (Albert-Laszlo Barabási and Reka Albert, ‘Emergence of Scaling in Random Networks’, Science, 286 (1999), 509–12), which in this context suggests that the more often a case has been cited in this past, the higher the probability that it will be cited in new cases.

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83 In the only other paper we are aware of that used community detection algorithms on a network of judicial citations, Bommarito et al. found that the Newman method produced stable results when used on the network of USSC citations. They also found that this stability increased when using a smaller portion of the network, which is encouraging to our research, because the ECtHR network is significantly smaller than the USSC network (Bommarito et al., ‘On the Stability of Community Detection Algorithms for Longitudinal Citation Data’).

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